ATLANTA — While three members of the Atlanta Hawks enjoyed the postgame spotlight, the Washington Wizards’ two biggest stars waited. Late Monday night, John Wall and Bradley Beal stood in the back of the Hawks’ practice facility, a black curtain separating the silence on their end from the mirth passed along the podium among Dwight Howard, Jose Calderon and Kent Bazemore.
Wall and Beal had to yield the floor to the victors, but earlier the Wizards had surrendered even more — losing control of this first-round series after Atlanta won, 111-101. The series is tied at two games apiece with a must-win Game 5 — as one Wizards player described it — looming Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
“We’re 2-2 right now. We move on. We have home court right now,” Beal said, standing on one of the few things the Wizards still can have confidence in. “So we’re going to protect our house and come back here more focused for Game 6.”
Coming from Beal’s lips, the plan seems simple. Through two games on the road, however, the Wizards made the series much more difficult as their defense regressed and frustrations with fouls heightened.
On Monday, Atlanta scored 44 points in the paint while Howard (16 points and 15 rebounds) awakened from his series slumber by slamming home lobs. Even when Howard went quiet in the fourth quarter, the Wizards’ fragile defense still couldn’t contain the Hawks. The teams entered the final quarter tied at 77, but Washington bowed to the whims of Atlanta’s offense and allowed 34 points.
While Beal (11 for 23 for 32 points) and Wall (22 points and 10 assists) finally had a strong game together, the Hawks countered that with all five of their starters scoring in double figures. Even bench players Bazemore and Calderon combined for 26 points and 12 assists.
Markieff Morris, who called Hawks all-star Paul Millsap a “crybaby,” entered the game as the villain at Philips Arena. Morris did not back up his talk, however, partly because he was limited by foul trouble. Morris finished with nine points (3-for-10 shooting), three rebounds and five fouls.
“Since that [first] game, he’s been in some foul trouble,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “The stats say he hasn’t shot the ball well, but he hasn’t had a rhythm. He’s been in foul trouble ever since that Game 1. But that’s part of it. You’ve got to play through it. He picked up two, and he picked up four real quick. And he got the fifth one. He’ll bounce back. I’ve got confidence in him, how he plays, how he plays for us. I expect him to have a better game in a couple of nights.”
The Wizards could have scripted the start. In the opening quarter, they shot 55.7 percent from the field, and even better, their defense was given a break when Dennis Schroder headed to the Hawks’ bench.
Wall aggressively drew three fouls on Schroder, and in doing so he eliminated the Hawks’ best playmaker. For the rest of the first half, the Wizards did not have to worry about chasing the streak of blond down the lane (Schroder rocks a funky flaxen dye job in his hair) or concern themselves by over-helping against his replacement, the 35-year-old Calderon.
Finally, foul trouble favored the Wizards, and they started the quarter with a clear advantage — not only the 35-28 score but also with Schroder glued to the bench — but mishandled the opportunity.
At the 10:22 mark, Bojan Bogdanovic wisely posted up the smaller Calderon and scored while being fouled. After the three-point play, though, the Wizards’ offense went dark for nearly five minutes.
Instead of attacking the slow-footed Calderon, who played with three fouls, the Wizards settled for more jumpers — missing 15 of 20 shots, with only three of those attempts coming inside the paint. Even more troubling, Washington grew exceptionally sloppy with the ball and committed eight turnovers.
Conversely, the Hawks worked the inside game. Rookie Taurean Prince, who made 4 of 4 shots and scored nine points in the first half, demonstrated how aggression is rewarded in the playoffs. With 3:10 remaining in the half, Prince made a quick first step to the rim, and, though Morris gave little contact in resistance, the first-year player was given the foul as he hit the layup.
“We made a lot of defensive mistakes,” Brooks summed up. “We took a lot of tough shots.”
Early in the fourth quarter, the Hawks still operated with authority as they opened an 89-81 lead and forced several Wizards starters back onto the floor. Though the wholesale changes sparked Washington — Morris hit a shot clock-beating jumper, Bogdanovic spaced out for a three, and Wall raced inside for a layup for seven straight points — Atlanta stopped the run and buried the Wizards with one of its own.
Later, Wall and Beal waited behind the curtain like understudies. The voices of the three featured Hawks amplified through the facility — with Howard trying to crack jokes and Calderon answering questions in Spanish. The duo waited their turn, as well as a chance to redeem Washington in this series.