NBA Playoffs Preview: Wizards vs. Hawks

Despite two very different starts to the regular season, the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards both come into the playoffs playing well and hope to send the other home for the summer early.

The Wizards got off to a miserable 2-8 start and looked destined for the lottery. But they righted the ship, coming a win short of 50 and wrapping up their first division title in 38 years.

It was a combined effort to rally the Wizards back to the top. They got stellar play from point guard John Wall once he was healthy coming off knee surgery. Not only did Bradley Beal stay healthy, he played the best basketball of his career, averaging 23.1 points while shooting at a 48.2 percent clip from the field. Otto Porter had a breakout season, and Kelly Oubre showed many flashes of potential.

They’ll face the Hawks, who had a roller coaster ride of a regular season. At times, they were terrific, and other nights they were absolutely awful.

The Hawks had some nice moments, like notching road wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. They even had a six-game winning streak in November and another seven-game streak in January.

However, the low points for the Hawks certainly dipped quite low. They suffered two seven-game losing streaks, were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers and were blown out a number of times on their home court. The lowest point had to be a 121-85 loss to the Detroit Pistons on December 2nd and a 128-84 loss at the hands of the Raptors the following night.

But the Hawks have shown some chemistry the last two weeks of the season, reeling off four straight wins before resting their regulars in the season finale. They’ll hope to ride the momentum and upset the Wizards in their first-round series.

Washington Wizards (4)

Record: 56-26
nERD: 53.2
Championship Odds: 2.3%

Atlanta Hawks (5)

Record: 43-39
nERD: 48.7
Championship Odds: 1.0%

Regular Season Series - Wizards 3, Hawks 1

The Wizards have fared well against the Hawks this season, taking three out of four games. However, the lone Hawks' triumph against the Wizards was a 114-99 win all the way back in the season opener. Times were much different then, as we know this loss was part of what would be a 2-8 start for Washington. Wizards coach Scott Brooks hadn’t figured out his roster yet, and Wall was still getting back into shape.

They played again a week later, and a healthier Wall bounced back with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in the Wizards’ 95-92 win -- their first of the season.

Despite losing three of four, the player that easily stood out for Atlanta in the four matchups was Dwight Howard. He menaced the Wizards down low to the tune of 14.2 points and 14.8 rebounds and shot 54 percent from the field in a little over 31 minutes per game.

How the Wizards Can Win

The Wizards need to look for every opportunity to push the ball in transition and increase the volume of total possessions. The Wizards rank 9th ninth in net rating, outscoring opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions, while the Hawks are 19th at -0.8. The more total shots and possessions per game will benefit Washington over time in the series.

It wouldn’t hurt to get the prime version of Wall, who established career highs in points (23.1), assists (10.7) and steals per game (2.1, most in NBA) this season. Wall’s quickness and athleticism could be a nightmare for Dennis Schroder.

If Wall is getting into the lane, that’ll mean more open looks for Beal and Porter. Porter also had a breakout year for Washington, shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point range. Defensively, the key will be slowing down the Hawks' stars in the frontcourt -- Paul Millsap and Howard. They'll want to prevent them from dominating the offensive glass and drawing a high volume foul shot opportunities, thus creating extra possessions for Atlanta and slowing down the Wizards' offense.

Wizards Player to Watch - Marcin Gortat

Marcin Gortat spent the first three years of his career playing behind Howard in Orlando, so there should always be some extra motivation when these two clash. Since they were teammates, Howard has had his way with Gortat, averaging 16.8 points and 12 rebounds over 15 head-to-head meetings.

While Gortat has fared decently (averaging 9.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) against Howard, his performance in this series will be critical. Ian Mahinmi recently went down with a calf injury, thinning the frontline and putting even more of an onus on Gortat to step up.

It will be an uphill battle for Gortat, but whatever he can do to draw Howard away from the basket will be crucial, whether it’s knocking down a mid-range jumper or running a high volume of pick and rolls.

How the Hawks Can Win

Ever since coach Mike Budenholzer took over, the Hawks have been a terrific defensive team. Although this team might not be as stout as his previous two teams, they still finished fourth in the league defensively (105.7) by our metrics. Millsap can match up well with many different players, and Howard’s ability to protect the rim and rebound are two luxuries that many teams don’t have.

Although both teams played at nearly an identical pace offensively this year, the Hawks need to slow these games down as much as possible. The two areas of focus in order to do this will need to be perimeter and transition defense.

Gone from last year is Jeff Teague, and while Schroeder is a talented offensive guard, point guards routinely pillaged the Hawks this season because of easy dribble penetration. Schroeder ended the year ranked 86th out of 92 qualified point guards in defensive real plus-minus.

If Wall can get to the rim as he pleases, this series might not get to a sixth game. Also, the Hawks don’t want to put too much pressure on their 27th-ranked offense (102.3) by letting Wall and company get out on the break and get easy baskets.

Hawks Player to Watch - Tim Hardaway Jr.

Tim Hardaway Jr. struggled to adjust to coach Budenholzer’s system a season ago and looked to be lost in the rotation. However, he’s hit his stride in year two as both a spot starter and a sixth man.

In the month of April, Hardaway Jr. averaged 18.2 points per game and shot 50.6 percent from the floor. There’s a strong case to be made that he’s been the Hawks’ best offensive player for the last month or two. Not only does he have a quick first step and can get to the rim, he’s becoming a lethal shooter from the outside. Despite shooting less than 30 percent from behind the arch through November and December, Hardaway finished the year shooting a hair under 36 percent thanks to a great closing stretch.

Any time you have Millsap, Howard and a non-perimeter threat as your point guard (Schroeder), it’s going to be tough to space the floor. Hardaway’s versatility and ability to stretch the floor provides the Hawks an instant -- and much-needed -- boost offensively.

It’s also important to note that Hardaway had 29 points against the Wizards in March and 21 against them in October. He's a key guy in this series.

Series Prediction

The Hawks are coming into the playoffs playing their best basketball, and their chemistry seems to be at an all-time high. If they can somehow control their turnovers (15.7 percent turnover rate, third-worst in the league), hit some perimeter shots and get some great performances from their younger players (Taurean Prince, Hardaway Jr.), they could stretch this series out to six or seven games.

However, despite the injury to Mahimi, the Wizards just have too much firepower -- an all-star point guard, a couple of marksman on the wings and a nice amount of depth. It doesn’t’ hurt that they’ve won three straight versus Atlanta, and our models see them as the favorite.

According to our algorithms: Wizards are 60.61% favorites.

My final prediction: Wizards in 5.