Most have heard the expression, “Pressure busts pipes.” All the pressure right now seems to be on Atlanta after the Hawks dropped Game 5 in Washington Wednesday and stare at a 3-2 deficit in their opening playoff series against the Wizards. Without being labeled “chicken counter,” that pressure goes away Friday.
The Hawks will return home to host Washington for Game 6 at Philips Arena where Atlanta has been successful in the playoffs. Fan bases and energy have assisted both teams thus far, but fast forward to Game 7 (yes, I’m predicting a Hawks win Friday). That’ll be a different animal altogether.
Atlanta has the biggest key component that will ultimately lead it to the next round of playoffs: EXPERIENCE. That’s something the Wizards don’t have in postseason play. Atlanta has now reached its 10th consecutive playoff appearance. All you have to do is win one game. Nothing else matters. Give Washington the backcourt edge. Let’s face it, overall the combination of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Brandon Jennings have been (not necessarily better) but more consistent than the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr, Kent Bazemore and Jose Calderon.
That could very well be the case for the remaining upcoming games. But the togetherness, bench depth, bench production and chemistry will show that Washington can be a close match. The Wizards’ guard play has been nothing short of astounding, and has been what has led them this far. Atlanta’s guard play, on the other hand, will likely be balanced, where contributions come from different guys who pass and shoot the ball well and contribute equally. These next couple of games could very well be where we see some of the Hawks’ most tallied assist-on-scoring attempts.
Arguably carrying the biggest load of any player in the first round of the playoffs has been Dennis Schroder. Between being heavily relied upon defensively to at least contain Wall, and provide scoring bundled with assists, tip your cap to Schroder, whom we cannot forget is in his debut season as a full-time starter. It’s easy for us to sit back and criticize the lack of defensive transition effort, but there’s not a single player in the sport that can stay in front of Wall. And Beal is only a step slower. Washington just may have the quickest backcourt in the NBA.
Outside of transition defense, the level of physicality that these games have been played at has been a huge determining factor. Look for Atlanta to match the intensity more and more each possession for the remainder of the series.
The early involvement and playing time down the stretch for Dwight Howard will also be key. Will Coach Mike Budenholzer continue to sit Howard as he did Wednesday when he could have been on the floor to rebound, chase down loose balls, contest/alter shots and just be a tree-like presence in the paint?
Likely the answer there is no. That is just something that Atlanta cannot afford if it wants to advance. What else the Hawks cannot afford is for Howard to complete the game with a stat line of five points and 10 rebounds in only three attempts to score. Howard most be active and take it personal that Beal recorded two more blocks than he in Game 5.
Taurean Prince’s confidence and 10-point, six-rebound and 4-assist efforts have been more than a huge burst for the Hawks. Budenholzer looks like a genius for his recent lineup adjustment, but that adjustment isn’t something that can be allowed to be the make or break when a season ends. The Hawks will continue to build off improving their turnover ratio as long as the ball stays in Schroder’s hands. Jose Calderon will also prove valuable when Schroder is sent to the bench for a breather.
Washington has repeatedly shown it is vulnerable to being outscored in the painted area, something else the Hawks must note to expose. Needless to say, the Hawks should continue to dominate the frontcourt battle in fairly easy fashion.
Lately the charity stripe has not been kind to Atlanta. Shooting below 70 percent in two of the past three games, nothing would sting worse than to being sent home for an inability to make wide open free shots. I don’t suspect first-half foul trouble will be hanging over the heads of key starters as it has the past two games where we saw Schroder collect three fouls, limiting his action in Game 4. Much of the same happened to Millsap just before halftime of Game 5.
As far as the coaching matchup, Scott Brooks is a very successful playoff coach (mostly with his former team Oklahoma City) and has coached his group up to winning the league’s Southeast division. Mind you, he’s still in his first season in the nation’s capital. Budenholzer has the coaching edge, ultimately knowing what to expect from his group. That experience will lead to the proper adjustments being made in order to advance to the second round.
We will see exactly what Atlanta is made of after Friday’s win when it enters a comfortable position on the road where all that pipe-busting pressure will be on the Wizards. See you Tuesday in Boston for Game 1.