Sunday May 3rd, 2015

With a week of rest, a strong defensive effort and a pinch of fortune, the Washington Wizards threw the first salvo in Atlanta and took Game 1 104-98 from the top-seeded Hawks. The victors, behind 28 points from Bradley Beal and 18 points and 13 assists from John Wall, survived a first-half Hawks eruption, outplayed their opponents down the stretch and stole a critical, tone-setting game on the road. The win brought some uncertainty for Washington, as Beal sprained his right ankle and tried to return but finished the game with a forlorn look on the bench. The Wizards remain undefeated after five playoff games, and established themselves as the early aggressors.

Atlanta scored 37 points in the first quarter and just 35 in the entire second half, a a display that felt impossibly frustrating given the speed of how quickly it fell apart. The Hawks came out pushing the ball, their five-man starting unit looking comfortable as ever, and shot 52 percent in the first half. That number dovetailed wildly to 25 percent in the second half, with even the most open looks struggling to fall. Their tough goings were exacerbated by botched second-chance attempts (just 2/14 in the second half) and just three steals the entire game.

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Washington played well enough to survive, and deserves credit for toughing through Atlanta’s best punches and capitalizing when the smoke cleared. But the Hawks, who won 60 games and might have gotten their series low point out of the way, won’t roll over. To be fair, it wasn’t the Wizards’ best game either, but they limited mistakes and made it count. Both teams will make adjustments going forward, and now that we’ve seen them head-to-head, here’s what to look for as the series rolls on.

Forget the awful shooting for a second and remember that the Hawks start four All-Stars and the red-hot DeMarre Carroll (21 first-half points including 5-7 from three). That group should continue to give Washington major fits. All five guys can make shots from all over the floor, they make you guard for the entire shot clock, and as Atlanta ripped the game open early it became apparent that the Wizards’ slower feet pose some matchup problems. Paul Millsap and Al Horford are tough assignments, and you wonder how much the Wiz can afford to deploy Marcin Gortat and Nene together, the latter of whom was especially awful with more fouls (three) than points (zero).

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That said, Randy Wittman doesn’t have a whole ton of lineup flexibility and relied on an eight-man rotation for most of the game. Otto Porter was important Sunday, logging 34 minutes and giving the Wizards 10 points and 11 rebounds off the bench. We’ll see more of Porter and Paul Pierce together at forward, a more skilled pairing that helps open the floor up for Wall to do his thing. Washington’s front line was generally solid, as the team notched 25 second chance points, Drew Gooden chipped in 12 off the bench, and Kevin Seraphin was surprisingly useful down the stretch on the defensive end. If Bradley Beal, who’s been frustratingly injury-prone, misses any time, it would obviously be a major blow for the Wizards, who gain a major offensive advantage when both sets of starters line up and Beal draws Kyle Korver on the outside. It’s tough to see the young shooting guard go down again, particularly in the middle of a breakout game, and the status of his ankle is now a key to this series.

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Atlanta will need to, and should, shrug off the uncharacteristically icy shooting. It wasn’t for lack of effort —despite the fact nothing was falling, Millsap and Horford (the latter playing with five fouls) owned the glass in the fourth quarter and gave themselves several opportunities to narrow the gap. The Hawks' role players largely stepped up, with Dennis Schroder turning in his best game of the playoffs (nine points, four assists) Pero Antic was steady and Carroll continues to impress. Mike Budenholzer has no obvious personnel tricks up his sleeve: everyone knows who Atlanta's best five are, and the odds of all of them sputtering out at once for an entire half again in this series are pretty slim. They’ll need to up the aggressiveness on defense, hope Jeff Teague’s injured ankle holds up, and lock up a 1-1 split on Tuesday night. 

Assuming both teams manage their health situations, the Hawks return to their high standard, and the Wizards’ series of playoff statements signal a major step forward, this series should prove more than just a second-round side dish. 

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