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NBA playoffs preview: Hawks face another challenge in surging Wizards

The Hawks and Wizards, two evenly matched teams, start their second-round series on Sunday.

Matchup: (1) Atlanta Hawks vs (5) Washington Wizards
Season Series: 3-1, Hawks
Efficiency rankings: Atlanta (Off. Rating: 6, Def. Rating: 7, Net Rating: 4)
Washington (Off. Rating: 19, Def. Rating: 5, Net Rating: 12)

The Matchup

The Paul Pierce shenanigans are over, there will be no further random explosions from Deron Williams, and the Hawks and the Wizards will have new headlines to write as their second round series begins. It’s not as showy as Chicago-Cleveland, but here are two evenly-matched groups, each with something left to prove to the rest of the league: Atlanta to add weight to its regular-season dominance, and Washington to take another step forward after last season’s conference semifinal appearance.

After slogging through six games with Brooklyn, Atlanta appeared to round into form toward the end, despite Al Horford playing with a dislocated finger and Paul Millsap a sprained shoulder. This team finished first in the East for a reason, its unselfish and at times staggeringly effective play producing four All-Stars and a Coach of the Year award for Mike Budenholzer. Jeff Teague quarterbacks the offense, Kyle Korver must be accounted for at all times, and Horford and Millsap can be as tough a tandem as any on the inside. They’re tough on both sides of the ball, and their ability to out-steady opponents keeps them in games.

[daily_cut.NBA]​Washington counters with the John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt, a talented young pairing that feels like it’s been around for a while but really has just begun to scratch the surface of what’s still to come. Pierce, cranky as ever, has been strong for them, and the Wizards feature plenty of muscle on the interior to take care of the dirty work. They’re feeling good after a first-round sweep of the Raptors and have had an entire week to rest going into Game 1.

Though Wall could certainly take another leap forward, the guard play in this series could effectively cancel out in terms of production. It’s more likely that things could tilt on the big men battle where the matchups might force Budenholzer and Wizards coach Randy Wittman to get creative. 

Millsap and Horford are already dinged and will be in for a physical fight, but if that duo can play at a high level, Atlanta should thrive. Mike Scott and Pero Antic off the bench can also shoot it well enough to pull Washington’s lumbering bigs away from the rim to help optimize spacing. The Wizards might be well-served to use Pierce as a small-ball four in those situations, a role he excelled in with the Nets in last year’s playoffs. These are matchups Wittman will have to find a way to take advantage of.

Though the Wizards might be peaking and the Hawks’ season has tilted slightly downhill ever since ‘2 Chainz night’ came and went at Philips arena, this series looks evenly matched and destined for six or seven games. 

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The Case For the Hawks

Although they were pushed to six games in a surprisingly straining-at-times series against the Nets, the Hawks finished on a high note, feeling like their usual selves in the series-clinching 111-87 win. That’s a great thing, because the Hawks owned this matchup in the regular season, their only loss in the series coming in April with all five starters resting.  

Atlanta Hawks: Doing their fair share

​It was tougher than expected but the Hawks weren’t bad against the Nets, just inconsistent. With the injuries, they get a bit of a pass for now as they enter this series with a clean slate. Oft-forgotten man DeMarre Carroll was outstanding, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds and firing at a 54.3% clip, not to mention 46.7% from deep. There aren't many starting fives better than Atlanta’s when everything is going well, and if Carroll continues to step up, Washington will be forced to stay honest defensively. With Korver running his usual loops around the floor, Atlanta’s offense should present its usual challenge for the Wizards.

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Washington played markedly well in the first round, but it can still be turnover-prone, averaging 14.8 per 100 possessions in the first round, just slightly down from their regular season clip of 15.5. Atlanta boasted the league’s sixth-best offensive rating during the season and scored 18.2 percent of its points off turnovers, the league’s second-highest mark. Though Atlanta will be down a top perimeter defender in Thabo Sefolosha, the Hawks have largely kept things tight defensively, and their overall season résumé still holds up. As long as they’re healthy and in rhythm, which at the moment is still an if, they should be considered the favorites.

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The Case For The Wizards

Although the Wizards deserve credit for demolishing the Raptors, the whole debacle smelled suspiciously more like a Toronto collapse than Washington taking its play up a massive notch. That said, the Wizards increased their three-point shooting to 44.3% on the series from 36.3 in the regular season, while taking more than seven added three-pointers in each game. League-best first-round showings in offensive rating (112.5 points per 100 possessions) and net rating (17.0)  can’t be ignored: This team is hot, and has to be feeling confident, especially after lots of time to prepare.

How far can the Washington Wizards go in the NBA playoffs this season?

​A strong argument here is simply the potential for an even better series from Wall. It’s no secret that Washington goes as its star point guard does, and he averaged a playoff-best 12.5 assists per game in the first-round sweep. During the season, Wall led the Wizards in usage rate and assist percentage (the latter of which, at 54.5%, was fourth-highest in the league), and if he continues to play well, everyone benefits. Wall shot the ball poorly against Toronto—making 60% from less than five feet, almost the same as his season rate, but just 26.4% from everywhere else. The Wizards steamrolled anyway, and all it would take is a few more jumpers to fall for a return to something closer to his season rate (44.5%), which looks like a reasonable prediction and a major positive for his team.

The Wizards got out of the first round last year with a similar core, adding Pierce to replace Trevor Ariza and Kris Humphries in Trevor Booker’s role. They’re more experienced, and there’s a clear opportunity here: If there was ever a good time to play this Hawks team, it’s now.

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X-factor: Dennis Schroder, Hawks

When Schroder’s at his best, he can take Atlanta up a level with his playmaking and take pressure off Teague to initiate things and attack off the bounce. Now, with his struggles of late, the Rondo comparisons have been more accurate than ever. Schroder failed to post a positive plus/minus in six first-round games, which isn’t entirely damning for such a young player, but will need to improve as the playoffs move on—particularly as Atlanta’s only key reserve able to really create for others and with benchmates like Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott who thrive with others getting them open. Who knows? Perhaps the death of ‘Playoff Rondo’ will beget the birth of ‘Playoff Schroder.’ The Hawks could use a lift from the talented backup, particularly to help tire out Wall, who's sure to see a ton of minutes in what could be a very long haul.

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Telling stat: 40.6 

That was the number of rebounds the Hawks averaged per game in the regular season, and it was third-worst in the league. They were also the NBA’s worst group on the offensive glass. With all the success Atlanta has had, this fact has flown under the radar, and in the regular season, it got away with it. Here, it presents a clear opportunity for the Wizards, a top-10 rebounding team that boasts a bigger frontline behind Marcin Gortat and Nene. If the Wizards can muck up the game, own the glass, and help keep Atlanta off-rhythm, they’ll feel good about their chances.

The Pick: Hawks in seven

You can look at the Nets series with as much cautionary rhetoric as you want, but this is a team that won 60 games, firmly grasps its own identity, and definitely won’t mind being undersold in favor of an opponent on a hot streak. The Hawks have had the Wizards' number all year, any playoff jitters are gone, and as long as they maintain a steady degree of health, they should advance. If this indeed turns into a long chess match of a series, I’ll take a Budenholzer-helmed team (with home court advantage, to boot) almost every time.