Of the more surprising results of the last few days in the NBA was the Hawks past two wins, evening up the series against the Wizards after sweeping both home games in Atlanta. It was a dramatic turn for a Hawks team that had its brains beat in in the first two games, seeing their top ten defense from the regular season get reduced to swiss cheese by John Wall and their slew of wings.
The end of game two saw a frustrated Dennis Schroder, and a head coach calling out their top big man in Dwight Howard. Things were falling apart for the overmatched Hawks, and the Wizards looked like the clear challengers to the Cavaliers.
That is a thing of the past, however, with the Wizards now locked into a deep competition with a Hawks team that has smacked around the Wizards in two straight games.
Hawks have assembled a “please take some midrange shots” defense pic.twitter.com/5HMohAsfwr
— KL Chouinard (@KLChouinard) April 24, 2017
How we got here is a mixture of things. John Wall hasn’t been shut down or mitigated, having put up gawdy stats and outplaying Shroder in games one and two. That’s continued since, with Wall largely keeping his stats the same. As Hawks coach Mike Budenholtzer put it after game two: “We know there’s not much to do with [Wall]. We’ve got to find a way to break up their system.”
And that’s where the Hawks have changed things up. Defensively, the Hawks have focused in on limiting everyone around Wall, specifically Bradley Beal. Beal, who posted an average of 26.5 points in the first two games, struggled mightily in game three with a rotational defense on the perimeter.
The Hawks have the best 3-point defense so far in the playoffs limiting Washington to just 27.8% from distance. Another key to success?
— Atlanta Sports Page (@ATLSPORTSHUB) April 24, 2017
The shift forced the four around Wall to move into producing on offense, with the Hawks zone only contesting Wall inside the free throw line. The mid range jumper for Wall was given up in relief of choking off help on the perimeter and on the pick and roll.
And even in game four, with Beal hitting more of his shots, the Hawks pressure pushed the offense of only relying on Beal and Wall, cutting off Morris and Porter on the wing, and clogging the interior around Gortat and any of the pick and roll guys for the Wizards.
— NBA (@NBA) April 25, 2017
It was a meticulous switch, and one that has exacerbated the Wizards lack of depth. The Wizards starting five are still playing above water, posting a plus/minus of a +18 in their time on the floor together. But the splits for any of the lineups including bench players are abysmal, with the Wizards getting outscored by more than 30 when Wall goes to the bench.
The Hawks have cut off any support for Wall and Beal, and it’s forcing the Wizards into uncomfortable sets.
— NBA Memes (@NBAMemes) April 25, 2017
But Atlanta also changed up their offense after game two, and it’s allowed them to participate in higher scoring affairs while feeling more comfortable. For starters, Paul Millsap has had the burden taken off of him after game two, allowing him to head back into the paint on more offensive sets, moving him away from constant pick and rolls to get Schroder apart from Wall.
Instead, the Hawks have reverted to Dwight Howard, whom Coach Budenholzer called out specifically after game two, to screen for the perimeter players. Dwight has been great in the pick and roll, getting six alley-oop dunks in games three and four compared to just two over games one and two.
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) April 25, 2017
Dwight has also shifted the series on his play inside. Games one and two saw the former star get run around by the Wizards bigs and on defense against guards. Howard got roasted on Twitter and in the media for his lackluster play, but the Hawks getting him to buy in to being a traditional screener and rebounder have put Dwight back into what his strengths are: catching lobs, blocking shots, and grabbing boards.
The Hawks have embraced not letting Dwight do more than he’s good at, and pushed everyone into a role that has highlighted the strength in numbers approach that Coach Bud is known for in his time in Atlanta.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 25, 2017
And in the biggest concern for the Wizards going forward, the Hawks have thrown their bench into the limelight. Jose Calderon, Kent Bazemore, and Ersan Ilysova have all played significant and competent minutes, with Calderon specifically giving the Wizards bench fits and problems.
Jose Calderon was +26 in the first half. You read that right.
— Mike Conti (@MikeConti929) April 25, 2017
Heading into game five, the Wizards have some shifts to make, with the Hawks living content with whatever Wall and Beal can get to a point. For the Wizards Markieff Morris has largely disappeared in games three and four, and his lack of presence has to be addressed when the Wizards come back home. This is also a place where Otto Porter’s youth is a bad thing, with them desperately needing some wing help.
— Domo (@Domo_LXXXVI) April 25, 2017
For the Hawks, they’ve figured out the formula to keep Dwight involved and get around a glaring weakness at the point guard matchup. Heading on the road to a venue the Wizards are very much better at, the Hawks have to continue to pressure the supporting cast, and live with Wall beating you.
This series has embraced the big guy and zone defense in the last two, and if it’s going to remain that way, expect some hard-hitting final three games.
Game 5 is today in Washington.