It came down to the final few games of the regular season. Nonetheless, we now know that the Washington Wizards will host the Atlanta Hawks in the first-round of the NBA Playoffs. In order to gain a better perspective about Atlanta. I spoke with a few sports journalists based in the city to shed light on this highly anticipated series between the fourth and fifth seeds.
The panel included Sekou Smith, of NBA.com and NBA TV. Kevin Cottrell Jr. of NBA TV/Turner Sports and Anthony Amey Sports Anchor/Reporter of WSB-TV an ABC-affiliate in Atlanta. I presented them with seven questions via email and here are their thoughts:
Question 1: The Atlanta Hawks dropped about 7 games in mid-March. Yet they finished the season very strong. Most notably beating the Cavs twice. With this momentum, could the Hawks possible upset Washington and why?
Sekou Smith: “If you believe in momentum carrying over from the end of a regular season to the playoffs, sure there is a chance for an upset. I would think the Hawks would put more stock in the 4-5 matchup, though. That’s usually the closest series because of the seeding. And I do believe that this should be a tight series because of that.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr.: “Absolutely, the Hawks enter this series winning four of its last five regular season games. A big part of that momentum was due to the play of Tim Hardaway Jr. Many believed this Hawks team was waving the white flag on the season after trading the sharp-shooting Kyle Korver to the Cavs, but it was that moment where Hardaway took full advantage of this playing opportunity. As for Atlanta stumbling in March much of that can be attributed to the loss of All-Star Forward Paul Millsap due to injury. Now the Hawks are healthy and flying high. This team loves to move the ball and with Dwight Howard quietly having a solid year a complete team effort poses a true threat to the Wizards advancing to the second round.”
Anthony Amey: “Yeah, they had a miserable stretch where they lost 7 straight last month and 9 of 11 overall, including two losses to the worst team in the league, the Brooklyn Nets. However, as you mentioned, they had the stretch at the end of the season where they won 4 of their final 5 games, including the two over the Cavs but also one right before those games against the Celtics. So to answer your question succinctly, they have shown they can beat anybody in the East, but they also can lose to anyone in the East. However, they haven’t shown much ability to play with the Wizards this season. John Wall has played very well against Dennis Schroder at the point. Despite that though, Atlanta matches up well against the Wiz. There are a number of wing defenders Mike Budenholzer can throw at Bradley Beal and Otto Porter if he gets hot. Dwight Howard can guard Gortat and the loss of Ian Mahinmi could hurt the Wiz in terms of depth. One interesting matchup to me will be Markieff Morris against Paul Millsap.”
Question 2: What’s your take on John Wall and Bradley Beal?
Sekou Smith: “Great players. Wall’s already an All-Star and one of the league’s best at his position and overall. Beal is a guy who is still working on establishing himself as an All-Star but he’s one of the more underrated two-way players in the league and plays with that same killer instinct Wall does. They’re one of the league’s most dynamic duos and should continue to be exactly that for years to come.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr.: “For years John Wall and Bradley Beal had the potential to be one of the most potent backcourts in the NBA. This season they overcame their differences and did just that, becoming the highest scoring backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Wall’s ability to drive and kick it to Beal who’s having a career year, makes the Wizards a threat to the Cavaliers for the East crown. This duo has just scratched the surface in terms of how explosive they can be. It will be interesting to watch their growth throughout the postseason.”
Anthony Amey: “To me, Wall & Beal make up one of the top 5 backcourts in the NBA. They seemed to finally learn how to play together this season. I credit Wall for breaking the seal on the conversation topic once Beal got his $127 million contract. Wall immediately said that he was happy for his backcourt mate and denied any jealousy, knowing that his play would determine his future earnings. He also admitted that they had to learn how to better co-exist on the court. They’ve done that.”
Question 3: Do you think Atlanta can match-up well with Washington’s backcourt?
Sekou Smith: “I think that’s where the Wizards’ greatest advantage lies in this series. I don’t know if the Hawks can handle those matchups. I think Tim Hardaway Jr. might give the Hawks their best chance at matching up against Beal and Wall should have a huge advantage in this series.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr.: “Atlanta will have a tough time matching up with Washington’s backcourt. The Wizards have the size and skill advantage over an Atlanta backcourt that features Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore. While Schroder has shown his ability to play with top guards at time, this will be his first postseason as the Hawks lead guard. So expect some growing pains. The key will be Hardaway’s shooting to keep pace with Beal. Schroder may not post the gaudy stat line that Wall does consistently, but if he can keep the turnovers down it will help the Hawks backcourt close the advantage gap tremendously.“
Anthony Amey: “Sorry….I jumped the gun a little bit on this question with my response from question #1. But I have seen Dennis Schroder show a certain edge when he has a chip on his shoulder. He took it to Isaiah Thomas a week ago. Although he’s a first-year starter, Dennis plays like he belongs. He’s not afraid. With that said, John Wall is one of the most dynamic point guards in the game and he’s shown that he is head and shoulders above Dennis right now. I also know that John plays with a long memory. I’m sure he believes that if he’d remained healthy when these teams met in the playoffs two years ago, Washington would have won that series. And again for Bradley, the Hawks have numerous defenders they can throw at him whose forte is defense (Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, rookie Taurean Prince), so it will be interesting to see how Scott Brooks gets Beal open shots in the series.”
Question 4: Choose a player from each team and would you say is the “x-factor?”
Sekou Smith: “For the Hawks it’s Dwight Howard. If he decides he wants to impose his will and play with the energy of the Dwight of old, he could be a real problem for the Wizards. On the flip side, if Bojan Bogdanovich plays big off that Wizards bench, he could swing a game or two in his team’s favor with his scoring punch.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr.: “An “x-factor” tends to come in many forms. Whether it’s a specialist or the bench player that plays like a starter. For the Wizards that player will be Otto Porter Jr. For much of the season he’s been amongst the league leaders in three-point percentage, and they’ll need that to continue if they are to advance. Wall and Beal will get their 20+ points but floor spacing and the bonafide floor spacer in Porter will be needed. As for the Hawks, their x-factor is Dwight Howard. The Atlanta native has been known to elevate his play during the playoffs and the Hawks need him to do just that. The Wizards backcourt has the advantage but the Hawks frontcourt has the decided advantage. Wiz center Ian Mahinmi will miss the start of the series due to injury, therefore Howard must dominate the glass and scoring in the paint due to their lack of bigs to contain him. If Superman does in fact enter the building, we could be in for a long series.”
Anthony Amey: “X-factor for the Wizards: Bradley Beal. Because of the numerous defenders the Hawks can throw at him, will he maintain the scoring surge he had at the end of the season? Will the Hawks wear him down throughout the series? I also think Brandon Jennings will play a huge role when Wall goes to the bench. X-factor for the Hawks: Tim Hardaway Jr. He’s gone from stints in the D-League last season to one of the Hawks most valuable players. If he gets hot (and he’s done that a number of times on the road), look out. If he’s cold or if the Wizards contain him, it could be a fairly easy series for the Wiz.”
Question 5: Describe the mood in Atlanta towards the Hawks. Most Atlanta fans are still thinking about the Super Bowl are the Hawks giving Atlantans hope?
Sekou Smith: “I’m not sure Falcons fans will get over the Super Bowl anytime soon, at least not in this lifetime. The Hawks can’t fix that without winning it all, which I don’t think is in the cards.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr.: “I wouldn’t say Atlanta fans are still caught up in the Falcons Super Bowl meltdown. However, when it comes to their Hawks many are cautiously optimistic. The Hawks organization sent mix signals throughout the season as to whether they would rebuild or simply reload. The injury to Millsap left fans wondering if their team would even reach the postseason, then back-to-back wins over the Cavs in early April had fans believing again. The Wizards pose a huge threat because of their dynamic backcourt. As a result, Hawks fans will take things game by game.”
Anthony Amey: “I’m from D.C., so I compare the two places and think they’re very much alike. As a kid, if the Bullets/Wizards didn’t provide any reason for buzz, they could be forgotten within the area to certain degree. Same here….there has to be reason for excitement, a buzz. There wasn’t any, prior to the wins over the Celtics and the two against the Cavs. Now, I think that raised people’s eyebrows a little bit and folks are curious and interested to see what happens. If the Hawks can win this series and take on the Celtics/Bulls, interest will grow. If they lose it, I don’t think too many people will be surprised or upset. The Hawks have been so hot and cold this season….nothing would surprise or upset anyone.”
Question 6: Who do you have winning this series and why?
Sekou Smith: “Wizards in 6. They have the superior backcourt and home court advantage on their side. I also think they’ve been the consistently better team of the two all season.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr.: “I liked the Hawks chances against just about all their potential first round opponents, excluding the Wizards. There’s something about the way Scott Brooks has them playing since their 2-8 start that suggest they’re primed for an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. The Hawks are a well-coached and disciplined team but sometimes that’s not enough when an opponent has superior talent. The Wizards still have to prove their game matches their supreme confidence and ultimately I believe they will. Wizards in six. “
Anthony Amey: “I think the Wizards will win in 5 games…largely because John Wall is back and healthy for the playoffs. He knows, I believe, that the 2015 team could have been the first Washington team to go to the conference finals since 1979 and being hurt, watching his team lose to this Hawks team had to hurt him. I think he’s out for revenge and out to show that the Wizards are a team to reckon with. I also think collectively, the Wizards want to see the Celtics in the next round. That’s a budding rivalry and it would be interesting to see that matchup.”
Question 7: Lastly, give your overall thoughts and takes on the Eastern Conference as a whole and how that impacts this series (the winner of this series)
Sekou Smith: “For the first time since LeBron James returned to Cleveland I think the East is really up for grabs. Toronto, Washington and Boston could all surprise us and win the East if Cleveland can’t just flip that switch in the playoffs.”
Kevin Cottrell Jr: “The Wizards fell on the right side of the East bracket. If they do in fact advance past the Hawks, they’ll have a favorable matchup with a Celtics team that appears to be one-dimensional. Boston will be in a battle with the Bulls and the longer the series the better for a deeper Wizards team. With Washington avoiding the Champs until a potential ECF matchup, it allows them to continue getting better and gaining confidence heading into May. The East playoff should be fun with a lot of great matchups and I expect the Wizards to be in the mix when it comes to deciding who will represent the East in the NBA Finals.”
Anthony Amey: “I disagree with those who think the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. Although the Cavaliers lost some games down the stretch, LeBron James has been to six straight NBA Finals. Who’s capable of beating his team 4 times in 7 tries? I just don’t see it. Tristan Thompson will be back, healthy and rested. With that said, I think the two really dangerous darkhorses in the East are playing each other in the first round. I really like Milwaukee since Khris Middleton returned. And I love Toronto’s balance, depth and experience gained from last year. But one of them will be gone after the 1st round. And the winner gets the Cavs, who probably will have a fairly easy time with the Pacers. I expect the Wizards to play Boston in the next round and for that to be a long series, giving the edge to Cleveland to get out of the East…again.”