- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2015

On Sunday afternoon, the Atlanta Hawks, a 60-win team, lamented not acting like the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The upstart Washington Wizards, the No. 5 seed who had stolen homecourt advantage, talked about believing they can win without their best player, John Wall. The Hawks even had a mini-controversy stirring about who their coach had on the floor to defend Paul Pierce’s buzzer-beater to win Game 3.

For the Hawks, Monday was almost a smooth evening. A small first-quarter lead held up all night. Each time the Wizards tried to stifle Atlanta, the Hawks dropped an answer. Yet, with 9.5 seconds to play, the Wizards had the ball and trailed by just three points. Pierce was open. Wide open. He’s been on a furious 3-point shooting run. There was no celebration this time. His shot was long. With a 106-101 loss, Washington heads back to Atlanta with the best-of-seven series tied, 2-2.

“I missed,” Pierce said in succinct explanation.

For the game to have crept that close was a surprise. The Hawks scored 65 points in the first half. Holes in Washington’s defense began to show in Game 3, when Atlanta’s point guard duo of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder dribbled to the rim with ease. The Hawks penetrated, and subsequently dominated the opening two quarters.

“For whatever reason, we weren’t mentally — physically and effort-wise we were perfect — but mentally, we weren’t into what we were trying to accomplish defensively in the first half,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “We weren’t all on the same page, and when you’re like that, you’re going to give up easy baskets.”

Reverting in the second half was a good thing for Washington. It shifted back to the stout defensive team it had been throughout the season. Atlanta shot just 34.9 percent while gasping and wheezing its way to the finish over the final two quarters. When Pierce’s 3-pointer clanged away, the Hawks were still yet to relax. Kyle Korver ended up on the floor with the ball, passing it to Paul Millsap, narrowly avoiding a traveling call.

Bradley Beal scored a game-high 34 points, Pierce scored 22 and Nene was again effective, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds. Ramon Sessions, who replaced Wall in the starting lineup for the third consecutive game because of fractures in his left hand and wrist, scored 13 points off 5-for-14 shooting. Sessions scored a game-high 21 points in Game 2. He’s 7-for-24 from the field since and has scored 21 points.

Reserve point guard Will Bynum tried to help the Wizards hold on without Wall. His end-to-end run for a lay-up with 8:44 remaining dragged the Wizards to within five points. A steal followed, but Beal blew a lay-up and Atlanta countered with a corner 3-pointer from Schroder, who is proving to be an ailment for which the Wizards can’t find a salve.

Hope came with a brisk start to the third quarter. Washington scored nine consecutive points and Pierce’s lay-up pulled it to within a point, 65-64. More crucial were two fast fouls on Millsap, who orchestrated the Hawks‘ offense in the first quarter and finished with 19 points. Just 1:42 into the third quarter, Millsap piled up his third and fourth fouls, leaving Atlanta with a complication.

Sitting Millsap in a game that suddenly became close meant Pero Antic would be on the floor. Antic had played poorly in the first three games of the series by any standards, let alone when compared to Millsap, an all-star. Antic was shooting 20 percent from the field, had committed 11 fouls and made just three field goals.

Yet, with Antic in, the Hawks were able to regain their feet and rebuild their lead. Antic made two jump shots. Al Horford, who scored 18 points with 10 rebounds, continued a nightlong dominance of Marcin Gortat. The Hawks moved back to a 10-point lead, which they had at halftime, into the fourth quarter.

Paul played so well in starting and setting the tone for us,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You just feel like there are so many games that come down the stretch and are going to be close, that you’re going to need Paul Millsap at the end. We weathered that storm.”

The groaning and griping throughout the season about the Wizards‘ offense often focused on their lack of 3-point shooting. They shot 3-pointers well, just not often. A fluid, engaging offense like the one the Hawks used put up 3-pointers. Atlanta was seventh in the league in 3-point attempts during the regular season. The Wizards were 27th, usually grinding along with interior play and midrange jumpers.

The first half of Game 4 was upside down. The Wizards were 10-for-15 from behind the 3-point line. Atlanta’s push into the paint was relentless. The perimeter-oriented Hawks scored 32 of their 65 first-half points in the paint. Position did not matter. Point guards and power forwards were scoring near the rim, helping Atlanta shoot 59.1 percent, construct a 65-55 halftime lead and set itself up to even the series.

A healthy Millsap engineered Atlanta’s first-half offensive surge. Millsap was sick for Game 3, did not start and was a mess off the bench, finishing with three turnovers and two rebounds. His first 3-point shot in Game 3 had the arc of a builder’s level. Monday night, he was a different player. His line was swollen at the half: 15 points, six assists and three rebounds. The foul trouble stalled him out.

Atlanta led by as many as 14 points in the first half. The Wizards managed a meager four-point lead when they started the game up, 6-2. Easy offense for Atlanta followed throughout the remainder of the first quarter and into the second. Though roles were reversed, the change worked fine for Atlanta. Teague led the Hawks with 26 points, while Schroder scored 14.

Pierce’s personal barrage helped Washington hang around. He made all four of his 3-point attempts before the half. It was the final one that will be remembered.

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