- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2017

Atlanta Hawks beat writer Chris Viviamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was good enough to answer five questions about the upcoming Wizards-Hawks first-round series which starts Sunday in Verizon Center. To the questions:

What has been better since the Hawks‘ mid-February-to-late-March swoon?

I point to four main reasons for the Hawks recent resurgence after the rough stretch that saw them lose six of eight games and then seven straight losses shortly after that.

1. They are healthy. Paul Millsap recently came back after missing eight games with left knee synovitis from March 18-April 1. The Hawks best player said he was dealing with knee pain before he was shut down and had a non-surgical procedure. Kent Bazemore recently came back after missing five games with a right knee bone bruise from March 20-28. He too said he had been dealing with the issue before it came to a head and he needed to be shut down for a week. Thabo Sefolosha missed nine games from Jan. 29 to the All-Star break with a left groin strain and then eight games from March 26-April 9 with a right groin strain. There were times when the Hawks played without three starters.

2. The Hawks bench is back to being a strength with rotation players out of the starting lineup. The Hawks had a deep bench and then added Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jose Calderon. They have helped fill specific roles.

3. Tim Hardaway Jr. has blossomed this season but in particular late in the year. He has started 24 of the final 35 games. He has 23 20-point games and two 30-point games. He supplanted Bazemore in the starting lineup and likely will remain there.

4. The Hawks‘ ball movement has been much better of late. The Hawks don’t have a lot of pure shooters so they have to move the ball to create open shots. It was a trademark of the team the past few seasons, including in 2014-15 when they won 60 games.

Which team do you think they are? The one that struggled for two months or the one that defeated the Cavaliers in back-to-back games and won three consecutive to secure the No. 5 seed?

I don’t have an answer for this question because it’s been a season of ups and down having most scratching their head to figure out the real team. They have wins over the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets (twice), Celtics (twice), Raptors (twice) and Cavaliers (three times). They also have losses to the Timberwolves (twice), Lakers (twice) and the Suns. They’ve been blown out several times. They have come back from 20-point second-half deficits three times.

I think they have a tendency to play down to the level of their competition so I expect a better showing in the playoffs against the Wizards. They lost in D.C. in March without two starters by just four points after allowing the Wizards a 24-8 run late.

How do you think the Hawks will use Dwight Howard and Mike Muscala in this series?

The big man will be one of the keys for the Hawks. Howard gives them an inside presence that, at times, has been effective. He will battle Marcin Gortat. However, if the Wizards spread the floor with a big like Jason Smith, the Hawks will have to go to Muscala. Howard hasn’t been able to defend away from the basket. In fact, several of the Hawks‘ big comebacks have come when they have used a smaller lineup to spread the floor. This will be a game-to-game decision to see what is working the best.

The Hawks win if…

As I see it, the big key for the Wizards is the backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. They will most likely win their matchups with Dennis Schroder and Hardaway. However, if they Hawks guards can hang tough and not get torched, then they have a chance the frontcourt can win their battles – meaning Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. The Hawks are not good – at all – at defending the 3-point line so that is where they have to defend Wall/Beal and Otto Porter. Bazemore and Sefolosha could be used to help the Hawks neutralize the Wizards’ backcourt but that means Millsap and Howard have to be big (literally and figuratively).

What’s your prediction for the series and why?

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Wizards came out strong from the start and won in five games. However, I think the Hawks can hang with them. The key will be Game 3, even if the Wizards win Games 1 and 2. If the Hawks can win at home and regain some momentum from the Wizards’ first punch I think they are capable of going back to D.C. and winning a Game 5 or maybe a Game 7. I just think the Hawks are capable of stealing a game on the road in this series. For that reason, I will say the Hawks in seven games.

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