- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2017

An older, established concern will be coming to Washington with the Atlanta Hawks. A new one will be in tow, too.

Like John Wall, Atlanta stretch four Paul Millsap is a four-time All-Star. He’s one of the premier hybrid forwards in the league, a troubling combination of midrange shooting, post-ups, 3-point shots and ability and willingness to swing the ball.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has spent the season working his way off the Atlanta bench and displacing Kent Bazemore in the starting lineup. This has been a defining season for Hardaway, whose father mastered the UTEP two-step on Wizards coach Scott Brooks, among others. All of Hardaway Jr.’s shooting numbers are up, leading to his 14.5 points per game. At 25 years old and on the cusp of being a restricted free agent, this has been a season for Hardaway Jr. to cash in.

“A contract year,” said John Wall of Hardaway Jr.’s rise. “That helps a lot.”

Millsap’s consistent work and Hardaway’s surge have put them as focal points for the Wizards when they open their Eastern Conference playoffs series against the Hawks on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center.

Washington feels like it has a foil for Millsap in this series, unlike the situation in 2015 when these teams last met in the playoffs. Then, a 37-year-old Paul Pierce, Nene and Otto Porter tried to handle Millsap. Pierce was too old to defend him. Nene not mobile enough. Porter was too small. Washington was forced to occasionally double-team Millsap, which played right into the Hawks’ ball-moving ways.

This time, 6-foot-10 Markieff Morris will be tasked with stopping Millsap. Brooks is loathe to double team almost any player. With Morris, Washington feels like there is no need to double Millsap. Instead, they will turn the responsibility over to Morris foremost and its support schemes second. Morris’ strategy against Millsap is straight forward.

“Just being physical,” Morris said. “Not taking no plays off. Not giving him anything free. Fouling the [expletive] out of him when I got a chance to. Just playing hard.”

Hardaway will belong to Bradley Beal, who is also having his best season. Beal had to chase Kyle Korver the last time Atlanta and Washington played in the playoffs. Hardaway is less a spot-up shooter than Korver, but his 3-point attempts are similar in volume. Hardaway averages five 3-point attempts per game this season. Korver averaged six per game in 2015 when he was the league’s most accurate 3-point shooter and an All-Star because of it.

Tim, he needs an inch of space and he can shoot the ball,” Beal said. “I think the difference between him and Korver, he can put the ball on the floor better.”

With the wing matchups essentially even, John Wall having a clear advantage at point guard and Dwight Howard an advantage at center, winning these matchups could be the key to the series for both teams.

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