- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The long gap between Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series between the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards is almost over. Following Game 3, which is Saturday night in Atlanta, the teams will begin to shorten the space between games in the series. After that, the schedule moves to an every-other-day format.

So, let’s take a look at three keys for Wednesday’s 7 p.m. tip-off in Verizon Center:

1. Handling Atlanta’s rebuttal. The Wizards expect a more engaged Atlanta team in Game 2, particularly considering Paul Millsap’s “MMA” comment after Game 1. Wizards center Marcin Gortat thinks Hawks center Dwight Howard will be more forceful. Howard shot just six times in Game 1 and was outplayed by Gortat. Dealing with the first blow from the Hawks will be important.

2. What to adjust? The trouble for Atlanta is it does not have too many places to turn to for better play. Point guard Dennis Schroder finished with 25 points in Game 1, but was dominated by John Wall and it’s difficult to foresee an instance where Wall loses that matchup. Hawks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. had an abysmal opening game — he was just 2-for-11 from the field. The flipside is that Bradley Beal didn’t play that well (22 points on 21 shots, 2-for-11 from behind the 3-point line), yet still easily outplayed Hardaway. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said he was going to keep Hardaway and rookie Taurean Prince in the starting lineup for Game 2, which means Kent Bazemore will continue to come off the bench. So, strangely, no change there. Atlanta’s best player, Paul Millsap, has struggled throughout the season against Markieff Morris. Millsap, 32, could also be a quality player in decline.

3. Maintaining and changing the foul equation. The maintenance part first: Gortat knows how crucial it is for him to not only stay out of foul trouble during the game because backup center Ian Mahinmi is injured, but also to try to keep his foul count low so he can use a couple late against Howard, a poor free throw shooter, if necessary. “I have to stay focused on it,” Gortat said. “I can’t relax over there and [have to] make sure I control those fouls. It’s better to have those three, four fouls in the fourth quarter where I can spend them just in case. Obviously, I will pick up some crazy fouls either on an offensive screen or a guard is driving to the rim.” Gortat, Markieff Morris and Jason Smith were creeping toward foul problems early in Game 1. They managed to avoid issues. They need to do it again. To the changing part: Washington was outscored by 16 points from the free throw line in Game 1, yet won by seven, a margin that should have arguably been larger even independent of the free throw disparity. Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after the game that they fouled too much. Washington has felt picked on by referees throughout the season, so much so that the idea has bordered on distraction. If the free throw attempts are close to even, that can keep it out of the Wizards players’ heads, plus push the game heavily in their favor.


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