- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2017

Paul Millsap maneuvered around and into Markieff Morris with precision, sending the Wizards’ power forward to the bench with foul trouble game after game. Something had to be done.

It wasn’t just the fouls. Millsap was scoring from the field with efficiency. He picked up assists. Washington knew that the Hawks’ All-Star would be a problem in its first-round playoff series with Atlanta. But, it also believed that Morris — 6-foot-10, mobile, feisty — was a well-constructed counter to the man who gave the Wizards so much trouble two years ago in the playoffs. For three of the first four games, Washington was wrong.

Which is why it changed Wednesday in Game 5. The first time Washington sent a double-team toward Millsap, John Wall came from the baseline in the first quarter and stole the ball. That change by Wizards coach Scott Brooks and a subtle offensive one by Wall helped tilt that game and the series into Washington’s favor. It leads the best-of-seven first-round series 3-2. Game 6 is Friday in Atlanta.

Morris’ series-long tussle with Millsap has included suggestions that one player is too rough. That came from Millsap, who groaned after Game 1 that Washington was “playing MMA.” Morris began taking verbal shots at Millsap before the series began. He told reporters not to call him a “stretch-four” because it insinuated, in his mind, that a player was soft. He followed-up by saying the title was fine for Millsap.

After Morris controlled the matchup in the opening game, Millsap began to dominate. Morris played 38 minutes in Game 1. He’s averaged 23 minutes per game since because of perpetual foul trouble. Taking Morris off the floor forced Brooks to apply even worse matchups against Millsap. Backup big man Jason Smith, who will be a gametime decision Friday because of a bruised left calf, has guarded him. Bojan Bogdanovic, know as a shooter and not a defender, has dealt with Millsap. The best counter to Millsap in the series has often been center Marcin Gortat. His length is able to make up ground against Atlanta’s whirling power forward.

But, Washington wants Morris on the floor as often as possible. Which is why Brooks broke from his season-long preference not to double team any opposing player, even one who was starting possessions at the mid-post, making him ripe for an occasional trap.

“We wanted to try to save Keef from getting in foul trouble – I don’t know if that strategy worked,” Brooks said with a smile. “[We] might have to go back and try something else. I thought it did work a few possessions. It’s something that we talked about and worked on and I give our guys a lot of credit, they executed it [and] it took them a little bit out of their rhythm. [Paul] Millsap is a handful – he’s so crafty [and] he gets our guys in foul trouble. We have to somehow counter.”

Morris made it through the first quarter with zero fouls. By halftime, he had three. A fourth came in the third quarter. His fifth was dubious, came with 3:19 to play and not because of Millsap, though it was committed against him. Morris dove onto the floor for a loose ball. Millsap tumbled over him. Morris’ grumbling about the call earned him a technical foul.

Morris turned to jokes about the strategy after Washington won Game 5.

“Obviously it was to protect me to be on the court, but that didn’t work,” Morris said. “So, I guess we need another adjustment.”

Surely, he, Smith and Gortat have discussed Millsap’s tendencies and how to guard him, right?

“Don’t foul him,” Morris said. “That’s not working so we have to figure something else out.”

Wall had to make an adjustment, too. Massive Dwight Howard had taken away one of Wall’s relied-upon mechanisms: the pocket pass to Gortat. Wall and Gortat formed one of the league’s most potent pick-and-roll duos during this season and prior ones. The majority of Gortat’s scoring was a result of his understanding of where and when to roll, plus Wall’s on-point passing when reading the situation. Howard has snuffed that out.

So, Wall began to shoot from about eight feet in Game 5, using a little push shot off two feet that he terms a floater. It’s an angle and release he uses sparingly. But, Howard’s defense forced him into it.

“[Howard] plays in-between me passing the ball and taking away jump shots,” Wall said. “Especially with [Kent] Bazemore and those guys on me — the bigger defenders — they do a great job of contesting late, so I try to get a little deeper and shoot floaters. I had some good looks. Some of them rimmed in and out. Some hit the back of the rim. But I think some gave ourselves to take a better shot than force turnovers at times.”

Brooks knew they had to handle Millsap differently. Wall knew the lane was clogged in a way he was unaccustomed to. With two changes, they found improvements in each spot.

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