- - Thursday, April 27, 2017

Maybe it’s just me, but I thought this Washington Wizards squad was better than the playoff version two and three seasons ago.

I thought the current edition was superior with a wiser John Wall and sturdier Bradley Beal. The starting lineup was more balanced with a versatile Markieff Morris and improved Otto Porter. The reserves had more firepower with a streaky Bojan Bogdanovic and feisty Kelly Oubre.

And the team updated to a 21st century approach with scrappy Scott Brooks in the first seat on the bench.

So why is this series against Atlanta so darn hard? Game 5 on Wednesday wasn’t decided until Wall’s jumper created the final margin,103-99, with 47 seconds left. All that remained was surviving another drive by Paul Millsap, who was challenged by Gortat and thudded to the floor without getting a whistle.

The Hawks’ All-Star forward, who also was rejected in the paint by Beal with 1:36 left, complained bitterly after the buzzer, following a referee to half court. Then Millsap turned and sulked off the court with his teammates, losers for the third time in three games this series at Verizon Center.

This was the closest contest yet, the four-point victory preceded by an eight-point edge in Game 2 and a seven-point margin in Game 1. The Wizards haven’t had a breather at home and definitely not away. They were whipped by 18 in Game 3 before suffering a more-respectable 10-point defeat in Game 4.

“All three games here we’ve given ourselves a chance,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We feel like we can play better.”

The Wizards can say the same thing, but they certainly played better defense Wednesday, blocking 10 shots, recording eight steals and holding Atlanta to 40.9 percent shooting from the field.

Credit a defense-focused film study that Brooks said was “pretty direct and honest.” Beal put it this way: “He basically told everyone whether or not they can guard and said he won’t play you if you can’t guard. It was something we needed because our defense slacked in Atlanta.”

For all the goodwill and happy feelings the Wizards engendered with a 49-win campaign, none have carried over to the postseason. Based on their play for most of the season, Game 5 should’ve been the finale, not the set-up for Atlanta’s win-or-stay-home scenario.

The 2014-15 Wizards weren’t nearly as impressive, yet they swept Toronto in the first round. In 2013-2014, Washington was still more joke than threat. But Randy Wittman coached ‘em up for a five-game, first-round upset against Chicago.

Now, as a trendy pick to reach the Eastern Conference finals, the Wizards are struggling to merely advance? It doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately, they don’t have to win a single game in Atlanta if they remain undefeated in DC. However, extending a series creates opportunities for misfortune, like the bruised calf forward Jason Smith suffered. Extending a series adds wear and tear to Wall and Beal, who logged 39 and 41 minutes, respectively. Extending a series gives the underdog hope and belief, attributes already bubbling in the Hawks.

At least the Wizards aren’t headed south in a must-win situation. Wall prevented that from happening with 20 points and 14 assists. The bench showed up with 14 points from Bogdanovic and five each from Oubre and Smith.

We finally saw a semblance of the balanced attack that had been AWOL. Porter had 17 points to make it four Wizards in total with double-figure scoring. “Just trying to be aggressive,” he said after hitting 9-of-10 free throws.

Aggression has been a buzzword this series. Each team believes whoever come out ahead on that front will leave the court with a victory.

“For more of the 48 minutes we have to be more focused,” Budenholzer said. “We have to be the aggressor, take care of the ball and get good possessions. We have to go stronger to the basket. We’ll go back to Atlanta and we have to be aggressor and make plays.”

Washington can’t hardly afford a repeat performance of last week’s trip. Playing a Game 7 at home is nice, but it doesn’t compare to resting and preparing for the next round. Friday would be a swell time for the Wizard’ best game of the series and a laugher opposed to a nail-biter.

“They’re gong play all out and give everything they have,” Wall said. “This is really the first time we’ve had a close-out game on the road. It’s a great task for us.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, at least not yet. The real challenge was supposed to await against Boston and then, presumably, Cleveland.

If these Wizards really are the franchise’s best team in 38 years, it’s time for them to prove it.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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