The NBA regular season is in the books and the Atlanta Hawks are once again headed to the postseason. The Hawks endured what was an up and down season but finished on a good note and appear to be in a good spot heading into the playoffs.
Atlanta’s 43-29 record secured them the fifth seed and will face the Washington Wizards in round one which gets underway on Sunday. The Wizards took three of the four regular season meetings with Atlanta scoring a win on opening night but with Washington winning the next three matchups.
As we begin a position by position look at this series, the natural place to start is at point guard where the play of Dennis Schröder and John Wall will have a major impact on the fortunes of both the Hawks and the Wizards.
If you are looking to find some reasoning for Atlanta’s up and down play this season then Schröder is likely a good place to start. Schröder stepped into the spotlight as Atlanta’s starter at point guard after the departure of Jeff Teague. Finding consistency was an issue throughout the season and while his counting stats took a big step forward, his defense seemed to take a step back.
Schröder was second on the team in scoring at 17.9 per game and shot 45 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range. However, break it down a little further and you can see how important his play was to the Hawks in terms of wins and losses.
Schröder averaged 19.2 points and shot 48 percent from the field while knocking down right at 40 percent of his three-point attempts in wins this season. Those numbers dropped to 16.4 points and 41 percent shooting in losses. He shot just 28 percent from three-point range in losses.
It is natural that other players would also have similar differences in their stats in terms of wins or losses but I think it is smart in this instance to focus on Schröder’s shooting. His quickness makes him very adept and getting into the paint in the pick and roll but needs to be able to knock down shots from outside to keep opponents honest. Interestingly enough, Schröder turned the ball over more in wins (3.6) than in losses (2.9).
Against the Wizards, Schröder averaged 15.3 points and 4.0 assists on 38 percent shooting. He was just 3 of 15 from three-point range and turned it over 22 times in four games. It is worth noting that 10 of those turnovers came in the final regular season meeting between the two clubs, a 104-100 loss in Washington.
On the other side, John Wall turned in one of the best seasons of his career averaging 23.1 points and 10.7 assists while shooting 45 percent from the field. Both Bradley Beal and Otto Porter took huge steps forward this season for the Wizards but Wall is still the engine that makes things go. What he lacks in perimeter shooting he more than makes up for in transition. He is a dynamic player and one that is going to test Atlanta’s defense from the start.
Wall averaged 18.5 points and 8.8 assists in the four regular season meetings against Atlanta but shot just 33 percent from the field. However, he was able to have a major impact at the free throw line averaging just over eight attempts per game.
Keeping Wall out of the paint and on the perimeter will be a major key for Atlanta. If he is able to penetrate then it will likely result in a trip to the free throw line or a wide open look from the perimeter which is an area that the Hawks have struggled to defend this season. For Schröder, it is important that he realize that he doesn’t necessarily have to outplay Wall for the Hawks to win. But they do need a level of steadiness that he often struggled to maintain during the regular season.
Behind Schröder, the Hawks have a couple of options in Malcolm Delaney and veteran Jose Calderon. Delaney struggled offensively this season but did a good job of running the team and is a much better defensive option than Calderon. Jose does bring some playoff experience and is a more accomplished shooter. Mike Budenholzer alternated between the two down the stretch of the season and it remains to be seen who will get the first shot in the playoffs.
The bench has been a source of frustration for the Wizards for most of the season but they did their best to rectify that with a couple of moves at the trade deadline. One of the players they picked up was Brandon Jennings from the New York Knicks to provide them some cover behind Wall. Jennings struggled with his shot after the trade but performed well as a playmaker and could be a challenge for Atlanta’s back up point guards.
Saying Wall is key for the Wizards feels like an understatement. He is without a doubt Washington’s best player and a bonafide All-Star to boot. He has put up numbers against Atlanta in the past but hasn’t had that dominant performance. With Beal and Porter, he may not need it. But from a defensive standpoint for Atlanta, everything starts with Wall and keeping him out of the paint and out of transition will be the biggest key.