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Bait and Switch: Wizards struggle to adjust to Hawks' small ball attack

The Atlanta Hawks created and exploited favorable mismatches against Washington, and the Wizards struggled to adjust.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Marcin Gortat found himself in a situation that was all too familiar to Washington's bigs against Atlanta: isolated and attempting to defend a much quicker Hawks guard in Jeff Teague. John Wall had switched off upon seeing Gortat's man, Mike Scott, poised to have an open look from behind the three point line.. Teague probed, spun, and pulled back out before penetrating again and hitting a floater over Gortat's outstretched hands to give Atlanta an 11 point lead with 3 minutes left in the game.

Only a late flurry of Washington 3's would make the score look closer than it was as Atlanta prevailed by 4 points 106-102.

So it was for the Wizards against Atlanta, as the Hawks consistently forced mismatches that the Wizards scrambled to adjust to all night. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 4th quarter, where Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack and Jeff Teague lit up the Wizards for 27 of the Hawks 38 4th quarter points.

While a few of those came late on free throws when Washington was in desperation mode, most came at the Hawks persistently attacked the Wizards defense leading to quality shots.  On a night where Atlanta stalwarts Al Horford and Kyle Korver were mostly invisible on offense, the Hawks still managed to put up 65 second half points of the Wizards

Neither John Wall nor Randy Wittman seemed to think the game was lost on the Wizards defensive performance, preferring instead to focus of the Wizards 25 turnovers on the night. "Plays like that happen," Wittman replied post-game, "there's no rhyme or reason for it, you communicate and a guy gets picked off, you got to talk the switch. we obviously missed Nene, but that's an excuse and I don't want to hear any excuses."

Wall cited the Hawks shift to smaller lineups as helping Teague to wreak havoc on the offensive end: "Man, they went small. They had Millsap and, what is that guy, Melvin Scott? They just kept running pick and rolls and we had to switch in those situations. Most of the time we had our big man on him (Teague) and he was just attacking and getting to the basket."

Atlanta's strategy got Teague favorable matchups on several occasions against Gooden, Humphries and Gortat, and the former Wake Forrest star didn't hesitate to attack, scoring 18 of his 28 points in the second half, while getting to the line 14 times in the game. The personnel the Hawks also presented a challenge for the Wizards, with Atlanta, featuring a small lineup of capable shooters Paul Milsap and Mike Scott as their "bigs" during the 4th quarter.

As Wall noted after the game, this presents challenges for the defense: "When you go small like that, and you have a bunch of big men who can shoot the ball so they are basically spacing the court and in certain situations we had to switch...and those guards were just attacking and getting to the foul line. We have to do a better job communicating."

Even absent the mismatches, Washington's guards struggled to stay in front of the speedy Schroeder and Teague.

The Wizards' problems were not limited to the defensive end.  The team's carelessness with the ball coupled with Atlanta's disruptive perimeter defense had the offense never seem to get in gear. It's tough to score when your team doesn't take a shot.

That said, with Nene out for several games, Washington's biggest adjustment should be on defensive side of the court. Bigs who are mobile and can stretch the floor will pose a challenge for Washington.  With Kevin Love and Anthony Davis (and Ryan Anderson) and their teams' potent offenses next on the schedule, the Wizards will have their work cut out for them.