Thanks to the Brooklyn Nets' generosity and a fantastic first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls, the Washington Wizards will have a winnable series next round. They await the winner of the Indiana Pacers-Atlanta Hawks series, which the Pacers extended to seven ... barely.
Lots of folks are penciling in (or at least envisioning) the Wizards to the Eastern Conference Finals, and I understand why. We're excited, the team is playing well and the opponents on their half of the bracket are tiring themselves out with underwhelming play. I agree with the idea of the Wizards being favored against either the Pacers or Hawks in the next round.
But neither team will be a pushover. Here are some of the challenges each will present:
On the surface, this team is very similar to the one the Wizards just eliminated easily. They are really good defensively, but stink offensively. That's reason enough to give the Wizards hope even before you considering the massive struggles Roy Hibbert is currently going through.
But there are a couple key differences between Indiana and Chicago. For one, Indiana doesn't lack individual offensive talent. Paul George, however you feel about him, is a significantly better scorer than anyone the Bulls have. (Now is not be the time to be down on George: he's averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds against the Hawks, all while locking down Jeff Teague). David West, too, is a big step up from Carlos Boozer, though he doesn't present the same scary offensive rebounding skills that Taj Gibson did. Lance Stephenson is wild, but when he's on, he's a major threat in transition.
When Indiana is functioning properly, it finds nifty ways to get those players open with misdirection and baseline screens. This is a personal favorite that the Pacers continue to use this season:
Here are a couple other sets to watch. The Wizards must be vigilant about not switching on this one.
And this is a nice bit of misdirection that Indiana has used a lot more of late.
Point being: Indiana's offense stinks, but it at least has more talent and is more intricate than the Bulls' "give the ball to Joakim Noah in the high post and hope for the best" system.
The good news is that the Wizards have the perfect George antidote in Trevor Ariza. George has struggled badly when matched up against Ariza this season, only faring well in the little time Ariza didn't play. From the NBA's media-only stats page.
The Pacers also lack that speedy point guard that gives the Wizards fits and forces Ariza off his normal matchup. Washington can stick Ariza on George the whole time and limit his efficiency. That's a major advantage.
On the other end, it's easy to forget that Indiana has a great defense even still. Hibbert has been rendered useless by Atlanta's speed, but the Wizards' big lineup is a better matchup. It'll be easier for him to stand in the lane and regain his verticality dominance. As the same NBA media stats site shows, the Wizards' offense has been Brutal (the capital B applies) when Hibbert's been in the game.
Those are ... ugly numbers. The good news: this isn't the same Hibbert as earlier in the year and the Wizards' two losses to Indiana were both in the first half of the season. Their offense wasn't great in the third game at Verizon Center, but it was better.
Still, Randy Wittman will need to be creative with his big men. Does he pull them out of the paint and into the mid-range area like he did against the Bulls? Can Nene continue to nail mid-range jumpers? Will the Pacers care if he does? And if they are pulled out of the paint, can John Wall get into the lane as effectively as he did against Chicago? Can Bradley Beal hit enough shots?
I suspect the offensive gameplan will be similar to the one against the Bulls. We'll see if it works again.
And now for the complete opposite kind of series! Atlanta's wide-open style has proven to be difficult for a great defensive team like Indiana to guard, and it'll cause plenty of problems for the Wizards too. The Wizards did take three of four against the Hawks, but Kyle Korver missed two of those games and Pero Antic missed one. In fact, a Hawks team playing without Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Elton Brand nearly beat the Wizards in D.C. late in the season.
The Hawks have a beautiful, Spurs-ian offense. They love to use that kind of motion to get Korver open shots, and Paul Millsap is very good at scoring in space should teams flood to Korver. This is one of my favorite sets in the league.
Jeff Teague also presents issues with the way he's attacking off the dribble, and while Pero Antic isn't as proficient a three-point marksman as one would think, teams treat him as such. That gives Teague and Millsap tons of space to beat their men off the dribble.
How do the Wizards deal with that spacing? The easiest solution: let Antic shoot and deal with the consequences. Indiana has invented a number of junk switches to keep Hibbert in the lane when he's been on the court, and that's often caused problems elsewhere. Botched switches, open lanes, other players open, etc. But Antic hit just 33 percent from three for the season, is just 3-22 in the playoffs and is often a reluctant shooter. If he beats you, tip your cap. It's also worth noting that the Nene/Marcin Gortat combo has been relatively effective despite Atlanta's spacing; the Wizards are surrendering just 94.3 points/100 possessions against Atlanta with the two on the court at the same time, per NBAWowy.
But Antic could get hot, and that would require the Wizards to go small. Trevor Booker is a key player in this series for that reason, and that's good news. Booker's best game of the year came against the Hawks in December, when he dropped 24 and 14. One of his other standout games came in February, when he scored 12 points in 24 minutes to fuel Washington's blowout win. If he can defend well enough -- Atlanta's speed poses a bigger issue for him than Chicago's size, in my opinion -- he will get plenty of minutes. The Wizards may also want to consider going super small and playing Ariza at power forward in certain situations.
I would also think that Ariza will get plenty of time on Teague, shifting Beal onto Korver and Wall onto Carroll. That makes a lot of sense, though Wall will need to be careful to account for Carroll's solid cutting ability.
On the other end, this needs to be a Wall-dominated series. The instinct will be to go inside, but Millsap and Antic are sturdier than one would think. Wall has to be aggressive and on point because the Hawks have nobody that can guard him. Teague is brutal defensively, Korver is underrated but not quick enough and Carroll is better against taller players. Nobody off Atlanta's bench -- Shelvin Mack, Lou Williams -- can come in and do the job. Wall averaged 21 and 10 assists against Atlanta during the regular season, though he didn't shoot especially well. He can be even better.
No question about it: both series are winnable. In fact, I'll predict the Wizards win both series. But each presents issues that we should not brush aside.