4 Things We Learned from the Atlanta Hawks Series

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Just like last year, the Wizards season ended on Friday night at home to the Eastern Conference one seed in game six of the series. Even though the outcome was the same as 2014; this season was an improvement, and the future is still bright for many years to come. Here are four key takeaways that we learned about the Wizards in this series.

The Paul Pierce acquisition is officially a home run

His on-court leadership, mentorship of Wall and Beal, and his desire to take the big time shots gave the Wizards a boost in this series even though John Wall was absent for three games with a wrist injury.

Since Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards haven’t had a player who wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Pierce struggled mightily during the final months of the season but once the playoffs started, he was a different player. Not only did he want the ball, he demanded the ball at the end of the game and the Atlanta Hawks knew this.

At the end of game 3, everyone and their mother knew who was going to shoot the ball with the game tied late at 101. It didn’t matter as Pierce rose over a triple team to bank in the game winner.

In game 5 in Atlanta, it was Pierce who knocked down a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to stop a 14-0 Hawks run. With eight seconds remaining in the game, Pierce knocked down a corner three-pointer on a perfectly drawn up play by Randy Wittman to put the Wizards up one with eight seconds remaining.

Lastly, in game 6, even though he was struggling from the field (1-7), Pierce wanted the ball in his hands with the Wizards down three with just seconds to play. You know how this movie ends; he knocked down a corner three but didn’t get the shot off in time.

The confidence and swagger exerted to take that final shot even though he had been struggling from the field is remarkable. Most players shrink in big moments when their shot isn’t falling; this is what separates the goods from the greats. The Truth is the opposite. Even if he does end up retiring after this year, a player with desire and confidence to take big shots in big moments is something this team has never had before.

The Power Forward position needs an overhaul

The Hawks showed us just how much the power forward position in the NBA has evolved, and the Wizards must evolve or this could be a huge crutch going forward. Currently, the Wizards have Nene, Drew Gooden, Kris Humphries, and DeJuan Blair at the power forward position. None of those players spark fear for the opposing team.

Lets start with the obvious. Nene is officially over the hill. Maybe he can come off the bench to provide rebounding and hustle plays but the big man can no longer be counted on.

Nene didn’t score his first field goal until game 3 of the series and only played well in games 3 and 4. Many thought that if the Wizards were going to win this series, Nene would have to be the X-factor. Nene averaged 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in this series. Both averages were lower than the Toronto series (8.5 points and seven rebounds).

Nene often got frustrated early on in the game. When Nene gets frustrated, he forces plays, commits lazy fouls on the defensive end, and turns the ball over. This series somewhat epitomized his downward spiral from last season to this. Even though he stayed healthy for a majority of the season, it’s clear that Nene is over the hill and cannot be this team’s starting power forward going forward.

Drew Gooden is an energy guy; nothing more nothing less. His role is to spell Nene, grab rebounds, and provide energy on the offensive glass. Any scoring he provides is just a bonus.

Drew played well in the series averaging just 16.2 minutes per game, but to count on him being a key player going forward is just ludicrous. If his three pointer isn’t falling, he isn’t much of a threat to score. If the front office is just looking for an energy guy to spell the starter, Gooden might be ok. If the team is counting on him to consistently knock down three-pointers, well, that’s just silly.

Kris Humphries fits the mold of a more traditional power forward. He does have a jumper that stretches 16-18 feet, but he didn’t get off the bench in this series. He’s a solid backup, but back-to-back series against teams with stretch 4-s show that Humphries must become a threat from three-point range if he wants to continue getting playing time.

And DeJuan Blair… yeah, well, onto the next topic.

The Wizards are not very good at guarding the pick-and-roll

I wrote an article earlier this season that the Wizards must drastically improve their pick-and-roll defense to take that next step to becoming elite. Point Guard is currently the best and deepest position in the NBA so guarding the pick-and-roll is vital.

The entire series, both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder had no issues getting to the hole or creating easy shots for teammates on the pick-and-roll from the top of the key. The duo combined for 11, 12, 12, 16, 12, and 11 assists against the Wizards. (This may not seem too outlandish but keep in mind that Ramon Sessions only had two assists total in the three games where Wall started). Ramon Sessions and John Wall had a very difficult time staying in front of both of these guys. As a result, the Wizards gave up way too many layups or floaters in the lane.

On the flip side, the Wizards’ defensive big men did not do a great job guarding the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. Most of Al Horford’s shots were wide-open 10-15 foot jumpers. It’s not a surprise that he knocked most of them down either. Horford was a tough matchup for the Wizards as he can play either the power forward or center position. Both Nene and Gortat were not quick enough to get out and contest him jump shots. Just like my previous point, if the Wizards don’t address the power forward position, their pick-and-roll defense may continue to suffer.

Bradley Beal has taken the next step

Aside from John Wall, who was great in all three games he played in, Bradley Beal was the only consistent player for the Wizards during the series. For the series, Beal averaged 25.2 points on 41.9% shooting. Additionally, he has scored 20+ points in 11 of his first 21 playoff games including a 34-point performance in game 4. Additionally, Brad took on some of the ball handling responsibilities when John Wall was out, and he averaged 7.5 assists in those games.

Not only was Beal forced to take on additional scoring and passing, but he was also tasked with the assignment to chase around Kyle Korver; the NBA’s best three point shooter. Beal did a great job sticking with Korver and not letting him get into a rhythm during the series. Korver went 12-42 for the series from three-point range; an unimpressive 28.6%.

Beal’s regular season was much plagued with injury and inconsistency. This playoff series showed the Wizards faithful that his isn’t afraid of the big moment and is able to be the primary ball handler when needed. Let’s remember, it took John Wall four years to make the all-star game for the first time. Bradley Beal had a very impressive postseason and there’s no reason to think that if he can stay healthy, he’ll be an all-star next year.

Even though this season ended the same way it did last year, there was a different feeling to it. Yes this team toyed with fans’ heads down the stretch of the regular season but the way they turned things on during the playoffs shows growth and mental toughness. We can play the "what if" game all day with regards to John Wall’s health but the bottom line is that wont change anything.

This team is clearly heading in the right direction, and there’s good reason to be optimistic about the future. For now, we’ll have to wait and see if the front office gives Randy Wittman another year.

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