The blueprint on defending the Hawks has already been laid out for Randy Wittman, thanks to the Brooklyn Nets. The Wizards know they have make things as uncomfortable as possible by ramping up the physicality and ball pressure, but to do so, everyone has to be working on a string.
If they're going to trap Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroder, they need someone coming in from the weak-side to help out on the roll man. If they're going to hedge, or in other words bump the ball handler coming off a ball screen, someone — either the guard getting screened off or the closest help defender — has to buy their big man time to recover by cutting off the pocket pass. If Kyle Korver comes curling off a screen, the big man closest to the play has to jump out at him to prevent an open look.
All of which comes at a cost. The Hawks weren't dubbed "Spurs East" for no reason. There's a counter for every defensive coverage in their playbook, most of which is centered around the brilliance of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. They know teams will sit on Korver's curl play, so they'll pretend like they're setting a screen and dart right into the lane.
No team uses the slip-screen more frequently. They can deploy it to create 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situations out of the pick and roll, or they can use it as a form of misdirection to spring Korver open for threes.
If you're going to hedge on ball handlers, you better make sure the backline of your defense rotates to the right spots, and even then, you'll need to send extra help toward their roll men. Horford and Millsap can not only knock down those pick and pop jumpers, but they can put the ball on the floor and create for others, which puts the defense in a frenzy. If you botch a rotation, like Marcin Gortat does on this side pick and roll between Schroder and Horford, they will make you pay.
You're ceding an opening somewhere along the perimeter by rotating incessantly, but it better not be in Korver's general vicinity. Watch the play again. Porter digs down to tag Wall's man, Bazemore, but with the understanding that he's just buying Gortat time.
Normally, Gortat would hedge and recover, eliminating the need of bringing an extra help defender into the fold. But because Horford is so lethal as a pick and pop player (more on this later), Wall has to step up, which leaves Porter no choice but to take away his first read under the basket. All of that has to happen within just a few seconds, because as soon as Horford catches and turns, he'll find the open man. If Gortat can't make that rotation back to Wall's assignment -- something he struggled with all through the first half, the Wizards will get burned.
Gortat knew he screwed up, and Wall let him have it afterward.
It wasn't just Gortat either. Both Drew Gooden and Nene fell victim to showing too early on ball screens; lunging too far in one direction; which resulted in Teague or Schroder rejecting the screen and getting into the lane.
It's not that the Wizards' big men aren't up to this aggressive style. They used it successfully in the first round and sporadically in the regular season, but a lot of it had to do with Toronto's predilection to hold the ball and break off into isolation. Atlanta's a different beast because of their ability to swing the ball and play-make before your rotation can get there, but as the Nets series and the second half of yesterday taught us, you can live with certain elements of their attack.
That seemed to be the message coming out of halftime from Randy Wittman. They played more conservatively, choosing to hang Gortat in the lane in order to force Horford -- who came into this series with a dislocated finger in his shooting hand -- into jumpers.
They ICED more side pick and rolls -- meaning the on-ball defender shades the ball handler toward the lurking big man and away from the middle of the floor -- resulting in a lot of stagnant, one-shot possessions.
And when they did hedge, they got better with helping off non-threatening shooters in order to protect the rim.
This looks more like the Wizards defense, right? Horford may have hit that backbreaking three in the middle of the third quarter to get their lead back up to double-digits, but the Wizards will ultimately live with those results. It's the same thing with DeMarre Carroll, he had an excellent first half, but how much of it was Washington simply making sacrifices on their end?
The Hawks will make adjustments for Game 2. They may decide to station Korver on the strong-side on those high ball-screens, making it tougher on the defense to send help. They'll almost certainly play their starters more than the 18 total minutes they saw on the floor together on Sunday, and the law of averages suggests Korver will shoot better from three.
This is shaping up to be a phenomenal chess match between the two teams. I was highly impressed with how Bradley Beal settled into the game after rushing a few of his shots in the pick and roll, and how Wall managed to close it out by creating 15 of the last 17 points of the game. But the defense will be the story of this series, and that largely falls on Randy Wittman, who will have to continue to make the tough in-game adjustments as he did in game 1.