1. The Wizards and Hawks have both struggled since the All-Star break in different areas. The Wizards are near the bottom of the league defensively since the All-Star break and the Hawks have been near the bottom offensively. Which team should be more concerned about their recent issues?
Budenholzer has given his bench quite a bit of playing time recently, and their ball movement has been impressive. If the Wizards manage to lock down the Hawks starters, they still have a whole different style they'll have to adjust to defending once Bud sends in his second unit. Those guys are playing with a lot of confidence right now, and Brooks will have his hands full making the necessary adjustments to keep Atlanta from gaining any offensive momentum. On the other hand, if the Hawks can't find a groove, it doesn't matter what kind of defense Washington is playing; they're done.
2. While the Hawks have struggled offensively, they've been one of the better defensive teams in the league. What's the best way for the Wizards to get to points against Atlanta?
Attack early. Schroder is fiery but green, and his game can get away from him if he gets flustered. And getting Millsap in foul trouble would be crippling to Atlanta. Teams also frequently seem to light the Hawks up from three, so the Wizards need to try to get it going early from behind the arc.
3. What do you think the Hawks' game plan will be as they try to pull off the upset? WILL be or SHOULD be?
Watching the bench players roll against Cleveland was reminiscent of the 2014-2015 "Spurs of the East" Hawks. The Howard signing was out of necessity, not only to solve their rebounding woes but for the culture and the narrative. Dennis was always going to end up replacing Teague, and Bud has had his hands full grooming him for the job mentally. This is a very different look for the starting lineup than even last year with Teague and Horford in those roles, and I think Budenholzer is just a better coach for the more Spursian second and third units than he has been with his starters. He needs to use Dennis and Dwight as a one-two punch when they have some momentum early and get them out of the way as soon as they lose it. Grind out what you can from the starters and then overwhelm Washington with ball movement from the bench.
4. We've seen in past years how a star's impending free agency can affect how a team performs in the playoffs. Do you think that could happen with the Hawks and Paul Millsap?
Noooope. Paul Millsap is one of the most no-nonsense, even-keeled players in the league. It's been odd seeing media outside of Atlanta speculate that he must be bitter over the various times the Hawks have tested the trade market for him because that's not who he is. He has made it clear that he has a job to do and a season to see through, and he hasn't wavered from that message all season.
5. Who's a key player for this Atlanta Hawks team that will ultimately keep them in the series?
It's going to come down to the combination of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Taurean Prince. So many of the Hawks' early struggles came from inconsistency on the wing, and it's interesting that eighty-two games of tinkering have resulted in these two guys starting in the playoffs. Hardaway is one of the few players on the team capable of creating his own shot, and Prince is hungry for this opportunity. If Hardaway catches fire and Prince can limit his textbook rookie mistakes, it will make things a hell of a lot easier for Schroder, Millsap, and Howard.
6. What's your prediction for the series?
Nobody really has any expectations for the Hawks in the playoffs, which is kind of beautiful. Combined with the uncertainty surrounding the impending offseason, it has left them at a point where there's nothing to lose. Spending time as the underdogs seem to have done them some good, and if they can steal the first one in Washington, I could see them pulling off the upset. The Wizards have a vastly superior backcourt though, and it would take Atlanta firing on all cylinders to gain that kind of momentum. I could see it going either way, but I think the team that wins the first game will win the series.