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Wizards withstand Game 5 momentum swings with strong defense

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NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON - With just three minutes left in Wednesday’s game against the Hawks, Bradley Beal had an opportunity to put the Wizards up by seven and deliver a crushing blow to Atlanta’s chances of winning Game 5.

He stepped into a wide open three. The shot bounced off the front of the rim, tapped the glass, and rolled off right into the hands of Paul Millsap sandwiched in between Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat.

Millsap fell to the ground, but before his right foot touched the floor boundary, he tossed the ball to Dennis Schroder who surveyed the floor for open Hawks. All five Wizards are still in the backcourt, but Taurean Prince is in a full sprint toward the rim on the other end. Schroeder lofts a full-court pass to Prince that he catches in stride.

He finishes without a contest in sight. As they say in Atlanta “got heem.” In a matter of 8 seconds, the Wizards have gone from a potential three possession lead to a one possession nail biter.

Scott Brooks called a timeout after the play with 2:48 left in the game.

“Coach looked us all in the face and said we can’t afford not one mistake right now,” Beal said. “Offensively or defensively. We’ve got to bear down, get stops, be locked in and do whatever it takes.”

The Wizards did just that over the final 2:48, holding the Hawks to just three points after the timeout as they pulled out a 103-99 win to take a 3-2 series lead. They got another hard fought victory at home against an Atlanta Hawks team that just does not quit.

They are not the flashiest team, but they’re hungry. They play defense. They foul. They get dirty. They make plays. But on Wednesday evening, the Wizards made just a few more plays and came out on top.

There were moments where the Wizards seemed to be on the brink of pulling away. They turned a one point lead at halftime into an 11 point lead with 7:30 to go in the third quarter. But, Beal said, basketball is a game of runs. And the Hawks gave them one right back.

Otto Porter almost stole an wayward pass from the Hawks on an offensive possession with the Wizards up 69-58, but Prince managed to regain control after a footrace with Porter. He recovered the ball and swung it to Tim Hardaway, Jr. for a wide open three. Splash. 69-61.

“I thought that could’ve went differently,” Brooks said. “It was about to turn into a 13 point game and it ends up being an 8 point game. Then we gave up a transition point. Then we gave up another three.”

And then the game was tied. The Hawks were right there, step for step with Washington once again. The Wizards could not pull away, and from that moment on everyone in the building knew if the good guys were going to win they would have to earn it the hard way.

“It’s possession by possession. They’re all important. Not just the last two minutes. They’re all important,” Brooks said.

And the most important part of the effort — please, stop me if this sounds familiar — is the defense, Brooks said. And that’s no coincidence.

After straight up embarrassing efforts in Atlanta on both ends of the floor, particularly defensively, Brooks said he and the team had a “direct and honest” film session. What does that mean?

“He basically told everybody if you did good or not. Whether or not you can guard,” Beal said. “He was pretty strict about it. If you can’t guard, he won’t play you...that’s something we needed.”

Message sent and received. They were able to get stops, push the ball in transition and score on the fast break. The Hawks hit 9 of 31 three point attempts and Schroeder made 5 of them. They protected the rim and only allowed 36 points in the paint. They forced Atlanta into 11 turnovers, including three by Paul Millsap.

It was a total team effort, too. Marcin Gortat, who did not score his first points of the game until the fourth quarter, finished with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Porter, Beal and Bogdanovic all took stabs at guarding Millsap when Morris was faced with foul trouble. Brandon Jennings, who was ticked off by Jose Calderon’s performance in Game 4 on Monday, played full court pressure defense and forced a couple of turnovers.

The team had some of their most pristine sequences on defense all season in this game. This is something the team has struggled with in the past, but something they must be able to do to win on the road in Atlanta on Friday night.

“The challenge is can we do it again, like we did tonight?” Jennings said. “We’ve got to go to Atlanta and play 10 times better.”