Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Wizards' Wall, Beal present problems for Hawks in playoff series

Random thoughts rattling around  my cranium as the Hawks go into their playoff series against the Washington Wizards, which opens Sunday (1 p.m.) in D.C.

• Series outlook: The Hawks have a chance to win a round. These are words I didn't expect to type for most of this season. I didn't see the team advancing past their first series and, until the last two weeks, I thought there was a chance they would miss the playoffs. While the small sample size of winning four straight and six out of eight down the stretch -- before Wednesday's meaningless loss at Indiana -- can be overstated, it's a positive sign that players were loose and having fun in the past two weeks. Coach Mike Budenholzer also tapped into something that could be key in this series regarding his player rotation. He gave significantly more playing time to bench players and less time to Dwight Howard. That has ignited the offense, largely because of better ball movement. However . . .

• The Wizards present problems: Washington has one of the best starting backcourts in the NBA with John Wall and Bradley Beal, each of whom average more than 23 points per game. Wall also averages 10.7 assists. The Hawks counter that backcourt with Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. About Schroder: I'm predisposed to liking him because, even with his obvious maturity issues,  he's a talented player with great upside and he has the ability to be the best player on the court at any give moment. The problem: He also has shown the ability to be the worst/wildest player on the court, and his lack of consistency this season is concerning. Hardaway has had a career-best season and might have taken over the starting job for good even if the Hawks didn't trade Kyle Korver. But can he and Schroder hold up defensively against Wall and Beal -- and, if so, what will they have left at the offensive end?

• Players to watch: Paul Millsap remains the Hawks' best player, but at 32 years old and with a sore knee it will be interesting to see how well he holds up in the postseason. The biggest positives this season have been the continued development of Hardaway (who finished as the team's third-leading scorer at 14.5 points), rookie Taurean Prince and forward Mike Muscala. Improved bench play is the biggest thing the Hawks have going for them in this series. Defensively, Budenholzer also could throw Thabo Sefolosha or even Kent Bazemore against one of the Wizards' guards.

• The Howard question: He obviously has made them a better rebounding team but he hasn't made them a better team overall, because of his struggles with ball movement and the pick-and-roll. Howard hasn't had a bad season. Fact is, he has done all the Hawks should have expected from him at his age and this stage of his career. But Howard hasn't made them better.

• Hawks' win total: The Hawks won 43 games. The over/under for them in sportsbooks was 43½. So the wise guys knew what they were doing.  In the last three regular seasons, the Hawks have dropped from 60 wins to 48 to 43. That's less of an indictment on Budenholzer the coach than it is Budenholzer the roster builder. To what extent that is addressed by ownership after the season presumably will hinge in part on how the team does in the postseason.

• Prediction: This series can tip either way. But the Wizards (49-33) were the better team for most of the season and went 42-20 after a 7-13 start. The Wall-Beal backcourt is too much to overcome Washington won the season series 3-1 and they'll win this series in six games. Maybe seven. I'm wishy-washy.

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.