ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Hawks seem to have their swagger back.
Just in time for the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Coming off their most complete performance of the postseason, the top-seeded Hawks faced a quick turnaround before hosting the Washington Wizards in Game 1 on Sunday.
Atlanta struggled at the end of the regular season, largely because it didn’t have anything to play for, and then endured five tougher-than-expected games against eighth-seeded Brooklyn before wrapping up the opening-round victory with a 111-87 blowout Friday night.
”When we are playing the right way,” Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said, ”we can beat anybody.”
Washington will be playing for the first time in a week, getting an extended break after sweeping Toronto in the first round. While that disparity could give the well-rested Wizards an early edge in the best-of-seven series, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is hoping his team can ride the momentum from its dominating win over the Nets.
”The fact that we’ve been playing, we’ve been in a rhythm every other day, if you can make that an advantage, then it’s to our advantage,” he said. ”You try to turn everything into a positive.”
The Wizards, who finished 14 games behind the Hawks during the regular season, certainly feel good about their chances after beating up on the Raptors. John Wall is still dealing with a slight shoulder sprain, but otherwise Washington is good to go.
”We’re just playing more confident,” Wall said.
Turnovers have been an issue against the Hawks, who won three regular-season meetings before losing at Washington in the final week with all their starters resting.
”They’re just great with their hands,” Wall said. ”When you get into the paint, they’re all using their hands to swipe down on the ball. They feed off their defense to get them going in transition.”
Here are some other things to watch for when the Hawks take on the Wizards:
STAYING ON POINT: This series matches two of the league’s best point guards. Wall is a dynamic player who not only directs the Washington offense, he provides the Wizards with their top scoring threat (17.6 a game during the regular season). Atlanta’s Jeff Teague showed his versatility over the final two games against the Nets. With the series tied 2-2, he took control in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on the way to scoring 20 points in a 107-97 victory. Then, in the series clincher, he didn’t score a single point but doled out 13 assists, providing the spark for a dazzling third quarter that blew the game open.
BATTLE OF THE BIG MEN: The Wizards hope to take advantage of their size advantage on the inside with Marcin Gortat and Nene. The 6-foot-11 twin towers dominated the paint against the Raptors, and Washington’s chances may largely depend on taking advantage of the one glaring weakness in Atlanta’s game: rebounding. The undersized Hawks hope center Al Horford and forward Paul Millsap can use their quickness to draw Gortat and Nene away from the basket, which could free up more chances to slip inside for offensive rebounds. But the Hawks are willing to get beat on the boards, putting their main focus on transition defense.
JUNKYARD DOG: While Carroll was the only one of Atlanta’s starters who didn’t make the All-Star Game, he was the Hawks’ best player in the opening round. The player known as the ”Junkyard Dog” led the team in scoring at 17.5 points a game, while hitting 14 of 30 from 3-point range. Known mainly for his defense – he is often being assigned to the other team’s top scoring threat, and figures to get Paul Pierce in this series – Carroll has given the versatile Hawks yet another go-to scoring threat.
HAWKS DEPTH: Atlanta shortened its bench during the opening round of the playoffs, as teams tend to do at this time of year, but depth is a major reason the Hawks went 60-22 during the regular season. Lightning-quick Dennis Schroder gives the Hawks another weapon at the point behind Teague, while Kent Bazemore provides a high-energy style and solid perimeter defense. When the big men need a rest, Pero Antic and Mike Scott are two more inside-outside threats at Budenholzer’s disposal.
ROAD WARRIORS: The Wizards aren’t likely to be intimidated about playing the first two games in Atlanta. Washington has a 7-1 road record in the playoffs over the last two seasons. For Randy Wittman, it’s the best postseason start on the road for any coach in NBA history.
AP Sports Writers Brian Mahoney in New York and Howard Fendrich in Washington and AP freelance writer Ben Standig in Washington contributed to this report.
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