Wizards use ouster by Hawks last year as motivation
WASHINGTON — John Wall and Bradley Beal, fueled by not qualifying for the playoffs last year, led the Washington Wizards to a 49-win season.
The backcourt duo also keeps memories of their previous postseason experience front of mind. That run ended with an Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Atlanta Hawks, which means a chance for payback comes right away in their return.
The fourth-seeded Wizards (49-33) and No. 5 Hawks (43-39) open their best-of-seven first-round series Sunday on Washington’s home court.
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Neither side was impressive after the All-Star break, but both sides have All-Star talent and ample perimeter depth. The Southeast Division champion Wizards also have the revenge card after losing the series 4-2 to the top-seeded Hawks in 2015.
“We’re still salty about it,” said Beal, one of four Washington regulars who faced Atlanta. “Regardless of the teams, maybe (being) different than the last time we were there, that’s the team that knocked us out. It’s kind of a little vengeance-type thing. Then again, it’s a different year, but we just know that they’re an experienced team.”
Washington finished with a credible 41-41 record last season but changed coaches after missing the playoffs. Scott Brooks entered, and following a 2-8 start, helped the Wizards win their most games since going 54-28 in the 1978-79 season.
Having Wall and Beal healthy helped as well. Both guards recovered from injuries early in the season, but each played at least 77 games and averaged 23.1 points. Wall had 831 assists, topping the East for the fourth straight year.
“Very, very anxious, very exciting,” Wall said of the postseason. “The start of the season was not the way we wanted to start, so you’re looking like, ‘I hope we’re not going through the same process as last year.’ To be back in the playoffs … couldn’t ask for (anything) better.”
The Wizards went 3-1 against the Hawks this season, but two of those games occurred during the opening week. Washington, 30-11 at home, won the most recent matchup, 104-100 on March 22.
Atlanta will certainly start with a different look in the playoff opener. Coach Mike Budenholzer revealed Friday that Tim Hardaway Jr. and Taurean Prince will start Game 1.
The Hawks clinched the fifth seed by winning four in a row late in the season, including a home-and-home sweep over the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
Hardaway, one of the NBA’s most improved players this season, and Prince started during that stretch because of injuries to Kent Bazemore (knee) and Thabo Sefolosha (groin).
“Having them in the starting lineup has been good,” Budenholzer told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Having Baze off the bench has been good for us too. The bench has been good for us. It’s a good mix of guys that we are going to stick with.”
Atlanta offense lags behind Washington’s up-tempo attack, but both teams finished among the league leaders in forcing turnovers. The Wizards averaged 18.8 turnovers in the four-game head-to-head series.
Washington, 8-9 since March 13, has a clear backcourt advantage, but won’t have backup center Ian Mahinmi (calf) for the start of the series.
The Hawks, 6-10 in their last 16 games, can lean on leading scorer Paul Millsap (18.1 points per game) and center Dwight Howard (12.7 rebounds).
Howard reached the NBA Finals with Orlando in 2009. Expecting a similar deep run this year might be a tad optimistic, but everything starts anew Sunday.
“All you’ve got to do is win 16 games,” Howard said. “That’s the goal. Sixteen games. If we do that, we’ll all be happy.”