When your team hasn’t hosted a first-round playoff opener in 38 years, whatever happens is bound to feel strange. It could administer a blowout, be on the receiving end or fall somewhere in between. Reasonable expectations are fluid and possible outcomes are all over the board.
We’re still wrapping our heads around the fact that Washington is a bona fide contenders. So, it wasn’t far-fetched to believe they might fall flat Sunday afternoon against Atlanta. The way history works in these parts, optimism is a rare commodity and typically goes unrewarded.
Would we get the Wizards team that won 43 games since Dec. 5 (behind only Golden State and San Antonio), or the team that limped to a 7-9 record down the stretch? Would Markieff Morris (no postseason experience) and Otto Porter (three postseason games) be up to the challenge, or would they shrink under the magnitude of playoff basketball? Would the Hawks steal the opener and homecourt advantage, or would the Washington live up to its seeding en route to the second round?
The situation was dicey in the first half. But in the end, the Wizards let everyone know it’s OK to believe, at least for Game 1. A heavy dose of John Wall and liberal sprinkles of Morris were the perfect recipe for a 114-107 victory and series lead.
Morris, who said he was ready for the playoffs to begin weeks ago, scored 11 of his 21 points in the decisive third quarter. The Hawks led by three points at halftime but trailed by seven points entering the final quarter. They never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
“The intensity was sky-high the whole game,” said Morris, who also had seven rebounds, four blocks and a steal in his playoff debut. “It was like playing in the NCAA tournament first round. It was pretty hype.”
Wall, who finished with a postseason career-high 32 points, said Morris is the single biggest difference between this version of the Wizards and the squad that Atlanta beat in a second-round series two years ago. Those Wizards relied on too-old Paul Pierce, too-slow Nene and too-slight Porter to contend with Atlanta’s power forward Paul Millsap.
The job falls to Morris now and he outplayed the All-Star while frustrating him as well. Millsap scored 19 points – 11 from the line – but complained about the physicality when asked about the difference in Sunday’s game.
“We were playing basketball and they were playing MMA,” he said.
Play was a little chippy at times, with Morris and Millsap exchanging words at the end of half. Wall and his nemesis Dennis Schroder also yapped at each other as the teams departed for the locker rooms.
Morris called it “setting the tone.” Millsap said it’s “just two guys playing hard.” Considering how the fouls were about even – 22 for Atlanta and 25 for Washington – it’s hard to see Millsap’s point about mixed martial arts. Especially since the Hawks enjoyed a 39-17 advantage in free-throw attempts.
The Wizards would’ve went to the foul line more often but the Hawks weren’t close enough to play defense in the second half. Washington shot a scorching 57 percent from the field after intermission, breaking out of the malaise that mucked up the early going.
Call it a case of postseason jitters, nervous energy or simple anxiety as the team embarks on an unfamiliar journey. Wall and backcourt mate Bradley Beal had fabulous regular seasons but they have never been in this position before. It showed for Beal in the beginning as he missed seven of his 10 shots in the first half. But he finally came around in the fourth quarter when he scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
“I’ve seen the growth in him,” Brooks said of Beal. “(Missing) doesn’t affect him. He just reboots the computer and focuses on the next shot.”
Thanks to Morris and Wall, the win was within reach by the time Beal started hitting. Wall scored 15 points in the third quarter along with four assists, including a couple of alley-oop dunks for Morris. Gortat also was the recipient of multiple alley-oops for dunks, including one in which he was assessed a technical for taunting Millsap.
“John can take over games, he can take over quarters, he can take over plays,” Brooks said. “…Not only is he one of the best players at his position, he’s one of the best players in the league. I see that every day and I’m happy for him.”
He has lot more help (and health) this time around versus Atlanta. Porter is better and more experienced. Bojan Bogdonovic, Brandon Jennings, Kelly Oubre and Jason Smith form a respectable bench. His coach is more accomplished.
But he said the addition of Morris “changed everything. When he plays as well as he did today, we’re unstoppable.”
After a 38-year wait to host a first-round postseason opener, the Wizards and their playoff neophyte are off to a good start.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.