Backs Against the Wall: Win or go home time in Atlanta

Going into Game 6, Atlanta does not need to change its gameplan, just execute better.

The Atlanta Hawks stayed competitive in a close Game 5 that could have been won. The Hawks worked and fought for it. There was a lot of instant reaction to the illegal screens and ‘football moves’ from the Wizards. And there was immediate fan outcry over two late fourth quarter shots from Paul Millsap where no foul whistle sounded even though Millsap got knocked to the floor. But I’m not going to put this loss on a “The Refs screwed us” platform. The Hawks just need to execute better.

In Game 5 the Hawks moved the ball better than the previous 2 losses, but it wasn’t quite enough. The pace of the game was slower, which usually benefits the Hawks. And Atlanta kept its turnovers down: the Hawks coughed up the ball only 11 times, which is fewest turnovers for Atlanta in this series. Still not good enough for the win. We edged the Wizards in rebounding and led in second-chance points. No, still no.

Washington’s bench showed up for the Wizards in Game 5, while Atlanta’s bench faded. Game 5 did not feature another out of nowhere performance by Jose Calderon. Kent Bazemore shot terribly, making only 3 of 12 shots, with a painful 0 for 5 from downtown emphasizing the overall bad night. Ersan Ilyasova went ice cold; somehow Ilyasova managed to take 6 shots, making only 1, in 8 minutes of play. Cold streaks happen, but in the playoffs, they can quickly cut a team’s run short. Hopefully, Atlanta’s bench can bounce back and be a positive contribution in Game 6.

As for Atlanta’s starters, Millsap and Dennis Schröder continued their excellent postseason play, combining for 50 points. The Wizards defense left Schröder room behind the arc, daring him to shoot, and he did to an outstanding 5 made threes on 6 attempts. The Anchorman Millsap worked down low, getting his shots and going to the line. Taurean Prince added his 5th straight playoff game with double-digit scoring with 10 points, the final 2 coming on a dunk that put Atlanta to within two points of the Wizards.

That’s where the good news ends though. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 15 points, but is still shooting poorly. Dwight Howard was limited due to foul trouble, but even when on the floor he seemed to be a half-step slow.

I hope that Coach Bud can rally the team to focus on execution and attention to detail on defense. While Schröder had an excellent game offensively, there were several possessions in which he did not have his hands up or out to limit John Wall’s passing lanes. In the 3rd quarter, Howard was more focused on battling with Marcin Gortat for rebounding position that he did not rotate to the basket to contest an emphatic dunk by Otto Porter Jr. Bazemore and Hardaway had moments where they got burnt on defense, biting hard on a feint or crossover or struggling to get through a pick. Each of these mistakes won’t cost the Hawks a game by themselves, but string enough of them together and leads are lost and the deficit becomes too great to overcome.

Game 6, at home in Philips Arena, is an absolute must-win for the Hawks. And it is a winnable game without any need to change the gameplan. The Hawks just need to execute better. Crisper rotations on defense. Get a shooter into a rhythm earlier. Stick to the ballhandler’s hip a little longer. Hands out to tighten the passing lanes. Play with energy and aggressiveness. Game 6 is a win within reach.

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