There are no comfortable leads in Atlanta

Atlanta led the way all through Game 3, but that guarantees nothing for Game 4.

Atlanta led the way all through Game 3, but that guarantees nothing for Game 4.

The Hawks win Game 3

Down 2-0 in their first-round playoff series against Washington, the Hawks came home to Atlanta looking for a win. If the Hawks were to drop to 3-0, it would effectively signal the end of their playoff run. So Game 3 was a must-win for Atlanta and they responded in kind. The Hawks led from tip to final buzzer. Atlanta held the Wizards to 98 points, well below their regular season average, while holding a lead that jumped to as high as 25 points in the 1st quarter and never less than 10 points after that. But no one got comfortable.

What went right for the Hawks?

Pretty much everything. John Wall still did John Wall things by speeding into the defense, making sneaky passes and leading the team in scoring; Wall finished with 29 points, on 10 of 12 shots(!), and 7 assists. However, the rest of the Wizards struggled to get going after being blitzed by the Hawks’ first quarter aggression.

Atlanta turned the ball over only 11 times. Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder led the way with 29 and 27 points respectively. The Hawks dominated the paint, outscoring the Wizards 60 to 34 in the paint--most notably holding Marcin Gortat to 2 points.

Atlanta stayed aggressive throughout the game and fought back to maintain the lead even as the Wizards tried to chip it down. Oh, and there was ball movement!! The Hawks remembered how well they play when they move the rock and decided to cash in on passing to the tune of 26 assists!

Other positives

Taurean Prince has shown up in a big way for the Hawks over the last 6 weeks. He is playing like a savvy veteran in important playoff minutes. Small sample size and hyperbole alerts apply to this but in 3 playoff appearances, averaging 30 minutes a game, Prince is shooting an outstanding 62.1 FG% good for 14.0 points per game. He is hot from deep, shooting 57.1% on threes so far. Even if his outside shooting cools down, Prince gives a lot to the Hawks. His cuts into the lane are fast and powerful; several times in this series he has flashed down from the wing right as an opening shows to catch a pass and finish through multiple defenders.

The Kent Bazemore redemption tour did not really leave the station in Game 3, BUT he played hard and did not commit the kinds of errors that, in Game 2, crushed the hopes of a comeback. In 20 minutes off the bench, Bazemore was active on defense with 1 steal and 1 block and played some (mercifully) brief fill-in minutes as a facilitator. If Bazemore can continue with the energy and effort off the bench, there is room for forgiveness.

Game 4 Dangers

John Wall. Wall is starting to get the proper (and deserved) recognition for just how good he is as a complete player. The Hawks can let Wall get his points and assists, but need to corral him so as to limit his opportunities to speed past the defense in transition and control the overall pace. Even if Wall is scoring, it’s more important for the Hawks to limit his passing lanes.

The Hawks need to make sure Bradley Beal does not get into a rhythm, and that starts with making sure there are no easy Wall-to-Beal passes. If Beal gets hot, Atlanta’s weak defense against the 3 will make a Game 4 victory much more difficult.

Defense in the paint early is critical. If Gortat or Markieff Morris get going early, Atlanta will struggle to contain Washington’s inside-out game plan. If the Hawks can keep them from scoring the paint, defense elsewhere will be easier.

What’s the Wildcard?

Before this playoff series ends, Tim Hardaway Jr. needs to have a statement game. He has averaged 11.3 points over the first three games on sub-30% shooting. A solid game from Hardaway will very likely be an important factor in the next Hawks win. If he doesn’t show up big in at least one game, the Hawks are in trouble (and so is his next contract).

On to Game 4

No lead is comfortable in Atlanta. Throughout Game 3, no Hawks fan was sure that victory was ours until moments before the final buzzer. What happened in the Superbowl is just the most recent and most recognizable example of the fear all Atlanta fans feel when one of our teams are in the lead and victory is within their grasp.

The Hawks have to stay aggressive and execute with focus. Protect the ball, stay dialed in on defense and move the ball. Game 4 is a winnable game. It just won’t be won in the same way as Game 3.

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