Bull Durham brought us “the church of baseball,” but if you worship at the church of basketball, there’s no more fascinating second-round NBA playoff series than the one which is about to commence in Atlanta on Sunday.
When the Washington Wizards meet the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Association will unfurl a series straight from the basketball version of the Bible. The central reason this series is going to be supremely compelling is that it is a hardwood version of the book of Revelation, the final and most visually spectacular installment in The Good Book.
If you know anything about the book of Revelation, you know that it’s a portal into the realm of the divine — it’s a departure from the earthy and more grounded texts you see elsewhere in the scriptures. Seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls — these and other combinations of sight and sound make Revelation a feast for the eyes and the imagination, as well as an attempt to comfort the early Christians during times of persecution and struggle.
In Wizards-Hawks, there will be no more than seven games, and the action could very well become as chaotic as anything John the Apostle might have written down nearly 2,000 years ago. More centrally, Washington-Atlanta will serve as an extended and defining revelation of these two teams. The series will confer a substantial added amount of legitimacy on the winner while leaving the loser with very little to hang onto heading into next season.
Why is Wizards-Hawks so important to each team, and why should it be seen as the central measurement of the success of each team’s season?
For Washington, this clash with the top seed in the East in the second round for the second straight year marks a chance to get it right. Last year, the Wizards absolutely dismantled the Indiana Pacers in two road games, but went 0-3 at home and blew a 17-point lead in their building in Game 4. The Wizards’ youth and inexperience were exposed, and that’s why they brought in a player whose nickname adds to the biblical quality of this series.
The Gospel according to John, chapter 8 and verse 32, says, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Washington brought Paul Pierce aboard for this series, this more advanced stage of the playoffs against a 60-win opponent.
The Wizards have other established veterans on their roster — Nene, Marcin Gortat, and Drew Gooden, to name a few — but those players are erratic or meant to play a supporting role. Pierce, a core member of an NBA championship team and another team (in 2010) which came within one good quarter of a second title, is an alpha male. He set the tone for the Wizards in their romp over the Toronto Raptors in the first round, and his ability to stand tall late in a close playoff game (unlike, for instance, Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Net team Atlanta just dismissed…) is something Washington is counting on in this series. Pierce’s presence on the court is something Atlanta can’t match. There’s no player on the Hawks who has won more than Pierce in the NBA. It leads to the most fascinating central tension point in the series.
It annually bears repeating at this time of year: The NBA is a league in which it’s often necessary to fail in one year to succeed in the next one. The murky part of the equation in Wizards-Hawks, then, is this: Is Atlanta good enough to win this series, with its “fail in order to succeed” lesson arriving in the next round?
Atlanta wants to make the NBA Finals, but for a franchise that has never made the Eastern Conference Finals while in the Peach State (the Hawks made the Western Division Finals twice, in 1969 and 1970, after relocating from St. Louis), merely getting to the NBA’s last four would make this season the most successful one in Atlanta Hawk history. There would be no shame in losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (or even Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls) in a possible East Finals series.
Losing to the Wizards, a team that played poorly in the second half of the regular season and gained the best first-round playoff draw in the league, would make the coming offseason a very difficult one to handle. Atlantans know that it’s asking a lot of this team to expect it to climb past the Cavs-Bulls winner, but a failure to make the East Finals — a constant in the Hawks’ existence, dating back to the Mike Fratello-Dominique Wilkins era — would cut deeply for a traumatized sports city that is conditioned to expect the worst.
In 1988, the best Fratello-‘Nique team had a chance to eliminate the Boston Celtics at home in Game 6 of the East semifinals in The Omni, but fell short. The Hawks then lost Game 7 in the Boston Garden.
In 1994, the team’s other big chance to make the East Finals arrived, but the Mookie Blaylock-Kevin Willis Hawks, coached by Lenny Wilkens, were rather easily tossed aside by the Indiana Pacers in six games.
This is the latest and greatest chance for the Atlanta Hawks to announce themselves as an upper-tier franchise in the NBA, so soon after turmoil and upheaval in the ranks of both ownership and management (with general manager Danny Ferry serving a leave of absence and trying to repair his life, captured in this story from the Raleigh News & Observer). A possible East Finals appearance would give the organization a chance to pursue glory. This series, though, is the one the club has to win. Accordingly, it will do a lot to reveal what the Hawks are made of.
What about the Hawks, then? As they climb out of the first round and a very precarious situation — tied in the series and leading the sub-.500 Nets by only one possession late in Game 5 at home — the fundamental question surrounding the team is this: Will the Hawks relax and be able to fly freely?
Atlanta coach Mike Budhenholzer, a former San Antonio assistant, has surely taken note of the fact that the Spurs’ toughest playoff series last year was their first one, against Dallas. After that, the Spurs got progressively better and played their three best games of the playoffs in the Finals against the Miami Heat. The Hawks are hoping for a similar liberation this year.
The Hawks were so clearly nervous and unsure of themselves against the Nets. Korver struggled to hit his jumper in multiple games, but that was the least of the Hawks’ problems. Continuing the Bible-centric identity of this series, if the Wizards have “The Truth” in the hopes that they’ll be set free, the Hawks have their own Pauline powerhouse to counter Pierce: Paul Millsap. In the Nets series, Millsap’s shoulder — injured late in the regular season — seemed to hold him back at times. However, he got better as the series went along.
An injured player who also improved with an accumulation of time on the floor against Brooklyn was Al Horford. His ability to regain accuracy on his mid-range jumper — something we touched on recently — gave the Hawks a slight but decisive push at the end of Game 5, which can now be viewed in retrospect as the series’ pivotal occurrence. If Horford’s mid-range game shines in this series, Atlanta’s guards and wing shooters should be able to thrive… if they can shed the pressure they carried against the Nets.
It’s not as though the big-man battles will be insignificant in Wizards-Hawks, but neither Nene nor Gortat are the low-post hammers Robin Lopez proved to be for the Nets. The central frontcourt battle in this series is the push-and-pull of the Pauls, Pierce and Millsap, but the number one confrontation — the one most likely to decide the series — is the point-guard clash between Jeff Teague and John Wall, with the performance of Atlanta’s Dennis Schroeder coming into focus when Teague rests.
The fluidity of the Hawks’ offense — “San Antonio East” in the eyes of some — rests on the ability of Teague to make the right reads and reactions. Teague was not at his best against Brooklyn, and his task was made more burdensome by the fact that Schroeder was a disaster — a portrait of substantial regression relative to the regular season — versus the Nets. Teague played that whole series knowing that his backup wasn’t backing him up very effectively.
You saw Atlanta’s frontcourt take forward strides later in the Nets series, and you saw Korver come alive again as a shooting force in Games 5 and 6. Against John Wall and the rest of a physically fresh Wizards team, the Teague-Schroeder combination must immediately step into this series, with a very short turnaround. If the Hawks can’t translate their strongest performance of the playoffs — Friday’s Game 6 blowout of Brooklyn — into a Game 1 win on Sunday, the Wizards could quickly claim psychological superiority in the series, given that Paul Pierce isn’t likely to allow his teammates to falter the way they did at home a year ago against Indiana.
Are the Atlanta Hawks ready for the series that will most centrally define their season? Are they ready to shed the baggage they carried over the past two weeks against Brooklyn and play to their capabilities?
Are the Washington Wizards ready to learn from their East semifinal loss last year, with The Truth now on their side and in their corner?
This is the Eastern Conference, and these are two organizations whose histories are crammed with far more failures than successes, so you might not see basketball straight from the gods over the coming weeks. However, if you want a series that is a book of Revelation — a momentous measuring-stick occasion for two franchises — no second-round series eclipses what Wizards-Hawks brings to the table.