The NBA’s scheduling gurus have colluded with TV execs, centering around a reasonable assumption: You don’t care about the Atlanta-Washington series. You don’t care about the avatars of two of the most tortured fan bases in the country playing to see which team is first to get swallowed up by the abyss of its own self-fulfilling prophecies. Peel back the layers to Hawks-Wizards and … the gurus were probably right.
Wednesday’s Game 5 — which Washington won 103–99 to take a 3–2 series lead — was essentially punted into outer space. For the second year in a row, a first-round game was relegated to the rare dead zone of a 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT workday tip-off, last seen in 2016’s Raptors-Pacers series. Perhaps Washington has failed to look the part of a viable threat in the East; perhaps these two teams really are that irrelevant. But for a series that doesn’t quite move the needle in the national conversation, it’s got everything that we’ve come to expect from a solid postseason best-of-seven: postgame drama, coaching adjustments, and star-making performances. Hidden behind petty postseason posturing, a GIF that has supplanted John Wall’s previous contribution to internet culture, and, yes, an embarrassingly early Game 5 tip-off, the Hawks-Wizards series has featured one of the most compelling positional duels of the first round.
Fuck is wrong with you, boy?
Wall’s country grammar was so pregnant with meaning in that moment of Game 2 — a taunt after a transition dunk with Dennis Schröder practically hanging onto Wall’s coattails — that audio accompaniment was hardly necessary. The utter disgust in Wall’s face at Schröder even attempting to contest his jam displayed a chasm between the two starting point guards in standing: Wall, a fringe MVP candidate (I’d personally put him fifth) in one of the best races in history; Schröder, an underling. For years, Wall has played with the rage of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (remember his reaction to hearing that Reggie Jackson was going to get paid as much as him two summers ago?). He’s spent years fighting for the same recognition as the elites of the sport; the idea of proving his worth against a 23-year-old first-year starter was beneath him.
But, five games in, it hasn’t exactly been the one-sided affair that Wall’s demeanor has suggested. While it came in a loss, Schröder played the best game of his career Wednesday, accounting for 52 of the Hawks’ points (29 on his own and 23 via assists), only two fewer than the 54 points Wall created for the Wizards. As our Kevin O’Connor noted in his Monday column, if we handed out awards based solely on first-round performances, Schröder would be a front-runner for Most Improved. He’s been a small revelation, a $70 million offseason gamble blossoming at the right time.
This is Schröder’s fourth season in the league, and the blueprint for defending him has remained largely unchanged. He cuts a very specific profile — at 6-foot-1 with long arms and calm, loping strides, he is a spitting image of Rajon Rondo, and defenses have rightfully treated him as such, preying on his maddeningly inconsistent jumper by going under all of his screens and daring him to shoot. It hasn’t been the worst strategy — Schröder managed to go only 1-for-8 from 3 in Game 2 — but he was a blowtorch Wednesday, hitting five of his six tries, looking as confident as ever hoisting from deep:
Going under on pick-and-rolls has largely been the same strategy teams have used against Wall, who, for his career, has hit less than a third of his 3-point attempts. In that sense, they are closer in approach than they are apart: Both players are at their best when creating pathways to the rim. Still, their styles provide an interesting contrast. Wall simply freezes his defender by virtue of moving faster than a defender can recognize an angle. So often, he gets to the rim from the 3-point line on two dribbles. There is no other player who can bullet his way from Point A to Point B while also squeezing around defensive anchors upon arrival:
Schröder glides like a Bob Ross paint stroke, and moves at offbeat time signatures to freeze his defender; he’s no freak athlete, but has an innate understanding of when to deploy his quickness. Everything about him is light. This high, lofting floater off the glass is basically a 3 Musketeers bar:
Schröder is leading the Hawks in scoring in the playoffs, and his newfound ability to shoulder the brunt of the offensive load has been a boon for an Atlanta team with an inconsistent supporting cast, and whose best player, without complaint, is asked to do everything there is to do on the court. Paul Millsap inherited the reins from Al Horford after his departure to Boston, and once again proved himself one of the most versatile players in the NBA, but he isn’t built to be a go-to scorer. This year, as the undisputed first option for the first time in his career, his percentage from the field hit a career low, even if his impact on the game remained constant. Schröder’s emergence has given Millsap some breathing room to fade into the background, to serve as the underlying grid that stabilizes both offense and defense. Schröder allows Millsap to become Muzak. This is both an extremely uninspiring comparison and a good thing. Millsap isn’t one to fall asleep on defense, but with his energy reserves intact, he’s been able to put on individual defensive suites like this, against Wall:
If karmic retribution exists in the NBA, we’re probably looking at a Game 6 home win on Friday for the Hawks in Atlanta, sending it back to Washington for an anticlimactic Game 7. All this, of course, to spite TV networks for trying to hide a postseason game like they were a team hiding their worst defender on Tony Allen. But here’s a dirty secret: It’s been an interesting series! Wall operating at full tilt is a draw in and of itself. And while the Hawks in recent years have largely taken after coach Mike Budenholzer, the success of Schröder honing his brash, occasionally reckless style of play has given the Hawks something of a personality quirk on the court. It’s worth paying attention to how deeply it manifests, especially with Millsap’s potential free agency (should he opt out after the season) looming. In Wall, we’re watching a player stake his claim as a top-three point guard in the league. In Schröder, we may well be witnessing the true future of the Hawks.