The Washington Wizards have, in John Wall, the best player—by a mile!—in their playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. At pretty much any given moment, they have the better player at three of the five positions on the court. They have home-court advantage. And they’re in grave trouble, at least in large part because they can’t keep the Hawks away from the rim to save their lives.
The Hawks seemed to realize it around the same time I did: In the first quarter of last Wednesday’s Game 2, when a concerted effort to attack the hoop more aggressively than in Game 1 resulted in, by my estimation, roughly 10,000 layups and offensive rebounds and personal-foul calls on the Wizards. These bozos can’t protect the basket without fouling, and they can’t secure defensive rebounds at all. Washington pulled out a win in that game thanks to a brilliant fourth-quarter flurry from Wall and Bradley Beal—it’s nice to have two of the series’ three best players on your team, you know?—but the first half set the template for what has come after it, and it looks extremely bad for my sweet Wizard sons.
Through four games, the Hawks are collecting 25.8 percent of available offensive rebounds, per the NBA’s stats site. That’s the third highest number among the 16 playoff teams. They’re grabbing 52.1 percent of all available rebounds; that’s also the third best in the playoffs. They’re averaging 48.5 points in the paint per game, second only to the Houston Rockets. All of this is to say, they are kicking the Wizards asses in the vicinity of the basket.
The stats only confirm what you can see with your own eyes. The Hawks get clean rebounds at both ends of the court, thanks in large part to the suddenly energized Dwight Howard; meanwhile, seemingly half of all the Wizards’ defensive rebounds come at the end of frantic tip drills requiring at least the attention, if not the active participation, of all five Washington players. Most dispiritingly, the Hawks have been able to accomplish this without any extra commitment to crashing the offensive glass; everybody who’s more than a couple feet from the rim when the shot goes up is running back on defense. Thus, even when the Wizards do get a stop and haul in a clean defensive rebound, the opportunity to run out in transition—the thing they do best—is lost.
The reasons are pretty clear. Marcin Gortat was credited with a whopping 18 rebounds last night, and is averaging just shy of 12 a game in the series, but the raw counting numbers belie his actual presence inside. Nearly all of his defensive rebounds last night, for example, were uncontested, with no Hawks players in the immediate vicinity; by my count, all four of his offensive rebounds were of the volleyball variety, where he tipped the ball out toward a teammate on the perimeter, rather than actually securing the rebound himself. When he has to contend with Howard (or Paul Millsap, or even Ersan Ilyasova) for the ball, he has to go up with one hand to their two, thanks to his almost total inability to jump, and can do no more than get his fingertips on it. He also lacks the quickness to box out effectively against anybody who’s more than a foot away from him.
The same limitations hinder him as a defender. He’s averaging just shy of three blocks per game in this series, but that number, like his rebounding average, is somewhat deceptive: He’s blocking some shots, but he’s not really deterring any. The Hawks are attempting the third-most shots within five feet of the basket (34.5 per game) among all playoff teams, and they’re driving at Gortat with impunity.
He’s not the problem! All in all, he’s not performing all that differently than he did all throughout the regular season. And while Markieff Morris’s ongoing slump certainly is a problem, it’s not the problem, in the sense that early foul trouble, a spotty jumpshot, and maddening inconsistency at the defensive end of the floor have been regular features of his time as a professional basketball player, and the Wizards mostly have done okay.
The problem is that a seven-game playoff series gives an opponent time to turn areas of modest weakness into glaring, screaming, five-alarm infernos, and that’s what the Hawks have done to Washington’s depleted frontcourt. Probably the Wizards could counter in at least a few different ways, but the one that worked the best for them for most of the season isn’t available right now. He is their quickest and most active rim protector, their best counterpunch to Dwight Howard’s athleticism and power. He has a strained left calf muscle. His name is Ian Mahinmi, and I want to die.
Ian Mahinmi! Ian fucking Mahinmi. The fourth-seeded Washington Wizards are in danger—big, bad danger!—of getting knocked out of the first round of the playoffs, and they desperately need the Extremely Broke Bozo’s Bismack Biyombo to come rescue them. The 30-year-old journeyman doofus the whole world rightly clowned general manager Ernie Grunfeld for signing to a big multi-year contract this past offseason. Ian Mahinmi holds John Wall’s fate in his hands. I think that’s the saddest thing I ever wrote.