Scenarios changed since last meeting
John Wall’s fall. Paul Pierce’s shot. Pierce’s other shot. Rapper 2 Chainz yelling in Bradley Beal’s ear. Al Horford’s rebound.
Those were all scenes and events from the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals when the Washington Wizards lost a six-game series to the Atlanta Hawks.
Washington was an upstart then. Atlanta entered the series as the conference’s top seed. After sweeping a firstround matchup with Toronto, Washington moved on to meet the ball-moving, in-sync Hawks and nearly came away with another upset.
The Wizards and Hawks will add a new round to their recent playoff battling when the teams meet in the first round this season. Washington will have homecourt advantage as the No. 4 seed. Atlanta beat Charlotte on Tuesday night to secure the No. 5 spot and a rematch from two seasons ago. The times and schedule are to be determined.
Both are changed teams since they last met in the playoffs -- and since they last played in the regular season.
Pierce is gone, riding out his final season in Los Angeles with the Clippers. Former Washington coach Randy Wittman is also gone. Markieff Morris is in and Washington’s bench doesn’t have one player who participated in that series.
Atlanta brought in Dwight Howard and sent out point guard Jeff Teague. It wobbled through much of the second half of this season before beating Cleveland in back-to-back games last week and winning Tuesday night to finish fifth.
The teams opened the season against each other. Atlanta won in Phillips Arena,
114-99. That was the start of a dismal beginning for Washington, which went 2-8 in its first 10 games. The Wizards eventually became the first team in NBA history to start a season 2-8 and finish with 49 or more wins. They wrap the regular season Wednesday in Miami.
Two games after dropping the opener, Washington beat Atlanta in Verizon Center, 95-92.
The teams did not play each other again until Jan. 27, when Washington was in the midst of the its high point and Atlanta was dawdling. The Wizards blew the Hawks out in Atlanta, 112-86. Another Washington win came March 22 at home. This time, the Wizards pushed to a 104-100 victory thanks to a 37-point fourth quarter. That countered an obscene 16-point first quarter.
This weekend will start Washington’s third playoff trip in four seasons. It has not held homecourt advantage in either of the previous two. The 49 wins are the most for the organization since the 1979 season. The Wizards’ Southeast Division title is the organization’s first division title since that same 1979 season.
In a nod to preservation, the Wizards rested Wall, Beal and Markieff Morris in Wednesday night’s finale against Miami. Washington winning would vault it to 50 wins, but Wizards coach Scott Brooks opted for rest instead of chasing one more win with his best unit. Otto Porter was back in the starting lineup after missing consecutive games because of back spasms.
Brooks also delivered troubling news. Backup center Ian Mahinmi, Washington’s best defensive big man, will be out for the first few games of the playoffs because of a calf strain. He will be reevaluated in 7-10 days. Washington is expected to open the playoffs Saturday or Sunday.
Mahinmi, 30, has been besieged by injuries in his first season with Washington after he signed a $64 million contract in the offseason. Preseason knee surgery caused his season debut to be delayed until Nov. 26. He did not play again until Feb. 8. Mahinmi received plateletrich plasma injections in both knees in December, which further delayed his recovery.
Once he played his way into shape, Mahinmi discovered a strong rhythm as Washington’s best post defender. His minutes on the floor increased each month and he was essentially splitting time with starting center Marcin Gortat in April.
But, Mahinmi’s calf was injured Monday against the Detroit Pistons when he challenged a jump shot. He left the game right after the play and did not return.
Atlanta starts burly center Dwight Howard, though it plays Mike Muscala, who is more of a stretch-four than a center, behind him. Without Mahinmi, the Wizards are likely to use Morris and Jason Smith more at center. Both can guard Muscala, who takes about a third of his shots from behind the 3-point line.