Giv­ing fans, play­ers rea­son to be­lieve

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - DERON SNY­DER

When your team hasn’t hosted a first-round play­off se­ries in 38 years, what­ever hap­pens is bound to feel strange. It could ad­min­is­ter a blowout, be on the re­ceiv­ing end or fall some­where in be­tween. Rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions are fluid and pos­si­ble out­comes are all over the board.

We’re still wrap­ping our heads around the fact that Wash­ing­ton is a bona fide con­tender. So, it wasn’t far-fetched to be­lieve they might fall flat Sun­day af­ter­noon against At­lanta. The way his­tory works in these parts, op­ti­mism is a rare com­mod­ity and typ­i­cally goes un­re­warded.

Would we get the Wizards team that won 43 games since Dec. 5 (be­hind only Golden State and San An­to­nio), or the team that limped to a 7-9 record down the stretch? Would Marki­eff Morris (no post­sea­son ex­pe­ri­ence) and Otto Porter (three post­sea­son games) be up to the chal­lenge, or would they shrink un­der the mag­ni­tude of play­off basketball? Would the Hawks steal the opener and home­court ad­van­tage, or would Wash­ing­ton live up to its seed­ing en route to the sec­ond round?

The sit­u­a­tion was dicey in the first half. But in the end, the Wizards let every­one know it’s OK to be­lieve, at least for Game 1. A heavy dose of John Wall and lib­eral sprin­kles of Morris were the per­fect recipe for a 114-107 vic­tory and se­ries lead.

Morris, who said he was ready for the play­offs to be­gin weeks ago, scored 11 of his 21 points in the de­ci­sive third quar­ter. The Hawks led by three at half­time but trailed by seven en­ter­ing the fi­nal quar­ter. They never got closer than five the rest of the way.

“The in­ten­sity was sky-high the whole game,” said Morris, who also had seven re­bounds, four blocks and a steal in his play­off de­but. “It was like play­ing in the NCAA tour­na­ment first round. It was pretty hype.”

Wall, who fin­ished with a post­sea­son ca­reer-high 32 points, said Morris is the sin­gle big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween

this ver­sion of the Wizards and the squad that At­lanta beat in a sec­on­dround se­ries two years ago. Those Wizards re­lied on too-old Paul Pierce, too-slow Nene and too-slight Porter to con­tend with At­lanta’s power for­ward Paul Mill­sap.

The job falls to Morris now and he out­played the All-Star while frus­trat­ing him as well. Mill­sap scored 19 points – 11 from the line – but com­plained about the phys­i­cal­ity when asked about the dif­fer­ence in Sun­day’s game.

“We were play­ing basketball and they were play­ing MMA,” he said.

Play was a lit­tle chippy at times, with Morris and Mill­sap ex­chang­ing words at the end of half. Wall and his neme­sis Den­nis Schroder also yapped at each other as the teams de­parted for the locker rooms.

Morris called it “set­ting the tone.” Mill­sap said it’s “just two guys play­ing hard.” Con­sid­er­ing how the fouls were about even – 22 for At­lanta and 25 for Wash­ing­ton — it’s hard to see Mill­sap’s point about mixed mar­tial arts. Es­pe­cially since the Hawks en­joyed a 39-17 ad­van­tage in free-throw at­tempts.

The Wizards would’ve went to the foul line more of­ten but the Hawks weren’t close enough to play defense in the sec­ond half. Wash­ing­ton shot a scorch­ing 57 per­cent from the field af­ter in­ter­mis­sion, break­ing out of the malaise that mucked up the early go­ing.

Call it a case of post­sea­son jit­ters, ner­vous en­ergy or sim­ple anx­i­ety as the team em­barks on an un­fa­mil­iar jour­ney. Wall and back­court mate Bradley Beal had fab­u­lous reg­u­lar sea­sons but they have never been in this po­si­tion be­fore. It showed for Beal in the be­gin­ning as he missed seven of his 10 shots in the first half. But he fi­nally came around in the fourth quar­ter when he scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shoot­ing.

“I’ve seen the growth in him,” Brooks said of Beal. “(Miss­ing) doesn’t af­fect him. He just re­boots the com­puter and fo­cuses on the next shot.”

Thanks to Morris and Wall, the win was within reach by the time Beal started hit­ting. Wall scored 15 points in the third quar­ter along with four as­sists, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of al­ley-oop dunks for Morris. Gor­tat also was the re­cip­i­ent of mul­ti­ple al­ley-oops for dunks, in­clud­ing one in which he was as­sessed a tech­ni­cal for taunt­ing Mill­sap.

“John can take over games, he can take over quar­ters, he can take over plays,” Brooks said. “…Not only is he one of the best play­ers at his po­si­tion, he’s one of the best play­ers in the league. I see that ev­ery day and I’m happy for him.”

He has lot more help (and health) this time around ver­sus At­lanta. Porter is bet­ter and more ex­pe­ri­enced. Bo­jan Bog­donovic, Bran­don Jen­nings, Kelly Oubre and Ja­son Smith form a re­spectable bench. His coach is more ac­com­plished.

But he said the ad­di­tion of Morris “changed ev­ery­thing. When he plays as well as he did to­day, we’re un­stop­pable.”

Af­ter a 38-year wait to host a firstround Game 1, the Wizards and their play­off neo­phyte are off to a good start. ●

Wash­ing­ton Wizards for­ward Marki­eff Morris jumps to dunk the ball while At­lanta Hawks for­ward Kent Baze­more watches dur­ing the first half on Sun­day. Morris scored 11 of his 21 points in the de­ci­sive third quar­ter of the Wizards’ Game 1 vic­tory.

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