It’s the playoffs.
Dwight Howard summed up the NBA postseason succinctly.
“This is money time,” the Hawks center said. “Plain and simple.”
The No. 5-seed Hawks will play the No. 4 Wizards in an Eastern Conference first-round series that begins Sunday afternoon in Washington. They will do so with a starting lineup that was necessitated by injury but prospered at the end of the season with a playoff spot and position on the line.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday that Tim Hardaway Jr. and Taurean Prince will stay in the starting lineup. Hardaway has started the past 12 games, before resting the regular-season finale, after Kent Bazemore shut down for a week with a knee injury. The rookie Prince started the past 10 games after Thabo Sefolosha went down with a groin injury.
The Hawks won four consecutive games against the Celtics, Cavaliers (twice) and Hornets before clinching the No. 5 seed and resting five regulars in a loss to the Pacers to end the season.
“Having them in the starting lineup has been good,” Budenholzer said. “Having Baze off the bench has been good for us too. The bench has been good for us. It’s a good mix of guys that we are going to stick with.”
Sefolosha returned from injury to play the final two games. Budenholzer said the forward is “completely clear, completely healthy,” but he will stay with Prince.
It should be noted that it doesn’t much matter who starts a game, but rather who finishes it. What will be the starting lineup — Dennis Schroder, Paul Millsap, Howard, Hardaway and Prince — have played together about 35 minutes in eight games.
“It’s very exciting,” Hardaway said of his role entering the playoffs. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. I know it’s going to be tough battle. We just have to go out there and compete. Everybody has to have each other’s back out there, cover for one another, and go out there and take care of business.”
Several Hawks players said Friday that the past week has been like the postseason with the Hawks in pressure situations to win games down the stretch of the regular season.
“The intensity of the games,” Bazemore said of the recent intensity. “Our opponents, obviously, Cavalier and Celtics. Both playoff atmospheres. All those games down the stretch, especially having seeding issues and having to win games.
The Hawks know their biggest challenge in the series revolves around slowing the Wizards’ backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. The duo helped get the best of the Hawks during the regular season in winning three of the four games. Stopping the Wizards’ fast break is No. 1.
“If we can do something to minimize or keep them out of transition that is most important,” Budenholzer said. “Transition is the first thing we talk about the first week of training camp. Transition, if you want to be a good defensive team, is always a priority. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but you have to stay disciplined, stay to your principles and your effort has to be great.”
Millsap called Wall a “one-man fast break.” The Hawks cautioned that slowing the Wizards’ All-Star involve more than Schroder or the others called upon with the defensive assignment.
“John Wall and Bradley Beal have had pretty decent years,” Bazemore said. “They pack a punch. They are the catalyst for their team. How they go, their team goes. Obviously, they are a focal point, but it’s going to take a team of five players on the court at once to get the job done.”
The Hawks may tweak some of the game plan used against the Wizards during the regular season. Better execution will also be a factor. For now, the countdown is on.
“All you’ve got to do is win 16 games,” Howard said. “That’s the goal. Sixteen games. If we do that, we’ll all be happy.”