The Wizards collectively walked into the offseason with a gnawing feeling of opportunity lost after dropping the Eastern Conference semifinal series to the Atlanta Hawks. Swingman Rasual Butler's take summed up the series loss, which turned immediately from joy to heartbreak after replay revealed Paul Pierce's improbable game-tying 3-pointer came after the clock expired.
"It's really difficult. That's something you deal with the entire offseason, knowing that we had a really good opportunity to move on to the conference finals. It's really tough especially with Paul (Pierce) hitting the shot in the last game," Butler said.
That frustration must be growing exponentially watching the Hawks break down in numerous ways during the conference finals.
With a chance to even the best-of-seven series at home and do so against a Cleveland squad playing without injured All-Star Kyrie Irving, Atlanta fell 94-82 on Friday night. The Cavaliers dominated the third quarter and cruised to the finish for a 2-0 lead despite playing the first two games on road.
The series now shifts to Ohio. What isn't making the trip north? Hope that Atlanta could rally despite after squandering home court advantage and against LeBron James.
Charles Barkley just came into the media room and said, "Last person to leave cut the lights out. See y'all next year." #cold
— KL Chouinard Hawks (@AnaheimAmigos) May 23, 2015
With Irving (left knee) resting for a second straight game, James played like a four-team NBA MVP with 30 points, 11 assists and nine turnovers. From the Associated Press:
"How much does it help to have LeBron on your team?" Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, repeating a question incredulously. "Do I really have to answer that?"
No, not really.
What does need an answer is why the Hawks lost their way. Granted, Atlanta didn't always look the part of a top seed against the Wizards even when Washington played three games without John Wall.
Their own aches and pains is part of the issue. Forward DeMarre Carroll gutted out 34 minutes in Game 2 at much less than 100 percent after suffering a knee injury in the series opener that required help leaving the court. Kyle Korver left in the third quarter after rolling his right ankle going for a loose ball. The sharpshooter didn't return. Al Horford missed a few minutes after banging his knee.
Their ineffective play isn't helping either. One of the top 3-point shooting teams in the league, the Hawks are 10 of 49 (20.4 percent) through two games. That's with Korver actually being a factor from deep after the Wizards kept him quiet.
Paul Millsap was a nightmare matchup for Washington. The All-Star forward is averaging 8.5 points on 5 of 19 shooting from the field through two games.
The Wizards and Hawks played even on the boards, which was bad news for Washington considering its superior rebounding numbers during the regular season. The Cavaliers haven't had any issues on the glass. Tristan Thompson has nearly as many offensive rebounds (10) as Atlanta's roster (14) through two games.
Then of course, that James fellow. Atlanta's odd decision to continually double-team one of the league's elite passers on the perimeter has led to James finding open teammates and controlling the game. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, acquired in the in-season deal with the New York Knicks that turned Cleveland's season around, are 13 of 24 on 3-pointers.
"In the playoffs, it takes more," Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP following Game 2. "It takes better execution, better screening. You've got to do things harder."
Watching the Hawks seemingly squander this opportunity against a beat up Cavaliers squad must get harder by the minute for the "What if" Wizards.
[MORE WIZARDS: Butler sees good things in Wizards future]