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Hawk Down

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The Atlanta Hawks had a dream 2014-15 season. They won 60 games and made it to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history, they were the seventh team in NBA history to have four All-Stars in one season and they were the poster boys for a proposed philosophical shift in the way teams without superstars would construct their rosters.

Atlanta was legitimately good last season. They had plus starters at every position and Mike Budenholzer, a Pop disciple, is one of the game’s better coaches. But after a solid start to their sequel campaign that had the team as high as the second seed a month ago, the Hawks just completed an underwhelming 15-game stretch that saw the Bulls and Heat surpass them in the standings and the Raptors firmly supplant them as the second best team in the East.

Atlanta went 6-9 in January1 and posted an offensive rating in line with Philadelphia’s (99.7, sixth worst in the NBA last month).2 After establishing such fantastic chemistry last season, Atlanta’s starters haven’t been quite as good this year, and they have been especially bad lately. The Hawks’ starters played 166 minutes together last month; they had a minus-7.4 net rating and conceded 108.1 points per 100 possessions.3

The loss of DeMarre Carroll figured to set the Hawks back a bit, but the emergence of Kent Bazemore, who has been fantastic this season (he has 46/41/84 shooting splits), has filled the gap as well as the Hawks could have reasonably hoped from an in-house solution. Paul Millsap is an all-star for the third straight season and Al Horford was one of the “last players” out in this year’s East field. After accounting for the drop off from Carroll to Bazemore, Atlanta’s frontcourt has mostly played up to the standard it set last season.

Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, on the other hand, have not followed up their all-star seasons quite so well.

Korver’s sudden decline is one of the most shocking and under-discussed stories in the NBA this season. He has gone from the obvious fulcrum on a proportional team to a one-dimensional wing with a muted impact. After flirting with 50-percent shooting from deep on six 3-point attempts a game last season, Korver is shooting 12 percent worse from beyond the arc (37.1 percent).4 Korver’s impotence has severely hurt the Hawks’ offense, which has dropped from sixth last season to 15th.

Teague’s struggles have also impacted Atlanta’s decline. Teague is shooting 42 percent from the field, down from 46 percent last season. He has a 25.0 assist rate, the lowest of his career, and a 12.6 turnover rate, the highest of his career. In January, opponents outscored the Hawks by 6.7 points per 100 possessions and their offense was barely functional when he was on the floor.

On the other side of the coin, the Hawks blitzed opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions with Dennis Schroder on the floor in January. Schroder isn’t a better scorer than Teague, but he has the same speed when turning the corner on pick-and-rolls, and the team undeniably performs better when Schorder is on the floor. Schroder has been Atlanta’s best player this season by net rating and at 22, he figures to have considerable more potential than Teague.

With Schroder waiting in the weeds, the Hawks are said to be shopping Teague as the trade deadline nears. The problem for the Hawks is that the market for a borderline all-star point guard has never been worse.

Case and point: Teague made the all-star team last year and was not even in the conversation this season while six other East point guards (Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas and Reggie Jackson) were. Look around the league and try to find a team that does not have a point guard better than Teague or a significant investment in a point guard younger than Teague (like the Magic with Elfrid Payton or the Nuggets with Emmanuel Mudiay).

That query produces few results: Brooklyn and New York, mainly. You could make the case for Dallas because Teague is younger than Deron Williams and Teague’s speed makes him a prime candidate for the coveted Dirk bump. Perhaps you can extend as far as Utah, a team with a potential-laden point guard, Dante Exum, who is recovering from a serious knee injury. If the Jazz wanted to make a playoff push this season, bringing in Teague and moving Trey Burke to a backup role would probably improve their chances.

But then we get to the question that makes this situation doubly difficult for the Hawks: What team is dying to give up valuable assets for a point guard who only has one or two seasons on record of being an all-star caliber guy?

Teague is a good player, but in the modern NBA, the standard for starting point guards is higher than that, at least for playoff teams.

Dallas is too smart to leverage what few future assets they have for Teague, and the Hawks are not going to want a Williams-for-Teague swap. Although Brooklyn has made some irrational win-now moves in the past, it is hard to see them giving up anything significant for a 27-year-old point guard while the team is in the midst of a regime change. Utah is a team with a bright future, so trading any of their young pieces to get Teague, who would be a one-year rental in a best-case scenario, would be a mistake.5

The Knicks, who were interested in Teague around this time two seasons ago, make the most sense. Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant have had their moments, but Teague would be a substantial upgrade. The problem is that New York has little to offer Atlanta unless the Hawks are simply looking for a way to get Schroder the starting job as soon as possible. The Knicks could do something like Jose Calderon, who has a contract analogous to Teague’s and would be a decent second or third string option for a Hawks team that loves spacing, Lance Thomas, an intriguing role player, and a pick for Teague. But if the Hawks accepted that offer, they would be low on a player who has been good for them for many years.

Even as the Hawks fought their way to the conference finals last season, there was a feeling amongst the NBA public that their Finals candidacy was fraudulent. The Cavaliers did not help the Hawks build up any legitimacy when they swept them in the conference finals, with only one game being close.6

Now Atlanta is struggling to put the pieces back together and its magical run last season is starting to look more and more like an aberration. At this point, it might be logical to conclude that the Hawks hit the their ceiling under a perfect set of circumstances last season, and if that wasn’t enough, it might be time to reconsider their approach. And that might be as simple as finding a way for Schroder to take over the team.

It’s Going Down!

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

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