Atlanta’s Defensive Struggles Need Solving

David Vertsberger —  April 26, 2013

After a brutal 113-98 loss to the Indiana Pacers in game 2 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks must look to latch on to whatever has worked in this series and ride it to some much-needed victories at Phillips Arena in Games 3 and 4. Problem being, Atlanta’s biggest issue is the defense and there’s no clear-cut reason as to why it’s been struggling as much as it has been in this first round Playoffs matchup. Looking into the Hawks’ lineups played in the first two games against Indiana, I came up with some findings that can help decipher what approach should best be taken.

Before I begin, I must note two things:
1. The absence of Zaza Pachulia is absolutely hammering the Hawks, things are significantly different he was healthy and playing.
2. The statistics that are about to be used are based off of the two Playoff games the Hawks have played the Pacers in. Just two, so keep caution when jumping to conclusions as it’s a minuscule sample size.

First, the lineup most used by the Hawks has been their starting lineup obviously, totaling 29 minutes in the series. They have been ghastly on the defensive end, worse so than the five most-played lineups before them. Although their ORTG (Offensive rating: points scored per 100 possessions) is a whopping 113.1, their DRTG (Defensive rating: points allowed per 100 possessions) is a putrid 137.1. This starting lineup leads the next most-used lineup by 21 minutes over two games, nothing out of the ordinary, yet appalling considering how much they’ve had trouble defending.

The most noticeable reasoning behind these defensive woes by this lineup has to be Kyle Korver guarding Paul George, who’s now averaging 21.5 points per game in the series, as well as dishing out 7.5 assists. As terrific of a team defender as Korver is, he isn’t the most reliable when it comes to guarding players one-on-one, especially those with the athleticism of a Paul George. His off/on the court effect on the team’s DRTG tells the tale, Atlanta has allowed 123.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and 111.4 when he’s not in this series. If not Korver, who should guard Paul George?

Of wing players that have played at least 20 minutes in the series, the one that’s given the Hawks their best DRTG with his court presence has been DeShawn Stevenson at a 115 rating. However, Atlanta’s offense collapses with him out there as well, down to a 94.9 ORTG from their 102.8 mark overall in this first round. What about the possibility of having Josh Smith, Atlanta’s best defender, guard George? This would require the Hawks to play yet another big man alongside Smith and Al Horford, so I looked for three-big lineups used by Atlanta during the season.

The three-big lineup used the most by head coach Larry Drew during the season owns a DRTG of 98.3! Sweet! Oh, Zaza’s in it. Damn. Next is Horford-Smith-Anthony Tolliver with a DRTG of 96.5, (!) however Tolliver would be bullied inside by David West. Finally, I found Horford-Ivan Johnson-Smith, which has held opponents to 92.6 points per 100 possessions in 110 minutes. But how have they performed in this series? As it turns out, the three have yet to take the floor together in the series. At this points, where desperation is becoming a necessity down 0-2 in the first round, it’s probably best to give it a shot here. Yes, it would leave the Hawks to use Johan Petro and Mike Scott as their backup big men, but there’s no other options here.

In the likely case that Larry Drew chooses not to give this lineup a shot, I shifted my focus to the interior guys. If Paul George can’t be contained on the perimeter (he’s shooting 21.1% from anywhere beyond 15 feet in this series) maybe the big men already being deployed in the starting five inside need to step up their help defense? The premise is way out there, with Al Horford and Josh Smith both being top-notch defenders at their respective positions. Yet somehow, statistics show that neither have shown up in this series. The team’s DRTG improves dramatically when either are on the pine, and this is isn’t an effort issue. Josh Smith is playing for a brand spanking new contract this summer, and Al is not a player who tends to play lackadaisically.

After further research, it’s apparent to me that it’s a combination of two things:
1. Indiana’s physicality.
2. The referees officiating both games tightly.

Per-36 minutes, Josh Smith has averaged 5.1 fouls in the first quarters of the first two games of this series. This early foul trouble not only sends Josh Smith, one of Atlanta’s best players, to the bench, but it also places an extra burden on one Al Horford, who isn’t a Tyson Chandler-esque defensive center. By that I mean, you can’t throw him in the ball game and shut the opposing team down on his very own.

Meanwhile, the Pacers’ bigs David West and Roy Hibbert haven’t been called for more than 3 fouls in either game. The officiating, although seemingly favoring the home team quite a bit thus far (Pacers have attempted 53 free throws to Atlanta’s 34), has been primarily focused on calling games tightly. Atlanta hasn’t responded well to this, and find themselves in predicaments where their big men have to play soft defense because they’ve already been called for a foul. Adding on to this, they have been unable to get Indiana into much foul trouble because of drifting their attempts to the perimeter as the game continues, which I discussed in an earlier post: http://hawkshoop.com/hawks-need-to-remain-aggressive-in-game-2/

It’s now make-or-break time for these Atlanta Hawks, and with enough questions to fill a Jeopardy board awaiting them in the coming offseason, the Hawks shouldn’t allow themselves to roll over and end the season this way.

David Vertsberger

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4 responses to Atlanta’s Defensive Struggles Need Solving

  1. What, pray tell, has prevented LD from playing Al, Josh and IvanJ together? This is the playoffs, for chrissakes, what is LD doing limiting minutes for his starting five? Paul George played the entire 48 minutes in Game 2. Stop letting the refs, or the opposing team lineups, or opposing rotations dictate what the Hawks will do. Have the opponent make adjustments to your game, especially at home.
    This is must win time, win or stay home.

  2. Danny Ferry’s flawed roster just isn’t good enough.

    Period.

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