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What a year it was covering this year’s Atlanta Hawks team. The acquisition of Dwight Howard jump started the summer with a jolt of excitement. The Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy alum came aboard with hopes to bring a championship to his hometown.

Instead, he ended the season sitting on the bench as his teammates clawed back from a 19 point deficit, only to come up short in game 6 versus the Wizards. That wasn’t the first time this season he sat during a crucial run, and the first year of the Howard experiment can be deemed a failure.

“ It doesn’t matter about matchups, said Howard in his exit interview. “ I want to play. I don’t care who is out there. I want to give the best for my team and the city. That is why I came here. So it is upsetting when you want to get out there and play. You work hard for something and you watch it being taken from you, not the coach taking it — but Washington taking the opportunity of us moving to the next round.”

First-year starter Dennis Schroder took advantage of his opening round matchup against All-NBA point guard John Wall — as he did against several elite point guards throughout the year — validating that the organization made the right decision when they handed him the keys over Jeff Teague. Paul Millsap’s free agency talk dominated and overshadowed much of his big-time all-star performances, as if his game needed further neglect on the national stage. However, to the credit of head coach and team president Mike Budenholzer, it never seemed to become a distraction.

Whether it was Millsap’s free agency, Schroder and Howard’s argument in the third quarter versus the Warriors during a live possession or Schroder’s late arrival from All-Star break due visa issues — the team remained positive and focused.

In the last four seasons under Budenholzer none of his teams were more inconsistent, erratic and perplexing than this 2016–2017 ballclub. The hot 9–2 start occurred so early it now qualifies as a mirage. By the end of December they were a more realistic 16–16. At that time they had a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (and would later win the season series 3–1), but suffered losses against the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.

The month of January was very telling in terms of just how unsettled they were. Starting on the 13th until March 6th they never notched a winning streak more than two games. Win one, lose the next, win another, lose the next, identity crises at its finest.

Kent Bazemore expressed the same sentiment to me after asking him about the team’s issues following a 131–120 loss in December to the Orlando Magic that dropped their record to 12–13.

“This is a very deep team and we have a lot of guys who can play so it’s all about finding that rhythm as a unit”, Bazemore said. “We’ve had glimpses of both units doing well. The bench started off the season doing well, then the starters got going, so it’s a lot going on and not enough consistency. But we are not going to get it back all at once and we are still trying to figure out who we are.”

The lows were pretty damn low and can be summed up in a moment I personally witnessed covering the Brooklyn Nets routing on March 26th that handed the Hawks their seventh loss in a row. A fan casually strolled down from his seat into the credentialed media seating, nachos and soda in hand, and took a seat with the rest of us. Clearly he’d come to the conclusion at that time that the Hawks didn’t care, so why should he? Security never approached the gentleman or redirected him back to his original seating. He just sat there, apathetic, disinterested, scarfing down some nachos.

Their identity never seemed to take shape and why a large portion of the season Budenholzer experimented with several lineups during games looking for a spark on a team ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring. Millsap spent plenty time at the five, Bazemore took over point guard duties at times and even Kyle Korver played power forward occasionally. Compound that with a defense that poorly defended the three-point line in today’s NBA and well you’ve put yourself in a tough spot.

Those spots ranged from out of playoff contention momentarily midway through the season to losing 9 out of 11 games (with Millsap and Bazemore missing games due to injury) down the stretch that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy and having to wait until the 79th game to breath a sigh of relief.

Schroder struggled limiting turnovers, Howard hurt the defense by staying in the paint during pick-and-roll situations and Bazemore’s $70 million contract seemed to cause him to press. The list goes on and on, but nuzzled in it all were some of the most thrilling moments in Hawks history. The 26 point deficient at the start of the fourth quarter comeback victory versus Cleveland on April 9th, the overtime upset over the San Antonio Spurs and of course who can forget what took place on January 29th — the quadruple overtime victory over the New York Knicks — just the 11th time in NBA history.

The game lasted four hours as people stood by the exit doors with one foot in the arena one foot out not able to tear themselves away from what was taken place.

Rookie Taurean Prince and pending restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. also provided optimism and excitement throughout a treacherous seven months. Prince took advantage of Bazemore and Sefolosha’s injuries by showcasing his versatility and therefore cementing his spot in the starting lineup. Hardaway deserved Most Improved Player consideration after turning his 2015–2016 woes into a distant memory by becoming the team’s scoring spark they severely needed especially after Kyle Korver was dealt.

In the end this team surpassed many preseason predictions that slotted them for a low seeding at best. Another franchise-alternating free agency awaits them in the coming months, but as far as 2016–2017 went they were willing to fight no matter how steep the odds — despite being ill-equipped with the necessary firepower.

“This group was a fighting group,” said Paul Millsap after game 6 loss. “With the ups and downs we had, we found a way to fight and compete. We shut down a lot of naysayers. We had a lot of people that said we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We just ran into a team that was hot, the Wizards were hot. I like this team and the fight in this team.”

Game 4 Recap

Eric Yeboah —  April 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

What didn’t go well

For the second game in a row, Atlanta beat Washington in several categories, which may leave little to nit pick. However, Dennis Schroder and Jose Calderón did fall into foul trouble with three apiece before the first half ended. John Wall and Brandon Jennings attacked and had their aggressiveness used against them the same way Paul Millsap has done with Markieff Morris over the last three games. Budenholzer opted to stick with Calderon rather than going to Malcolm Delaney, but the amount of ball pressure they are instructed to heap on the Wizard’s backcourt is necessary yet dangerous. However, tonight Jose’s impact was far greater than normal.

“Jose most nights will probably not play enough minutes to foul out,” said Coach Budenholzer. “With Dennis with three fouls it may have been a little risky, but I just thought the way he and the team were playing I wanted to roll with that group.”

What went well

Dwight Howard made his proverbial entrance into this series in the 2nd quarter, scoring 10 of his 16 points. The first three games, the Wizards were exceptional at denying any lob opportunities, and Budenholzer was forced to limit Howard’s minutes in search of more shooting in small ball lineups. But the offense moved the ball well in game 4, shifting the Wizards’ defense off of Howard and allowing him to run much more freely to the basket without bodies draped all over him. Kent Bazemore connected with Howard for a couple highlight reel lob sequences that ignited the team and encompassed the do it all game his box score showed.

“I’ve continued to work, watch film and pick my spots,” Kent Bazemore said. “The pace was amazing tonight, the ball was moving and when you get touches your comfort level goes up a little bit. When you got guys on your team that really believe in you everyday is a new day. This is just another product of believing and staying the course.”

The team answered Coach Budenholzer’s transition defense demands to limit John Wall and his ability to find trailing shooters by allowing just 12 points, as opposed to the 21 points the Wizards averaged throughout the first three games. They struggled with controlling the pace and turnovers in the first two games, but on Monday they cleaned up both areas giving them a shot to slow Washington’s fast-break opportunities.

Suggested change for next game in series for the Hawks

The Wizards will be looking to force the Hawks backcourt into committing turnovers, as they did so successfully in games 1 and 2. There will need to be a continued emphasis on setting solid screens and moving the ball with a certain level of speed to counteract the Wizards length. Budenholzer should also stick to keeping at least one ball-handler on the floor at all times to help keep the turnover totals to a minimum, as they accomplished in games 3 and 4.

From a 9–2 start to out of playoff contention, from a streaking team to now stumbling into the postseason, the Hawks have seemingly endured it all this season. Sunday afternoon’s loss to the lowly Brooklyn Nets completed their second seven-game losing streak of the season. Thabo Sefolosha was a late game scratch and, with the Hawks already without Kent Bazemore, Tauren Prince was tapped for his first career start. And, if you’ve noticed the flashes that he’s shown throughout the year, the start went exactly as expected.

 

“He did what he normally does,” DeAndre Bembry said. “He was aggressive offensively, got a few steals, created fast-breaks and of course the good defense. That’s what Coach likes about us as rookies — we play on both sides of the ball.”

 

Tim Hardaway Jr. has been the surprise spark for the Hawks this, but Taurean is giving him a run for his money. Taurean has accomplished what very few rookies under Head Coach Mike Budenholzer have ever done — gain his undeniable trust. At the wing, where the Hawks have a logjam of veterans, Prince has emerged post-all star break shooting 40 percent from three while showcasing his ability to guard all positions except centers all while also playing with a spirit this team desperately needed.

 

“I’ve just come into the second half of the season with a different mindset of how I approach things, how I approach practice and different preparation,” Prince said. “It’s helped me out this far and I think it’s helped the team out as well and I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, but turn it up a little more. Especially since it’s coming to the end of the season.”

 

Currently, he sits as the team’s fifth-best defensive player according to defensive Box Plus/Minus. Especially given the troubles that Dwight Howard has faced in this particular defensive scheme during pick and roll situations and given Bazemore’s increased role as a ball handler throughout this season, there was an opportunity for Prince to earn his keep.

 

He’s done so in so many ways, displaying his ability to chase-down blocks, rotate over from the weak side, contest shots at the rim, anticipate steals and utilize his length in passing lanes. Prince has brought another dimension to this Hawks team that they desperately needed.

 

The bravado that Prince carries onto the floor isn’t always prevalent within many rookies, but it’s something Bazemore noticed earlier in the season. He spoke about it with me in November following Prince’s 19 minutes outing in a 107–100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

“Just another testament to the Atlanta Hawks player development system,” Bazemore said. “A guy works hard every day and when he gets his name called he’s ready. That’s one of his [Taurean’s] greatest attributes — he’s fearless, he’s out there chirping, hitting people, finishing above the rim and that’s his game. It’s good when you can get a young fella this early in his career and be that confident.”

 

The confidence was always there, but every rookie needs that breakout game or two to reassure themselves they belong. Just a few weeks ago, following a 16 point performance — his career high is 17 — against the Memphis Grizzlies, he acknowledged that that moment had arrived. In addition, his five points, five rebounds, three steals game against Portland on February 13th and again his eight points, 12 rebounds and two steals in Boston on February 27th  were a testament to his work ethic and another indication that he belonged, according to Prince.

 

“I’m a firm believer in if you put in the work then everything will take care of itself,” Prince said. “This summer Deandre and I were here, so credit to him and the coaching staff for putting us in the best position. Just being in the gym — especially at the beginning of the season when I wasn’t playing much — I was in the gym a lot more just trying to get reps. I just always had that confidence because I put in the work and believe in myself.”

 

Who would have guessed that? As a young player, especially a first round pick, the images of walking in and being a bonafide stud play through your head on several occasions. However, understanding the importance of how to be the best at what your role is on the team takes some time. Once that hill is climbed and embraced there is more room for growth, and Prince has acknowledged that truth.

 

Now, with the regular season coming to a close, Prince has caught on at the right time. The core players are fully aware of his value to this team and believe he will be a difference maker when they need it the most.

 

“It means a lot when you have guys like Paul Millsap, Dennis [Schroder] and Dwight [Howard] have that type of confidence in me and it’s another reason why I continue to play with confidence,” Prince said. “For me, it starts on the defensive end. I feel like in the beginning of the season I had a different mindset, but I’ve learned to focus on what’s more important. I just want to continue to get better and that’s the great thing about it is I have a lot of room to improve.”

 

Paul Pierce has already paid his last visit to Philips arena during his farewell tour this season, while his two 1998 draft mates — Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki —  have yet to make a decision on their respective futures. Dirk has the option to return for one last go-around next season, but if not, then tonight’s 100-95 loss to the Hawks was his Philips Arena encore. He shares ties with Coach Budenholzer, stemming from their 57 highly entertaining Texas showdowns between San Antonio and Dallas, when Budenholzer served as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. Dirk has also been taking on a pseudo-mentor role in Dennis Schroder’s career, as they are just two of three German players currently in the NBA.

Here’s what some members of the Hawks had to say about Dirk’s legacy and what it was like facing him:

“I joke with my coaching staff often that I still have nightmares about Dirk,”Coach Budenholzer said. “I may have watched more film on him than any other player in the NBA. He’s a special player — so unique what he does at his size as far as shooting. He creates so many problems whether you put big guys on him, small guys on him, he gets to the free throw line. And I thought he improved defensively and as a rebounder. He is one of the special players this league has ever had and I have so much respect for him.”

“My rookie year I was at Golden State and I didn’t get to see him play much,” Kent Bazemore said. “I would just see him workout before games and he is so undoubtedly good at what he does. He is a true professional and I’ve always heard a lot of good things about him and his approach to the game. About how much he loves shooting.That’s why he is one of the greatest shooters of all time. There are things you learn from guys like that being able to sit out there and watch him — Kobe, Ray Allen — in their pregame workouts. You take certain things from it and just see how focus and locked in he is.”

“The memory I have of Dirk is him giving me 40 in Utah,” said a laughing Paul Millsap. “He’s a good guy and he plays the game the right way. When I was in Utah I played him four times a year and always had to match up against him. He has always been a tough guard for me. I see that Ersan does the one legged jumper and that may be something I need to add to my repertoire.”

“I think that he is a credible legend,” Dennis Schroder said. “He’s had an amazing career, then for him to be German and play against him again is a great feeling. He is a role model for every German player and he’s done a great job. He is amazing and I think he will get his 30,000 points soon.”

Whether he decides to return or not, it is easy to see the impact Nowitzki has had around the league.

Atlanta has suffered through several blowouts so far this season that should give pause to whether or not this team is capable of making a deep playoff run.

In every single one of those blowouts, they looked unequipped and unenthusiastic facing opponents with several shooters and playmakers. Washington, Detroit, and Utah all showed just that this year’s defense, allowing the most points per game under Coach Budenholzer’s tenure, does not seem to be imposing their will on teams as in seasons past.

The reason that may be? Those aggressive teams mentioned above have figured out the weaknesses of the Hawks’ defense, and they are well-equipped to attack it.

“We know that they are a team that likes to have their bigs play back in pick and roll coverage,” said Washington’s Bradley Beal. “So we took full advantage of it and were able to come off screens for jumpers or get in the lane and create for someone else.”

Beal’s teammate — star point guard John Wall — added on to that assessment.

“They are a type of team that closes out the paint first, then closes out on shooters, so with me and Bradley being aggressive in pick and rolls, guys just have to be ready to shoot.” said Wall. “More teams are just going to give me the shot in pick and rolls by allowing me and Gortat to play two-on-tow or take us away and let the weak side score.”

In Washington and Atlanta’s Jan. 27 meeting that the Wizards won 112-86, the box score said the Wizards posted a 42% 3-point field goal percentage, but witnessing it felt more like 52%, as many of them were taken without much contest from defenders. More alarming than some of those other blowouts was that the Hawks were fully aware stepping onto this court that they were facing a Top 10 3-point shooting squad in Washington and apparently made no adjustments from their usual scheme.

The pick and roll scheme, along with electing to pack the paint, seems works well when you face teams like the Bulls or Nets that lack floor spacers. Honestly, it was very apparent last season when Cleveland swept Atlanta for a second straight time that eventually talents trumps scheme; we see that every year during march Madness when a Cinderella run ends once they face an overwhelming gifted roster.

Some believed heading into the season that Dwight Howard could take this Hawks defense to a level that Al Horford could not. Although Howard thrives in rim protection, teams have steadily tried to force him into defending the pick and rolls more frequently, an area he may not be completely comfortable in. Combined with that, the farther Howard is away from the rim, the less of a rebounding presence he becomes. This then results in more offensive opportunities for opponents, as evidence by the Hawks’ currently ranking 26th in opponent second chance points and 23rd in opponent offensive rebounds. While many put a lot of stock in Howard’s pure rebounding numbers, replacing Horford — who excelled in reading coverages and moving his feet well enough to disrupt ballhandlers — is not a skill you can find just anywhere in this league.

The focus in this series of clips is to watch how Howard and Mike Muscala have been instructed to sag back into the paint.

Now when Budenholzer chooses to blitz the ballhandler off the pick and roll by forcing him to one side of the floor, there are only two reactions from opponents: panic or patience. Teams like Washington and Cleveland play with a certain level of patience because they have multiple sources of offense. Those secondary options can make the right pass or drift to the right spot on the backside of the defense for higher percentage looks from downtown. Utah is another team this season who has proven that with length, shooting and playmaking, this Top 5 ranked defense can look discombobulated.

While the Hawks often excel at trapping, this series shows just how vulnerable the weakside is whenever the Hawks trap one side. Not every team can take advantage of that, but Utah’s Gordon Hayward explains why some of the top teams in the league are able to do so.

“They do a good job of coming over, shifting early and shutting down rolls,” said Hayward. “We are unique because we have a lot of playmakers and taller guys so we can see over the defense, which helps make that extra skip pass.”

Hayward’s teammate and point guard George Hill echoed similar sentiments.

“You have to be fundamentally sound when you play these guys,” said George Hill. “Coach Bud is a great coach and they have a lot of great players that are active. So you have to strategically pick them apart as far as attacking the bigs getting them in two-on-one options, where we can get the ball out of the trap and try to play two-on-one on the backside.”

For the last couple seasons, it always felt as though no matter how poorly the Hawks struggled to score the ball that the defense would always be there to keep the game close. They could buckle down in any moment and jumpstart some type of offense, but not so much this season. Yes, the defense enabled them to comeback from 20-point deficits in Milwaukee and Houston, but in order to think like a champion, you must think pessimistically. In the Hawks’ case, it’s not just about blown leads and lost games, but wins too; even in victories in which they had a substantial lead, they closed out the game rather poorly from a defensive standpoint.

Playoff time is just around the corner and no considerable changes to the roster seem forthcoming. The scheme can be and has been very effective obviously, but its weaknesses could very well be the reason they won’t make it very far in this year’s postseason.