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.