For all three seasons under head coach Larry Drew, the Hawks have failed to extend a playoff series to a decisive Game 7. In each series, Drew made at least one egregious, inexcusable decision that cost the team a chance to extend the series. However, Larry Drew’s greatest shortcoming in his nine years with the Hawks organization has been his failure to teach Josh Smith how to play basketball.
With 2:13 remaining in Game 6 and the Pacers leading 76-73, Roy Hibbert drove to the basket on Al Horford and lost the ball. While this action was taking place on the strong side, Smith was guarding David West on the weak side. As you can see at the 3:45 mark in NBA.com’s highlights for Game 6, not once during this sequence did Smith turn his head to track West’s location.
If the Hawks had collected the loose ball, the team would have been down three with a chance to tie or draw within a point. Instead, Smith allowed West to gain rebounding position where he collected the loose ball and laid it in. The same scenario happened Nov. 30th in a humiliating home loss to Cleveland. Smith was ball watching and allowed Alonzo Gee to gain inside position where he collected an errant shot and laid it in for the decisive basket. You’d think Smith would have learned his lesson and kept track of his man in a much more important game. Sadly, learning is not a strength of either Smith or Drew, as we will discuss in further detail below.
In my playoff preview, I wrote that the lessons Drew needed to learn and apply this year had largely remained unchanged from the previous season. Let’s take a look at my points of emphasis that applied to each of the last two postseasons and see if the Hawks were able to make any improvements:
1. Drew must stop giving significant minutes to scrubs and washed up veterans
In Games 1 & 2, DeShawn Stevenson was the Hawks’ 6th man, the reserve who played the most minutes. In 44 minutes in those two games, the Hawks were outscored by 22 points with Stevenson on the floor. He would not see significant minutes for the rest of the series. Meanwhile Ivan Johnson had 10 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes in Game 1, and was -2, a team-best among Hawks who played at least 15 minutes. After this highly-productive performance, Drew played him only 10 minutes in Game 2 as the Hawks opened the series with two road losses.
Then in Game 3, Johnson went off. He was a game-high +21 in 27 minutes with seven points and seven rebounds. The Hawks played close to even with the Pacers while Johnson was on the bench but dominated Indiana while Johnson was on the floor. After Johnson delivered the best +/- among rotation players in two of the first three games and helped his team get back in the series, Drew rewarded Johnson by playing him fewer than 20 minutes the rest of the series.
Here is a table showing total minutes, field goals made and attempted, rebounds, points and aggregate +/- for Johnson, Petro, Stevenson and Anthony Tolliver:
Johnson 109 MIN, 12-26, 20 REB, 36 PTS, -7
Petro 102 MIN, 14-27, 22 REB, 29 PTS, -23
Tolliver 68 MIN, 8-14, 10 REB, 24 PTS, +17
Stevenson 44 MIN, 3-5, 10 REB, 9 PTS, -21
As you can see, the Hawks were outscored by .225 points per minute with Petro on the floor, which is over three times more than the Hawks were outscored by per minute with Johnson on the floor (.064). The minutes, shooting numbers and rebounds for Johnson and Petro are almost identical. The reason the on/off numbers favor Johnson is because he can guard three positions while Petro can barely guard his own position. Meanwhile, look at the numbers for Tolliver and Stevenson. Imagine how this series could have been different if the minutes given to Stevenson, who can’t guard any position, had been given to Tolliver.
2. The Hawks cannot succeed if Teague sacrifices his offense so Josh Smith can launch more jumpers
I’ve had a running dialogue this season with HawksHoop editor Bo Churney about the future of the franchise. At one point I suggested Mike Conley money for Teague and Churney thought I was selling Teague short. After this playoff series, I think Teague will be lucky to get that. Teague has no one to blame but himself for the disinterested and uninspiring performance he gave in this series.
During the regular season, Teague was 11th among point guards in 20-and-10 games. This led me to believe that Teague was on his way to contending for an All-Star selection. After this playoff series, I wonder if the Hawks should even match any offer he receives in restricted free agency. The deciding factor for me will be if such an offer were inexpensive enough to make Teague a movable asset in future trade scenarios.
As for Smith’s shooting, I referred to Game 4 as a “chuck-fest.” Nevertheless, early returns were promising as Smith shot 11-for-28 (39%) outside the paint through Game 4. Smith must have been encouraged by these results as he continued to chuck away in Games 5 & 6. He shot 2-for-13 (15%) outside the paint as the Pacers closed the series with a pair of wins. For the series, Smith shot 13-for-41 (32%) outside the paint, numbers that are almost identical to the 13-for-47 (28%) Smith shot from the same area in last year’s series loss to the Celtics.
3. Drew needs to realize that Ivan Johnson is the only hope at center
As I mentioned above, Johnson was outstanding in both of the games in which Drew played him at least 20 minutes. Over the final three games, Petro averaged over 20 minutes while Johnson averaged 16. The results speak for themselves. For the second straight year, Drew decreased Johnson’s role over the course of a playoff series and the Hawks failed to make it out of the first round.
I also mentioned that Drew has made egregious mistakes in each of his three years coaching in the postseason. In Game 6 of the Hawks’ 2010 second round series against the Bulls, Drew continued to favor Jason Collins in the starting lineup. Tom Thibodeau game planned to attack Collins with Carlos Boozer’s mid range shooting. Once the Hawks switched on defense, Thibs had Joakim Noah isolate Collins at the top of the circle, allowing him to drive for an easy layup. Zaza Pachulia would finish the postseason leading the Hawks in aggregate +/- and would become one of only five players to rank in the top 10 in playoff rebound rate in two of the preceding three seasons.
In Game 3 of last year’s Celtics series, Drew subbed in Jannero Pargo for Kirk Hinrich with 2:05 to play in the third quarter and the Hawks trailing 54-53. By the time Pargo checked out early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics had extended the lead to 73-65. The seven points the Hawks were outscored by over that period was significant because the game ended in a tie, forcing overtime. This year, Hinrich started for the Bulls and played a significant role in three of the team’s four playoff wins against the Nets as the team advanced to the second round. Pargo, meanwhile, couldn’t stick as the last man on the bench for the Washington Wizards, who desperately needed help at point guard.
And this year, Drew took one of the worst coaching decisions of his career, the decision to sit his best player in a playoff game due to phantom foul trouble, and repeated it. When it happened in the playoffs against the Magic, former ESPN analyst John Hollinger called it “the most indefensible coaching decision I’ve seen this season.” Hollinger, now a member of the Memphis front office, will have influence over future coaching decisions for that franchise. I wonder what he thinks about the fact that his harsh criticism of Drew two seasons ago made no impression whatsoever.
In the end I believe that Josh Smith never learned how to play basketball because he came to the NBA straight out of high school and has been taught by coaches like Drew his entire career. Drew is incapable of learning, so it’s no surprise that he is incapable of teaching.
In my final post for former TrueHoop Hawks affiliate Hoopinion, I wrote an open letter to Smith pleading with him to stop blaming Hawks fans for his team’s shortcomings. In Game 6 against the Pacers, Hawks fans continued to support the team even as Indiana built a significant lead. The fans went ballistic as their team charged back to make a game of it. In the end it wasn’t Hawks fans who failed to teach or execute the art of boxing out. In the end, it wasn’t Hawks fans who were not good enough. It was Josh Smith and Larry Drew.