Do the Hawks Need the Third Seed to Make a Deep Playoff Run?

Graham Chapple —  April 13, 2016

Every October, 30 NBA franchises (well, 29, discounting the Sixers who have no interest in the playoffs right now) begin a journey, a journey whose destination lies in the form of post season basketball, the playoffs – the pinnacle of professional basketball. The place where champions are crowned and legends are made. Only 16 teams will arrive at this destination come mid April. And out of those 16 teams, only eight of them – four East, and four West – will begin their playoffs journeys at home. The opportunity to play the first two games of a seven game series (at least in the first round of the playoffs) at home. The home fans cheering, feeding, and fueling their team with their energy and excitement, hoping they can use it to gain an advantage. This, as I’m sure you’re well aware, is known as home court advantage – something many teams strive for throughout the regular season in order to give themselves the best chance of success in the playoffs.

The Atlanta Hawks are one of the four teams in the Eastern Conference to secure home court advantage, thanks to the Boston Celtics’ loss against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night. Who they will face in the first round is unclear, that is to be determined on the final night of the regular season, tonight. They could face anyone of the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, or Boston Celtics.

But the objective of the Hawks’ season is not just to make the playoffs, nor to win just one playoff series and crash out in round two, happy with one playoff series win. I mean, that’s fine if you’re one of the lower seeds like the Detroit Pistons, but this Atlanta Hawks team is beyond that point in their journey. They are a team stacked with many veterans who have tasted the playoffs on many, many occasions (this current Hawks roster combine for 568 playoff games), and one playoff series win/getting KO’d in round two this season simply wouldn’t be good enough – especially for a team who made the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

No matter who the Hawks face in round one – which is more than likely to feature the Celtics or the Hornets rather than the Heat – it’s going to be a tough series, but one that the Hawks have the talent to pull through. So, just for the argument of today’s conversation, let’s just say the Hawks do win their first round matchup. Good series, Charlotte/Boston, but the Hawks are moving on to round two. What would that mean heading into round two?

Since the Hawks did not secure the first or second seed in the East, they are automatically on the road for the first two games of round two. That’s fine, you generally have to win at least one game on the road to win a playoff series. But it’s who you’re facing that matters.

Who you face in round two is determined by where you finished in the final regular season standings. The winner of the 3 vs. 6 matchup will face the winner of the 2 vs. 7 matchup. The winner of the 1 vs. 8 matchup will face the winner of the 4 vs. 5 matchup.

As the Cleveland Cavaliers locked up the top seed in the East, thanks to their victory over the Hawks on Monday, they would be Atlanta’s round two opponent, as the Hawks hold the four seed.

A round two matchup against the Cavaliers could be a disaster for the Hawks. The Cavs have been the one Eastern Conference cookie the Hawks have simply not been able to crack this season – 0-3 against the Cavs this season. The 3-0 series loss for the Hawks means they are 0-7 in their last seven meetings with the Cavs (this year’s regular season series and last year’s ECF). The Cavs, you could say, are Atlanta’s bogey team.

Let’s have a look at the stats from this season’s three game series between the two teams and how the two teams stack up against each other. (Cavaliers’ misc stats, ATL’s misc stats)

hawks-cavs stats

Nearly every neutral fan/pundit/analyst would take the Cavaliers over the Hawks in a seven game series. Why? Well, let’s talk about it. Personally, I tend to be in agreement with the masses that the Cavs would prevail, but I will make a case for both sides.In many areas, the Cavs trump the Hawks. There’s only a few areas where the Hawks are significantly better – such as assists per game and fast break scoring – but other than the signs would be ominous for the Hawks in a playoff series.

Firstly, here’s the argument as to why the Hawks may not best the Cavs in a seven game series.

No answer for “Zero Dark Thirty-23”

For those who don’t know, Zero Dark Thirty-23 is LeBron James’ alter, playoff ego where he zones out of social media, and the such, and goes into playoff mode – playoff LeBron.

Playoff LeBron is a monster, as the Hawks know from last season’s ECF where he averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game.

The Hawks have had no answer for LeBron in this season’s series but, to be fair, how many teams do? In the three game regular season series he averaged 27.3 PPG on 57.6% shooting (45.5% from deep), 11 rebounds, and 7.7 assists.

LeBron has been able to get the rim at will against the Hawks. This is not to say that the Hawk’s rim protection is weak, it’s to say that LeBron James is so damn good when he drives to the rim. He’s just so strong, he can hold off almost any challenge. His shot chart against the Hawks this season makes for a scary reading.

LBJ shot chart vs ATL

70% shooting around the rim is ridiculous. And even if he misses, Tristan Thompson is always lurking about to clean up the offensive glass. Or, when he draws the big to try block/contest his drive, LBJ can just lob it up for one of his own bigs. But the threat doesn’t end there. LeBron is also shooting the three at such a great clip, you can’t always just back off of him. He’ll knock that shot down.

Now, to be fair, the Hawks’ best perimeter defender, Thabo Sefolosha, has not featured much in the season series, playing an average of just 19.9 minutes per game against the Cavs. This should change in the playoffs, and we’ll see what bearing this has on the series and LeBron’s percentages.

Stronger supporting cast

When I’m talking about the Cavs’ supporting cast, I’m talking about the main rotation players who support LeBron. So, Irving, Love, Smith, Shumpert, Thompson, and Delly are essentially who I’m talking about.

I’m sorry to break some Hawks fans’ bubbles here, but the Cavs have a better supporting cast than what the Hawks do. Heck, Irving and Love have been franchise players on their respective teams. Mind you, those teams sucked, but they were franchise players nonetheless. Shumpert and Smith (when he’s hot, again, as the Hawks are well aware of) are great rotation players to have for a team with title aspirations.

There’s no shame in admitting the Cavs have the better supporting cast and there’s a good reason why they do. Have you seen their payroll?? They’re spending over $100 million in salary and are deep in the luxury tax, so of course they’re going to have the better supporting cast than the Hawks. You’d expect them to, right? And for all that extra money they’re paying, they’re not light years ahead of the Hawks. The Hawks supporting cast could definitely go toe-to-toe with them.

Cavs’ bench overpowers the Hawks’ bench

The Cavs are a deep team and have one of the deepest benches in the league – even though their bench ranks 28th in scoring, they rank fourth in defensive rating (99.6), and sixth in net rating (3.7).

A bench featuring Channing Frye, Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson (before he slid into the role of starting center), Iman Shumpert/J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson, and Mo Williams – that’s a lot of talent. And you’d expect nothing less from a team whose luxury tax bill is large enough to pay for another franchise’s roster and some.

However, it is a bench that the Hawks have really struggled against. Normally, the Hawks bench averages 34.5 points per game, and their net rating of plus 4.0 ranks among the best in the league. One of the better benches in the league when it comes to defending.

Against the Cavs, however, it’s a completely different story. The bench’s offensive rating crumbles to 87.8, and their defensive rating skyrockets to 116, leaving for a net rating of -28.2.

That’s a very, very scary stat for the Hawks. You need a good bench to keep you afloat in the playoffs, otherwise the starters are going to feel the burn very quickly.

Rebounding

Ah yes, every Hawks fans’ favorite topic of discussion. Rebounding. The Cavs destroyed the Hawks when it came to offensive rebounding and scoring second chance points in last year’s ECF. It was very painful to watch. It, arguably, cost the Hawks that series, and it has cost the Hawks in a few regular season this season.

While the number of second chance points the Cavs are scoring on the Hawks this season are down slightly, 13.3 second chance points per game is still a lot for the Hawks to concede. Any number like that is really going to hurt them in any playoff series.

The Cavaliers have the clearcut advantage when it comes to rebounding, and it would surely be a huge factor in the series as it was last year. There’s no reason to believe the Hawks’ rebounding fortunes will drastically change against the Cavs in a playoff series.

Those are some of things going against the Hawks in a potential Cavs series, but there’s are some possible reasons why the Hawks could best the Cavs.

Revenge series

No one wants to be swept in the playoffs. And no one wants to be swept in the Conference Finals. Sadly for the Hawks, they suffered both last season at the hands of Cleveland. The Hawks’ best ever season ended on such a sad note with that sweep, and they should want blood in any sort of rematch, especially at home. They’ll come and play these Cavs very hard and with a lot of emotion. They will want revenge for those two losses in Games 1 & 2.

There will certainly be a revenge factor to this series.

A healthier roster

The Hawks, provided they don’t suffer an injury in the first round, will have something this year that they did not have last year when they faced the Cavs – health. Al Horford was in discomfort with a broken pinky, Millsap was dealing with a shoulder injury, DeMarre Carroll suffered a knee injury in Game 1 and played hurt the rest of the series (and hasn’t been truly healthy since then, even to this day), Kyle Korver suffered an ankle injury in Game 2 (we won’t talk about that), and Thabo Sefolosha had his leg wrongfully broken by police in a scuffle in Manhattan.

There’s no injuries issues this season, however. Everyone, bar Tiago Splitter (who, really, didn’t bring anything to the court anyways), is healthy and good to go. We’ll get to see how the Hawks get on with a healthier team.

And that’s kind of all I have for the Hawks on being able to possibly best the Cavs. Again, not to say it’s impossible for the Hawks to knock off the Cavs, but they would really be up against it.

In conclusion…

So, let’s bring this full circle. Do the Hawks need the third seed to make a deep run in the playoffs this season? Personally, I think yes, absolutely. We’ve gone through why the Cavs would be the favorites/why the Hawks would struggle very much against the Hawks – they must avoid the Cavs in round two if they want to have a chance of making a deep run. The Cavs are just a nightmare team for the Hawks to matchup against.

If the Hawks were able to clinch the third seed, the fourth seed – who would be Cleveland’s opponent in round two – would be the Miami Heat. The Heat are one of those teams that give the Cavaliers trouble, as they are much better equipped to take down the Cavs than the Hawks are. The Heat would push Cleveland to their limit, and they simply match up better than the Hawks do. And that’s what the playoffs are all about – matchups.

Even if the Cavs were to emerge victorious against the Heat, that would be a series that would drain a lot out of the them and would level the playing field a bit should the Hawks make the ECF from the third seed. Yes, it would mean that the Hawks would have to take care of business against, say, the Raptors in round two, but you’d much rather take your chances against a team who have no experience in round two over a team led by a man who has been to five straight finals. So, essentially, the Hawks would have to hope the Heat rough up/knock off the Cavs in order to have a chance in the ECF.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, they no longer control their own destiny over the third seed. That game in Cleveland on Monday really was a must win game for the Hawks, an early playoff game. That loss returned control of the third seed back to the Heat, who need merely win one more game to secure the third seed. Did Atlanta lose their early playoff game that will haunt them for the real playoffs? Did they already lose the pivotal Game 5 of their deep playoff hopes on Monday’s night? The Hawks will have to hope for a Miami loss against the Celtics tonight night to give them the best chance of making a deep run in the playoffs. All will be become clear soon.

(stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats)

Graham Chapple

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