With the NBA Playoffs just over a week away, I went ahead and took a look at every (realistic) potential matchup the Atlanta Hawks may face in the postseason, and discussed how to go about coming away the victor, as well as giving my prediction.
Season series: Heat 4-0
- If there’s one thing you can take away from the abundance of Miami Heat highlight clips on YouTube is that they can run the fast break like no other team can. Turning the ball over against this squad is the equivalent of a death sentence, you may as well surrender two points and avoid having LeBron James fly over the top of you. This means trouble for Atlanta, who’s 22nd in the league in turnover percentage. The Heat will double the handler on every pick-and-roll, meaning point guard Jeff Teague, who’s matured a great amount since last year will need to be extra careful when controlling the offense.
- Miami finds themselves crushed on the boards often, ranking 26th and 24th in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage respectively. They rank 25th in total rebounding percentage, yet are still ahead of the Hawks who rank 27th in the league. It’s quite the head-scratcher considering Atlanta boasts a frontcourt of excellent rebounders in Al Horford and Josh Smith, plus their defensive rebounding percentage is 12th best in the NBA. Anyway, rebounding is Miami’s most glaring weakness and that’s where the Hawks need to take advantage. Now I’m not saying send all five guys to the offensive glass because that would be counterintuitive to the first key, so the load is basically on Smith and Horford, since Zaza Pachulia won’t be returning to the Hawks this season.
- The Heat’s offense surrounds the skillful endeavors of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, their trio of superstars. However, a great deal of it comes from their role players nailing wide open long bombs off of a kick out from James, Wade, or Bosh. As effective and monumental as help defense is in today’s game, it must be used in a very limited fashion if you’re going to beat Miami, as all three stars are extremely proficient passers and will find the open shooter when doubled. Thus, individual defense is huge. The Hawks may not have a farm of talented one-on-one defenders, but Horford can check Bosh, Deshawn Stevenson defended Dwyane Wade in a Finals series two years ago, (which he won) and Josh Smith is athletic enough to somewhat stick with James.
Prediction: Heat 4-0
Season series: Knicks 2-0 (one game remaining)
- The New York Knicks have been abysmal at guarding opposing point guards, When your best option is 35-year old rookie Pablo Prigioni, that’s probably what happens. What does this mean for the Hawks? It means they don’t come away winners in this series unless they take advantage with a large dose of Playoffs Teague. Yes, Playoffs Teague. A popularized phrase on Twitter used to emphasize how Jeff Teague takes his game up a notch come the postseason. The Hawks will need Teague to dominate, with the Knicks allowing opposing point guards to play with a PER of 17.4, good for a 24th best rank in the entire league. (per 82games.com)
- The Knicks tend to lose their composure when the game gets physical and the refs hold off on the whistles, leading to technicals and worsened play due to frustration. This is exactly what Atlanta wants. Set the tone early in games with physical play, don’t be afraid to give out hard fouls as the contest progresses. The Playoffs are known to be a much more physical game, so the extraneous physicality won’t look out of the ordinary. Just keep it within the legal confides of the game and don’t let it distract you from making the right plays to win the game.
- New York leads the league in taking care of the basketball, they rarely ever give the ball away. When they do, it usually costs them the ball game. The Knicks have turned the ball over more than 15 times in just 35% of their games this season, a remarkable figure. Keeping the ball from the opposition allows teams to play at their preferred pace, and reduces the amount of easy fast break opportunities by a large amount, which hurts the Hawks since they are ranked 7th in the league in transition offense, per Synergy Sports. The best way to go about forcing turnovers against this team is to pressure full-court to tire out those “oldest team in NBA history” legs and to corral players when they attack the basket.
Prediction: Knicks 4-2
Season series: Tied 2-2
- Paul George has evolved into a potential franchise centerpiece for the Indiana Pacers, most notably for his work on the defensive end. Per Basketball-Reference, he leads the entire league in defensive Win Shares, and his presence on the court is second-best on the team (players that have played at least 2,000 minutes) in regards to affecting defensive rating. However, he is still young and is still very manipulable when attacked correctly. For one, he often gets lost or confused when running around off-ball screens multiple times on one possession. If he’s guarding a Kyle Korver, it’s the perfect time to dig into the playbook and run some complicated off-ball movement to an open three for Korver, who’s shooting a spectacular 45.5% from long range. Secondly, in their last matchup George opened up on Josh Smith, an easily exploitable mis-match if Pacers head coach Frank Vogel goes to this strategy again. Smith has a huge edge athletically, and will likely bring in tons of help defense when punishing George down low (hopefully, down low) on offense.
- The Pacers lead the league in defending the three-point ball, ranking first in fewest opposition makes from downtown, second in attempts, and first in percentage. Indiana is actually 10-11 when giving up 7 or more threes in a contest this season, and are 40-18 when they contain their opposition from making that amount of long bombs. The Hawks make 8.6 treys per-48 minutes, and need to be stroking the ball like there’s no tomorrow to top this Pacers team. Indiana’s defense is the best in the league period, and it’s largely in part of their terrific recovery speed when helping on the defensive end. This makes it hard to find open shots from downtown against Indiana, but one way to assure the Hawks will find some is to play lineups with a good amount of three-point shooters. A great idea would be to play more Anthony Tolliver, who could play the four spot sharing the frontcourt with Al Horford while shooting threes at a 34.1% clip. Another lineup that still has room for improvement is playing Kyle Korver and John Jenkins together. Even if the two can’t find open looks, both of them being on the floor together spaces the floor out dramatically for their teammates.
- The Atlanta Hawks need to deny the Pacers the ability to move the ball. On the defensive end Atlanta needs to be in constant ball denial mode unless Indiana’s bench unit is in, and this is because according to Synergy Sports, the Pacers are in dead last in the league in isolation offense. They love to work the post with their skillful big men Roy Hibbert and David West who make the defense collapse, and rely on drives from Paul George and George Hill to find open shots. Crowding the passing lane is huge here, along with strong individual defense that won’t need to concede an open lane or shot. Keep the offense from running smoothly and try to force Indiana into attempts that come late in the shot clock.
Prediction: Pacers 4-2
Season series: Tied 2-2
- Brook Lopez has been the most consistent and efficient offensive threat on the Brooklyn Nets, an ever-improving center who was named to his first All-Star team this season. Lopez is fifth in the league in PER, and although he has made strides in the rebounding and defending department, his game revolves around his excellent offensive ability. His most damaging quarter is the opening one, in which he has an ORTG 112.4, a figure nearly 6 points higher than his season mark. Following then he drops off, and has even found himself benched in close games late in the fourth quarter on several occasions. The key here is not to allow him to get off to one of his hot starts. Al Horford is a very capable defender at the center position, and he can limit Brook somewhat, but effort also needs to come on the offensive end into getting Lopez into foul trouble. This is no easy task, considering Lopez averages a measly two personal fouls a night. But if attacked aggressively continuously, it’s only a matter of time before his sub-par defense gives way or he begins committing fouls.
- As easy as it is to come up with Joe Johnson contract jokes, he’s come through for the Nets time and time again in the clutch this season. He’s done so with ease, flair, and unfathomable efficiency. In the final two minutes in the fourth quarter or overtime, with the game with a margin of five points, Joe Johnson has a FG% of 56, and has made 4-of-6 threes for this Nets team. very solid at first glance, right? Well, when there’s just 24 ticks left on the clock, and the ball game is within three points, he’s made 7-of-8 field goal attempts and I’m pretty sure you can head onto YouTube and see how difficult those shots were. Now however this potential series may turn out, it likely won’t be a sweep or a 5-game series. With the thought in mind that these teams will face off for at least 6 games, there’s no doubt at least one of those will come down to the wire. In that situation, the Hawks must force the ball out of Joe Johnson’s clutch gene-filled hands in order to pull off a win.
- Josh Smith needs to have a helluva series against the Nets for the Hawks to come away winners. With no realistic scenario in which one Nets player can defend Smoove successfully on his own, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go out and dominate every single night. The Nets premier defender is Gerald Wallace, who’s been dealing with confidence issues as of late. (Confidence on the offensive end to be exact, but this fact likely isn’t helping out his defense at all) Even at his best, Wallace doesn’t have the strength to disallow access to the paint for Smith. This leaves the Nets power forwards as the only other options, and none of them have the speed to keep up with Smith. This means not settling for jumpshots, but you really never know with Josh.
Prediction: Nets 4-3
Season series: Bulls 2-1
- The Chicago Bulls have won games this season one way and one way only, by locking down defensively. They have the fourth-slowest pace in the league, and want a grind-it-out game every single night. To beat em’, the Hawks can’t give them what they want. This means that all series, Atlanta needs to push the ball and take advantage of any transition opportunity available. As previously mentioned, the Hawks are one the best teams in the league at working the fast break, so there shouldn’t be any problems here considering the Bulls are one of the worst teams at defending it, ranking 27th in the league per Synergy Sports. On top of this, head coach Tom Thibodeau has a tendency to overplay his players in the regular season and postseason, so fatigue can play quite the factor here.
- Joakim Noah has become an elite defender at the center position, one of the main reasons Chicago has the sixth best defense in the entire league. His backup on the team is Nazr Mohammed, 14-year veteran center at the age of 35. He, is not the greatest of defenders. He was extremely viable once, but his body has deteriorated some, and he can very much be considered a liability for the Bulls on the court when he checks into the game. The Hawks bench squad should do everything they can to make use of this gap in Chicago’s stifling defense. With Devin Harris coming off the bench in all likelihood, he should be the main focal point of the attack, averaging 14.5 points per-36 minutes with a TS% of 57.5%. Other options include the energetic Ivan Johnson and the improving rookie Mike Scott.
- Although Chicago’s defense is elite, they truly only have a single solid backcourt defender, being Kirk Hinrich. Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli, and Nate Robinson are the Bulls other main backcourt rotation guys, none of which are very viable defenders. That being said, Jeff Teague and Devin Harris need to continually put the pressure on Hinrich on the offensive end, maybe get him into some foul trouble, and especially put up all of the points they can on Chicago’s less-capable defenders. Any easy bucket against this team is crucial with how effective their defense is, and some of the easiest will come when being guarded by 5’9″ Nate Robinson or 35-year old Richard Hamilton.
Prediction: Bulls 4-2