After a couple days of much needed rest, the Hawks returned home to get their first win in 16 days against the Chicago Bulls. In the past three games, Atlanta has had no problem scoring the ball, but it has been their most reliable asset, defense, that hasn’t looked quiet the same.
Today, shooting just 42% from the field and 20% from 3, they buckled down and showed why they are currently the third ranked defense in the NBA.
“Before the All-Star break, I thought we were playing great defense,” said Kyle Korver after a 103-88 win over the Bulls. “If you look at all the analytics and rankings, I think we were number one in the NBA for a month and a half. We were playing great defense. We came out of the break and had a slippage. So it was good for that to end and get back tonight.”
The Bulls were under a constant barrage all night, as both units from the Hawks capitalized on the absence of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Aaron Brooks and E’twaun Moore attempted to hold the fort down, but never seemed comfortable and the lack of chemistry could not be more obvious. The two, who are viewed more as scorers than distributors, were accountable for nine of the teams 21 turnovers.
The rotation of the Hawks’ perimeter defense was quick and decisive, something the Bulls — and I’m sure other NBA teams — know all too well about Atlanta. They entered the game ranked second in the league in forcing turnovers (16.7) and second in points off opponent miscues (19.3).
“That’s all we talked about for two days,” said Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg. “We have averaged just over 20 turnovers against this team, and you just don’t give yourself a chance to win.”
The level of energy the Hawks played with on the perimeter forced the Bulls out of their rhythm and into one of their worst shooting performances of the year, ending the night with 36% shooting from the field. Doug McDermott (20 points and five rebounds) was the only bright spot for the Bulls.
In the second quarter, the Hawks held a 15-point lead with 3:42 remaining until the Bulls fought back and ended the the half on a 15-7 run to end the half, reducing Atlanta’s lead to just seven. But the Hawks tightened early in the second half, forcing the Bulls into costly mistakes in the third quarter, scoring 10 points off turnovers, blocking three shots, and and forcing 34.8% shooting from the field.
“It was huge,” said McDermott on turnovers. “That’s what has gotten us in trouble over the last couple of times we’ve played them. They scored 27 points off of them, and that was the key to the game right there.”
Jeff Teague (18 points and nine assists), Al Horford (18 points and five rebounds) and Kent Bazemore (17 points and seven rebounds) were the most prominent scorers in this game for Atlanta. Each player had his fair share of good looks at the rim and could of poured in a couple more baskets, but that is neither here nor there; teams like Atlanta know that offense comes and goes, and the ultimate goal is only achievable if you commit yourself to the other side floor with effort and trust.
The Eastern Conference is a tight race currently, with just a game or two separating teams. Before the game the Hawks were the 7-seed, and after the win, they jumped two spots to the 5-seed. In the postseason, they will not be able to avoid teams like Boston (106.2 ppg), Toronto (102.4 PPG) and Indiana (102.5 ppg), who clearly have no problem scoring. The defense shown tonight and most of the season can and will keep Atlanta in games against those teams, just like it has kept them in a nip and tuck conference race.
Attention to detail, energy and communication are three important ingredients to a successful defense. A lot of teams would allow a tough shooting night to make them lose focus on the other end, but not these Hawks, not when they are completely dialed in.
“I thought we were pretty focused tonight,” Korver said, rattling on about the team’s defense. “Going into the game, our locker room felt right. That’s what we need. We need everyone to be focused and ready to play hard. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well. We weren’t crisp. But I thought our focus, especially on defense, was really great.”
Now the Hawks turn their attention to division foe Charlotte Hornets for a 3:00 p.m. matchup on Sunday. The Hornets picked up a big win Friday night against the Indiana Pacers and are now just one game behind Atlanta. Hawks will be looking for more of what we saw tonight in this one, as they allowed 122 points in Charlotte back in November.
“We have one more Sunday, we’ll have a similar mindset, said coach Mike Budenholzer. “We have to play better and see if we can do it with our defense, particularly starting and coming out of the gate.”