Hawks-Wiz: A Series Dissection

Graham Chapple —  April 29, 2017

All stats courtesy of NBA.com

The Atlanta Hawks’ roller coaster season ended on Friday after the Washington Wizards won Game 6 in Atlanta after blowing the game open in the fourth quarter, squashing any hopes of a Hawks comeback — having trailed by as many as 22 points — and a possible Game 7. The Wizards won the series 4-2 and will advance to the second round where they’ll play the Boston Celtics.

On the night, turnovers killed the Hawks (especially in the first half) but the Hawks lost this series for plenty of other reasons than the turnovers they committed in Game 6.

Why, ultimately, were the Hawks bested by the Wizards in 6 games?

Too much Wall and Beal

The Hawks didn’t do a good enough job of limiting John Wall and Bradley Beal, who were probably the best two players in this entire series, certainly two of the best three players in this series (Paul Millsap being the other one). Wall averaged 29.5 PPG on 52.5% shooting from the field, 47.4% from three and 10.3 assists per game. Beal, meanwhile, averaged 25.8 PPG on 46.2% shooting from the field and 26.4% from behind the arc.

John Wall

Wall was easily the best player in this series and has been one of the best players in the entire first round of these playoffs. Period. You could tell right from Game 1 that this was a revenge series for the Wizards and John Wall who, of course, lost to the Hawks in second round in 2015 but felt they should’ve advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals if Wall hadn’t injured his hand in Game 1.

Even in Game 1, Wall was keen to show Schröder who was boss, rekindling some beef from the 2015 playoffs where Schröder, supposedly, told his teammates to hit Wall’s injured hand (something Schröder denies).

The first of a few vicious dunks that Wall would unleash in this series.

Game 3:

(This is still absolutely outrageous)

Game 5:

Aaaaand Game 6:

Those dunks also give you an indication of how easy it was for John Wall to get to and finish at the rim in this series. A few of those dunks came in half court sets and others came in transition off of misses or turnovers.

From Game 1:

From Game 2:

You get the idea…

The hex map also illustrates how well Wall was able to get to and finish at the rim. In case you don’t know how to read a hex map all you need to know is this: large red hexagons are extremely good:

Or, if you prefer a ‘vanilla’ shotchart:

33/39 within 8 feet of the rim…that’s absolutely ridiculous.

The Hawks were unable to contain Wall as effectively as they did in the regular season series. From the preview piece for this series:

But against the Hawks, Wall didn’t excel as he did against other teams. For the season, Wall shot 58% in the restricted area and 34% in the paint (specifically the non-restricted area). Against the Hawks, Wall shot 35% in the restricted area and 60% in the paint (again, not including the restricted area) but that percentage is only so high because Wall made three of only five attempts in that area.

Wall’s frequency of shots also differs drastically against the Hawks. For the season, 44% of Wall’s overall shots come less than 10 feet of the rim (of which he made 54.8% of the time) while his jump shot frequency was 45.3% (of which he made 37.4%). Against the Hawks, the frequency of shots within 10 feet decreased to 31.4% (of which he made just over 40%) while the frequency of jump shots increased to 55.7% (of which he made only 28% of).

In this series, Wall shot 65% in the restricted area (29-of-44) and 67.3% within 8 feet of the rim. Wall was relentless in his pursuit to get to the rim and did it far better than he did so in regular season against the Hawks. He was simply too much to handle in that department.

The other issue Wall created was that he hit the three-pointers the Hawks wanted him to shoot, shooting 47% from three in this series. When Wall has that three-pointer falling, he’s almost impossible to stop. He also had that mid-range jumper falling too — Wall shot 50% from the 16-24 ft range, often dancing behind Marcin Gortat screens which the Hawks would go under, daring him to make that shot. And he did, so you have to give Wall credit for that because, if you’re the Hawks, those are the shots you live with Wall taking/making. The only issue was that his numbers around the rim/restricted area etc. were still super high in addition to his mid-range/perimeter shooting percentages being high.

Dennis Schröder, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kent Bazemore…it didn’t matter who the Hawks threw on Wall — they couldn’t stop him getting to the rim. Perhaps the length of Thabo Sefolosha might have limited Wall’s ability to get to the rim at will (and potentially bother him if he did get there) but we’ll never know, because Thabo only featured in four of the six games and averaged just over 2 minutes a game in this series for reasons only Mike Budenholzer knows.

To be, somewhat, fair to Dennis, THJ and Baze (who didn’t spend a whole lot of time guarding Wall), pick-and-roll defense caused the Hawks a lot of issues and those guys would just get stuck on Gortat while Wall either blew his way to the rim or took the open jump shot since — more often than not — Dwight Howard refused to step up on pick-and-rolls and contest the ball handler’s shot.

An example from Game 2:

But this, by no means, excuses Schröder and THJ from their, at times, terrible defense of Wall, who was able to get by Schröder and THJ too easily. Though Timmy did take on the responsibility of guarding Wall it was never for extended stints, so a lot of the blame for defending Wall has to lie at Dennis’ feet, since this is predominately his matchup. Dennis posted a defensive rating of 111.7, the worst defensive rating of any Hawk player who played significant minutes in this entire series.

Wall’s ability to get to the rim at will combined with the jump/three-point shots he was making and the Hawks’ defense of him proved to be a horrific combination, summed up by Wall’s 42 point Game 6 to close this series out. But big-time players do big-time things and Wall is no exception…

Of course, Wall is much more than just a point guard who’s able to score. He constantly got his teammates involved, as he always does. Wall averaged 10.3 assists in this series, including a 32-14 Game 1 and a 20-14 Game 5. In transition and in the half court, Wall just knows how to get everyone involved and makes the right plays. He picks and chooses his spots excellently.

Overall, John Wall was the best player in this series, the Hawks didn’t do a good enough job staying in front of him, he made his jump shots, roasted the Hawks in transition and got his teammates involved. What more is there to say, really? He was simply too much to handle.

Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal proved to be as much of a handful as John Wall in this series, averaging 25.8 PPG on 46.2% shooting from the field.

While Dennis Schröder at least kept John Wall on his toes in the point guard matchup, Beal absolutely crushed his in the form of Tim Hardaway Jr.. Coach Bud decided to continue to allow Tim Hardaway Jr. to consistently guard Beal and it, usually, didn’t end well, especially in the pick-and-roll where THJ really struggled.

The Wizards could get Beal almost any shot he wanted because THJ was getting killed with the Gortat screens and Dwight didn’t step up to contest.

It was especially bad in Game 2:

Honestly, you could make a short film about how the Wizards and Bradley Beal just exploited THJ’s defense in this series. He was just awful at times but, to be fair, THJ did a better job fighting over picks later in the series but it still wasn’t great.

This graph from NBA Math (shoutout) measures points added and points saved. Example: if you’re where Dennis is on this graph, that means you added a lot of points but didn’t save very many at all. If you’re Paul Millsap, you saved quite a number of points and were able to add points too but not as much as Dennis.

So, for THJ, he didn’t save many points at all…

Beal’s outbursts in this series were certainly helped by the poor defense of Tim Hardaway Jr.

Beal actually struggled quite badly from three-point range in this series shooting 26.4% (14-of-53). Part of it came down to how the Hawks defended him but a lot of it was because Beal just missed good opportunities. Over 32% of Beal’s total shots were open three-pointers and he made just 23.4% of them.

While he struggled shooting the three-ball, Beal excelled just about everywhere else. Beal shot 62% in the restricted area, 70.6% in the paint (not including the restricted area) and 53.8% from mid-range. His shotchart tells the same story:

If the Hawks were ever going to have a shot in this series, they needed to limit one of (if not both) Wall or Beal and that never happened. The lowest the pair combined for was 41 points in Game 3, which the Hawks won. In the four Washington victories, the lowest Wall and Beal combined for was 47 in Game 5. In Game 6, Wall and Beal combined for 73 points.

“They are one of the best backcourts in the league. You have to give them credit. As much as we, I’m not going to say we don’t like them, but we are playing against them so they are not our teammates. You want to take that challenge. You want to take that to heart. They took the best out of our backcourt. They made a lot of their tough shots, a lot of their easy shots. When they had an opportunity to get their teammates involved, they did that as well.”

— Tim Hardaway Jr.

You could argue that part of the strategy was to let Wall and Beal get theirs and limit everyone else, but I, personally, don’t believe that’s something the Hawks planned on doing.

Washington’s supporting cast did just enough

Even if the plan was for Wall and Beal to get theirs and slow down the supporting cast, the Washington supporting cast did just enough for the Wizards to get by and win.

Game 1: Markieff Morris: 21 points. Marcin Gortat: 14 points, Kelly Oubre: 11 points.
Game 2: Marcin Gortat: 14 points, Brandon Jennings: 10 points, Jason Smith: eight points.
Game 5: Otto Porter: 17 points, Bojan Bogdanović: 14 points.
Game 6: Markieff Morris: 17 points. Bojan Bogdanović 10 points.

The Hawks did a good job limiting Gortat after those first two games and Markieff Morris was plagued by foul trouble for most of this series after his strong Game 1. But the Wizards had enough players who could get themselves involved (Jennings, Bogdanonvić, Porter) and their production (along with Wall’s and Beal’s) carried the Wizards home when they needed them to. With how Wall and Beal scored in this series, the Wizards didn’t need a whole lot of other scoring to take them home.

They had enough, and that’s all they needed.

Atlanta’s lack of bench help

This was the one area where the Hawks (for all their matchup problems) could’ve really pressed their advantage in a seven game series but this advantage wasn’t capitalised on as it should’ve been.

In the regular season the Hawks’ bench averaged 34 PPG (18th) while the Wizards’ bench averaged 27 PPG (29th). Against the Wizards in the regular season, the Hawks’ bench averaged 37 PPG. In this series, however, the Hawks’ bench averaged just 24.5 PPG.

Kent Bazemore led the Hawks’ bench in these playoffs but didn’t enjoy a consistent run. He averaged 9.8 PPG on 39.6% shooting from the field and 29.2% from three. Baze had a great Game 4, scoring 16 points and dishing seven assists but followed up with a 3-of-12 performance in Game 5 and seven turnovers in Game 6. Despite that, Bazemore led the team in plus/minus in the playoffs with plus-3.

Ersan Ilyasova, meanwhile, struggled to make an impact on the offensive end at all in this series. Ilysaova averaged four points on 34.8% shooting from the field and 20% from three. Having watched him play in this series, he just couldn’t find the right opportunities from behind the arc. It was strange, it just seemed as though the looks Ersan was getting in the regular season he wasn’t getting in the postseason. That, to be fair, isn’t strange at all in the playoffs if your name is Kevin Durant or James Harden, but Ersan Ilyasova? I’m not so sure…he just didn’t get great looks in this series.

José Calderón added a great spark in Game 4, but struggled to make an impact outside of that (at least on the court), Mike Dunleavy didn’t add much at all in his limited time and Mike Muscala struggled on the offensive end.

Thabo Sefolosha’s absence was so bewildering, considering how Beal and Wall were scoring almost at will. Sure, Thabo isn’t an offensive juggernaut but defensively he could’ve helped a lot. His free agency should be interesting…

In three of the six games the Wizards’ bench outscored the Hawks’ bench and in Game 6 the Hawks’ bench only outscored the Wizards’ bench by one point: 16-15. And with Ian Mahinmi missing this series altogether with a calf strain, the Hawks should’ve had the upper hand in this department.

We saw in Games 1 and 4 how effective the bench was. In Game 1, the bench kept the Hawks with a chance to win the game despite how many turnovers they committed (outscoring the Wizards’ bench 35-15) and in Game 4 it proved to be the difference (32-23 in Atlanta’s favor), especially with how Baze played. But when it mattered in Games 2, 5 and 6, the Hawks bench didn’t stand up to be counted.

A missed opportunity for the Hawks in this series.

Little help for Millsap and Schröder

Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder (who were both fantastic in this series) had to carry the offensive burden all series long without a great deal of consistent help. No one outside of Paul or Dennis looked as though they go get a bucket on their own or on a consistent basis.

Tim Hardaway Jr. was inconsistent this whole series, Baze couldn’t show consistency, Dwight Howard did very little offensively in this series and the bench guys behind Baze (Ilyasova, Dunleavy) didn’t do a great job scoring either. Behind Millsap and Schröder, Taurean Prince was the only player who was consistent in this series — 11.2 PPG in this series.

When a rookie is your most consistent scorer outside of your star two players in a playoff series, that’s a serious problem. But take nothing away from TP himself. He gave Hawks fans a lot of hope for the future with his consistent play — he shot 56% from the field in this series. For a rookie that’s not a big, that’s fantastic. The future is bright for Taurean Prince.

THJ really did struggle in this series. Though he was the third leading scorer for the Hawks in this series with 12.8 PPG, he shot 33% from the field, 26.2% from three and 63.2% from the free throw line. Bradley Beal has quite a bit to do with holding him to those percentages but THJ didn’t always help himself either. He tried a little too hard to get himself involved when shots weren’t falling and took some really poor shots which didn’t go in either.

Example from Game 1, a game where THJ shot 2-of-11 from the field and 0-of-6 from three:

The Hawks had the personnel to support Millsap and Schröder in a playoff series but their consistency was lacking. It’s not those guys’ (Dwight, Baze, THJ etc.) talent that’s in question but consistency. THJ and Bazemore are good players but I think even they will admit that their consistency this season could’ve been better. The talent is obviously there, just a matter of stringing it together. Easier said than done (and all the more reason to appreciate Paul Millsap).

Turnovers/transition points

Probably the biggest factor of this series outside of Wall and Beal were the turnovers, turnover points and points in transition.

From the preview piece:

Turnovers were a big factor in the regular season-series and whichever team takes care of the ball (and in the process, limits the opposing team’s points off of turnovers) is going to have a huge advantage over the other.

This rung too true in Games 1, 2 and 6 — all of which were Washington wins. The Hawks turned the ball over too many times in those three vital games and the Wizards made sure to punish them for it. Critically so.

Game 1: 21 turnovers leading to 23 Washington points
Game 2: 18 turnovers leading to 22 Washington points
Game 6: 22 turnovers leading to 27 Washington points.

The Hawks averaged 16 turns per contest leading to 18.3 Wizards points while the Wizards averaged 13 turnovers per game leading to 14.8 Hawks points.

It’s very simple: you can’t expect to win a playoff game or a playoff series if you cough the ball up like that. You don’t need to break down film for that, it’s very easy to understand the importance of not turning the ball over in the playoffs, and the Hawks didn’t do a good enough job over a 7 game series.

When you turn the ball over against this Wizards team in particular, they punish you. Or if you miss a shot and don’t hustle back, they punish you. It doesn’t matter which, the Wiz will get you either way.

If John Wall is going coast-to-coast off of a turnover or a miss (or even a make for that matter), somewhere out there in transition, Bradley Beal is trailing behind the three-point line, Otto Porter is trailing behind the three-point line, Markieff Morris is trailing for a dump-off and Marin Gortat is trailing for dump-off. All of these options are waiting for Wall to collapse the defense before deciding what to do with the ball — score or pass. And with how much of a handful Wall is in transition, it’s almost impossible to pick up everyone in transition. In short: it’s a recipe for disaster for the opposition and the Hawks, with their inability to pick up Wall in time and their turnover problems, played right into the Wizards’ hands.

In the end, the Wizard averaged 20.7 fast break points per game for the series.

Closing: The Wizards were simply the better team

In a best-of-7 series, more often that not, you don’t lose because you played poorly but because the other team was simply better. Let’s face it (although I hope it didn’t take you this long to realise this) the Wizards are a better team than the Hawks and that was, ultimately, reflected in their ability to finish this series on the road in six games.

Every game, to be in with a chance of winning a game, the Hawks had to achieve many of the following in a game:

  • Limit Wall and/or Beal (good luck with that)
  • Move the ball/play Hawks basketball
  • Get big games from Dennis and Paul
  • Get a solid/good/great game from at least one of the supporting cast (i.e. THJ, Baze etc.)
  • Receive contributions from their bench
  • Limit turnovers
  • Get back in transition
  • Limit the Washington supporting cast
  • Fight around those Gortat screens/play good pick-and-roll defense
  • Shoot the three-pointer well
  • Get to the free throw line

This was the issue coming into the series and why most experts/pundits picked against the Hawks: there were too many things they had to do/needed to go right to win four times out of 7 against this Wizards team and, ultimately, there was just too much to do.

The Hawks fought hard in this series, never gave up and made this series a really entertaining one for fans across the NBA too, which I don’t think many expected them to do so. Fans enjoyed the Millsap-Morris beef and the Wall-Schröder beef as well as the entertaining games. Personally, I wasn’t very optimistic of this being a fun series but it really was, even if the Hawks lost. And credit to both teams for that.

They may have come short but it was a valiant effort from the Atlanta Hawks. They can be proud of themselves. Rest easy, because there’s a big summer ahead…

Graham Chapple