I keep hearing that the ceiling for the Atlanta Hawks is the second round of the playoffs. As I noted in the preseason, I’ve never bought this line. I didn’t buy it two playoffs ago when the Hawks pushed Chicago to Game 6; and I didn’t buy it last season when, as AJC columnist Mark Bradley cataloged, the Hawks blew an opportunity to face 8th-seed Philadelphia in the second round.
Prior to the Boston series, I listed five obvious mistakes Larry Drew made during his first postseason. I hoped he would learn from these mistakes, and admonished that “Drew must stop giving significant minutes to scrubs and washed up veterans.” Far from heeding my advice, Drew entrusted his offense to Jannero Pargo, one of the worst players in the NBA, in a pivotal Game 3. It would be one thing if injuries had pressed Pargo into service, but this was not the case. Kirk Hinrich, who started at point guard for the Bulls this season, was available when Drew opted to entrust his team’s season to Pargo.
As the Hawks prepare to face the Indiana Pacers in the first round, I believe that any ceiling lower than the Eastern Conference Finals is self-imposed. How do I think the Hawks can make it to the Eastern Conference Finals? My road map to that destination is the same as it was last year. Here’s a look at some key points from last season’s preview and how they still apply to the Hawks’ playoff chances this year:
1. Drew must stop giving significant minutes to scrubs and washed up veterans
Last year, I noted that Josh Powell and Jason Collins, who played prominent roles in Drew’s 2011 playoff rotations, deserved mention in any conversation about the worst players in the NBA. Pargo, who cost the Hawks a shot at the Eastern Conference Finals last year, also enters that conversation. None of these players has found a spot in a rotation since leaving Drew’s. Powell is out of the league, Collins couldn’t get off the bench this year and Pargo was so bad that he was cut by a Wizards team desperate for help at point guard with John Wall injured.
There’s no way to sugar coat this: These are marginal players that no coach has seen fit to give any significant role to since they left the Hawks. Unfortunately for the Hawks, the loss of rotation players Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia means that beyond the team’s top six players, scrubs and washed up veterans are about all Drew has to work with.
What does this tell us? It means that Drew must shorten his rotation and play his core players in excess of 40 minutes per game. The way to beat the Pacers is to hit them in the mouth at the start of the series. If the Hawks lose the first two games, no amount of rest for the starters is going to get the Hawks back in the series. On the other hand, if Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague all play 40+ minutes and Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and Ivan Johnson play 30+ minutes, the Hawks may be heading back to Atlanta with home court advantage.
What would stealing home court advantage mean for the Hawks? Here’s a quote from Josh Smith in an April 3rd Ramona Shelburne piece for ESPNLosAngeles.com, talking about the 2008 playoff series against the Celtics:
It was a seven-game series and the three games we had at home, it was unbelievable. You could feel the building shaking. You could feel the intensity, it was loud. I want that feeling.
Seizing control of the series from the Pacers could bring the fans out when it shifts back to Atlanta. Unlike the Celtics, Bulls or Knicks, the Pacers will not pack Phillips Arena with transplanted fans who drown out the home crowd. Josh Smith wants that feeling. This is how the Hawks can create it.
2. The Hawks cannot succeed if Teague sacrifices his offense so Josh Smith can launch more jumpers
Joe Johnson and his isolated wing jumpers are gone but Josh Smith and his isolated wing jumpers have rushed in to fill the void. As much as Josh Smith facilitates the offense with his excellent passing, he has fallen into the trap of ball stopping with his well-chronicled infatuation with the mid-range jumper. As I noted in my after-action report for last year’s elimination by the Celtics:
Josh Smith shot 13-for-47 outside the paint for the series. That’s 34 missed field goals in a series where the team lost by single digits three times.
The way the Hawks are going to make the Eastern Conference Finals is through Josh making a conscious decision to play team basketball and play the right way for the duration of the series. If he consciously decides to allow Teague to bring the ball up and initiate the offense instead of trying to force the action himself, the Hawks could get into an offensive flow that even the vaunted Pacers defense will have a hard time containing. If he stands around and bricks jumpers or tries to take point guard responsibilities away from Teague, the Hawks are doomed.
3. Drew needs to realize that Ivan Johnson is the only hope at center
When the Hawks defeated the Lakers on March 13th, I saw Ivan Johnson play some of the best defense I’ve ever seen against Dwight Howard. Roy Hibbert is no Dwight Howard. Johnson is one of the strongest players in the NBA and combines this with unbelievably quick feet. This combination will allow him to limit either Hibbert or David West’s opportunities close to the basket. Both players will have trouble driving or getting deep post position against Johnson.
This is why Johnson must play 30+ minutes per game in this series. As Jacob Eisenberg noted in his series preview for Sheridan Hoops, Johnson’s 14.6 rebound rate ranks him ahead of Serge Ibaka. Johnson can guard all three front court positions, take his man off the dribble and hit the elbow jumper. Johan Petro can do none of this. According to 82games.com (hat tip Najeh), the Hawks allow 113 points per 100 possessions with Petro on the floor and 104.6 points per 100 possessions with Petro on the bench. Meanwhile, the Hawks score only 98.3 points per 100 possessions with Petro on the floor compared to 106.4 per 100 possessions with Petro on the bench.
There’s a reason why the Hawks are terrible on offense and defense with Petro on the floor. The reason is that Petro, like Powell, Pargo and Collins before him, is right there in the conversation about the worst players in the NBA. He’s joined in that conversation by DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones. Any time one of those three players are on the court, the Hawks are playing 4-on-5. This is why Drew must play his top 6 players until foul trouble forces his hand. If Petro starts at center in Game 1, the Hawks are doomed. If Jones or Stevenson see extended minutes in this series, the Hawks are doomed.
Anthony Tolliver, Mike Scott, John Jenkins and Shelvin Mack aren’t much of an improvement over those three, but at least those players have a future in the NBA. Stevenson, Petro and Jones are on their way out of the league, just like Pargo, Powell and Collins were before Drew made them part of his playoff rotations. If Drew hasn’t learned his lesson about playing scrubs in the playoffs, I wish him well in his job search.