We’ve all heard about the award-winning offensive genius of Coach Bud and how Kyle Korver is lighting the world on fire with his shooting, but what about the other side of the court? The offense has been there all season for the Hawks, but the defense has taken a big leap forward in the past six weeks.
In their first 13 games, Atlanta had a defensive rating of 107.2, good for fifth-worst in the league. Since November 28, they’ve won 20 of their last 22 behind an NBA-best 96.1 defensive rating. The offense hasn’t changed; it’s actually scoring one fewer point per 100 possessions than it was in the beginning of the season. The improved defense has vaulted the Hawks from the dregs of mediocrity (a place all too familiar to Atlanta sports fans since, well, forever) to the top of the Eastern Conference and into the conversation as Finals contenders.
So how have things changed? What are the Hawks doing differently on defense?
In short, they’re doing a better job of protecting the rim and forcing opponents further away from the basket. Al Horford has taken his lumps in the media for not being able to protect the rim, but he’s allowing just 51.4% shooting inside of six feet during this 22-game run, over seven percentage points better than league average and ten percentage points better than what he was allowing in the first 13 games. Paul Millsap is still a below-average inside defender, but his opponents are shooting six percentage points worse during this run than they were during the early part of the season. Pero Antic has been a consistent rim defender all season, giving up 45.6% shooting at the rim, ranking him 21st amongst 135 players who see at least three shots at the rim per game. On the season, the Hawks are still giving up the third-worst field goal percentage at the rim in the league, but they’re slowly but surely getting better inside as Horford regains his health and the perimeter defenders work better together to force opponents into long jump shots.
To aid their below-average percentage at rim protection, the Hawks are moving teams further away from the rim, choosing to give up contested mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers over shots in the restricted area. Atlanta’s opponents have the longest average shot distance in the league (per Basketball-Reference), which allows their long perimeter defenders to force contested jumpers.
The main benefit of moving teams further away from the basket is that Hawks’ opponents aren’t getting to the free throw line for easy points. Atlanta commits the second-fewest fouls and gives up the third-fewest free throw attempts per game, which forces opponents to earn their points from the field and has the additional benefit of helping the Hawks turn great defense into easy offense on the other end.
These numbers get even better in crunch time, when the Hawks defense turns from above-average to downright scary. During this 22-game run, the Hawks have put up a ridiculously low 88.9 defensive rating in clutch situations (defined as a game in the last five minutes with one team leading by five points or less), a mark that would easily lead the league over the course of a full season. Opponents are shooting just 18.8% from three in these situations and 38.1% overall, both top-ten marks in clutch situations. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, the Hawks are posting a 129.7 offensive rating in crunch time, bested only by Dallas, Golden State, and Portland. Whether or not the crunch time offense is an aid to their defense is debatable, but the numbers don’t lie; the Hawks are one of the two or three best teams in the league in the last five minutes.
The defense isn’t nearly as sexy as the offense, but it’s getting the job done in a big way over the last 22 games as Horford has regained his health and the players are buying into the coaching staff’s defensive system. If Atlanta truly wants to make a run to the Finals, they’ll need every bit of this top-ten defense to hang with the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
All stats are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted