The Hawks were praised for their depth throughout the regular season, with Coach Budenholzer having the personnel to run his offense almost no matter which players were on the court. The combination of size and outside shooting off the Hawks’ bench allowed Budenholzer flexibility in his lineups, something that he’s clearly rolled over into the playoffs. Budenholzer mostly stuck with a nine-man rotation in the second-round series against the Wizards, but some of the lineups have infuriated fans of the team. As the Hawks move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s going to become time for Budenholzer to cash in on all the rest he’s afforded his starters over the regular season and early rounds of the playoffs.
Budenholzer has regularly rolled out lineups with three of the Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, Mike Muscala, and Pero Antic bench brigade in these playoffs, and they have regularly gotten killed while out there. The three-man combination of Schröder, Bazemore, and Antic has played 75 minutes in the postseason, posting a ghastly -10.2 net rating, per nbawowy.com, and lineups featuring Schröder, Bazemore, and Muscala have fared even worse with a -11.1 net rating in 25 minutes. It’s understandable that Budenholzer wants to spell his starters, but he needs to avoid these lineups that takes too many of them off the court at a time.
Curiously, Budenholzer has even been reluctant to play four of his starters together. All possible lineups featuring four starters have only logged 113 minutes in the playoffs; compared to the 100 minutes that Budenholzer has played the lineup combinations mentioned above, it’s not hard to understand why fans and writers are perplexed at some of his in-game choices. Unsurprisingly, the Hawks have played Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll along with one of Paul Millsap or Al Horford for a majority of those 113 minutes, since big men often need more rest than perimeter players due to the toll their bodies endure banging underneath the basket on post-ups and rebounds. The emergence of Muscala in the Wizards series as a viable backup big man also gives Budenholzer more flexibility to spell Horford and Millsap.
The most successful four-man group amongst the Hawks starters all season and in the playoffs was the Teague-Korver-Millsap-Horford group, where either Bazemore or Thabo Sefolosha came off the bench for Carroll. In the playoffs, lineups with Carroll on the bench and the other four starters on the court are slaughtering opponents, posting an extraordinary +45.2 net rating in just 16 minutes. I imagine that a Teague-Korver-Bazemore-Millsap-Horford lineup will be heavily utilized in the Cavs series when Carroll needs a rest from guarding LeBron James, even though that lineup only saw the floor for seven minutes in the first two rounds.
Bazemore’s defense will be the linchpin for the Hawks in this series. The Cleveland offense is heavily reliant on isolation, and nobody in the league has isolated more than James this postseason. The Hawks will be quick to help off of Iman Shumpert, but when Kyrie Irving and JR Smith surround James on the perimeter with Timofey Mozgov spacing out for a baseline jumper and Tristan Thompson crashing for offensive rebounds, the Hawks are going to have to pick their poison. If Bazemore can put in his trademark effort and do a reasonable job on James in limited minutes, then the Hawks might be able to stay home on the Cavs’ shooters and force James to shoot jumpers. Of course, that’s been the plan against James for years and his teams have been pretty successful at finding a way to win. Horford has been a revelation defensively this season, with the size and hands to alter shots and the quickness to recover in pick and roll situations. His help off of Mozgov or Thompson on James or Irving driving to the basket will be essential for the Hawks.
The Hawks got into trouble when they would stick to their normal rotations and the other team would stay with their starters or bring them back earlier than anticipated, leaving the Hawks bench to contend with some of their opponent’s best units. If Budenholzer does want to play a three-bench-player lineup, then he’s going to want to wait until the Cavs run out a similar lineup and quickly bring back the starters once the Cavs do. The last thing the Hawks want is to have any possessions trying to defend the Cavs’ starters with the Schröder-Bazemore-Antic threesome that has given up 108.8 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs.
Budenholzer’s seemingly endless trust in Schröder may pay dividends in this series; neither a hobbled Irving nor Matthew Dellavedova can stay in front of him, and the Cavs won’t want to match Irving or Dellavedova against a cutting Carroll or a perpetually-moving Korver, so Schröder should be in prime position to take advantage of that matchup. That said, lineups with Schröder and Teague have been a major weakness for Atlanta and the decision to play the two of them together when Tristan Thompson is on the floor for Cleveland may come back to bite the Hawks. Atlanta grab 66% of defensive rebounds when the two point guards are out there and Cleveland grab 29% of offensive rebounds when Thompson plays, which could be a massive advantage for the Cavs and serves to grab free possessions for Cleveland and slow down the Hawks’ transition game.
The Hawks will hope that all the rest they’ve given to their superstars will pay off in this series against one of the most potent offensive teams in the league. The Nets and Wizards were fine teams that were capable of attacking the Hawks; the Cavaliers are different animal entirely. It will take a monstrous defensive effort from Horford, Carroll, and co. to take down the King and his men.