Calling regular season games “must win” when your team is essentially guaranteed a playoff spot may seem silly. It gets even sillier when you’re reminded that the same team has a second-round ceiling in the postseason at best.
However, the Hawks next three games are vitally important for one reason: they need to stay above the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Well, it’s only important if they want to avoid getting bounced in four games by the Miami Heat in the first round.
One of these next three games is at home against a Portland team that habitually struggles on the road. (they’re 9-25 on the road!) The other two, the more important ones, are against the current eighth-seed in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks.
By winning all three of these games, the Hawks can create a sizable cushion between the eighth-seed and themselves. Of course, how do they do it?
Focusing on Milwaukee, the Bucks present an interesting matchup against the Hawks because they have players who can both shoot the ball (Redick, Ilyasova, and Dunleavy) and players that can create off the dribble. (Ellis and Jennings) To top that off, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Larry Sanders give them each an elite wing and post defender.
EDIT: Both Ilyasove and Mbah a Moute will miss tonight’s game.
However, the Bucks have two very exploitable weaknesses. The first, both Jennings and Ellis are awful defenders that will force Larry Sanders to help on a lot of plays. While Sanders is very good at help defense, this will still leave too many open passing lanes for Teague and Harris. Like the last game between these two teams (which the Hawks won, 103-102) expect a lot of passing from the Hawks and big night from Al Horford.
The second major weakness, again, lies with Jennings and Ellis. Both of these guys are volume scorers that aren’t very efficient. However, the two are inefficient in different ways. Jennings is a slightly above-average jumper shooter who cannot finish anything inside the paint; he’s shooting 46.6% in the restricted area, which is 13.3% below the league average. Ellis is the opposite, shooting about the league average at the rim (which is good for a guard) and being one of the worst three-point shooters in league history this season. (26% for someone taking almost four threes a game is bad) As much as we (rightfully) bash Josh Smith for his three-point shooting, at least he is shooting over 30% from behind the arc.
My gameplan for the Hawks would be this: start the same lineup as the previous game, Teague-Harris-Smith-Tolliver-Horford, with Ivan Johnson as the early sub. The Bucks had a huge rebounding advantage last game, and that was with Zaza Pachulia playing, so the Hawks are going to have to step their game up in that department. Starting Ivan might not be a bad idea for these games, but I think Ivan will be better suited to be the energy guy off the bench.
Offensively, attack the basket at will. Larry Sanders should be forced out of the paint a lot because of Horford’s shooting ability, so Devin and Jeff are going to have to take advantage of this. Ellis and Jennings shouldn’t be hard to get past, but when help does come, the guards should be able to find an open shooter that hopefully isn’t Josh Smith. While having Josh play the three may force him out of the paint more on offense, I’d much rather he be posting up on smaller players than Larry Sanders.
On defense, let Teague play on Jennings and have Harris on Ellis. Harris is the better defender of the two and will do a better job of preventing Monta from getting into the paint. Of course, we all know how bad Jeff can be at pick-and-roll defense, but that might not be a huge weakness in this game. As far as I’m concerned, let Jennings do whatever he wants without helping; force him to be the scorer in the paint and turn Ellis into a jump-shooter. If the opposite happens, the Hawks will probably lose.
Of course, after Monday’s debacle against the Mavs, I expect the Hawks to have a renewed vigor in guarding the three-point line. As long as they aren’t forced to help excessively on Ellis and Jennings, they should be fine in this area.
The Bucks are .500 on the road, but they aren’t much better at home, with their record in Milwaukee only being 18-16. They’re game tonight will be the 2nd game of a back-to-back. Essentially, the Hawks have a very good opportunity to win both of these games, and they need to do so if they want to have any hope of advancing past the first round of the playoffs.