Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 25 March 2015 - · 17 views
“I pop bottles, but I don’t pour.”
We now return to the scenes of the crimes.
Losers of three straight for the first time in forever, our Atlanta Hawks have fallen flat against some of the best of the West, something that could be problematic if they’re fortunate enough to be playing in June but fail to adjust defensively. The good news is just one of their final 12 contests will be against a Western Conference opponent.
Even better? The Hawks built up much of their gaudy 53-17 record on their own Southeast Division. Two lucky buzzer-beating, victory-stealing shots are just about all that have separated the Hawks from running the table (9-2) against their Southeast foes.
This week, Atlanta gets an opportunity to avenge those two road defeats, beginning with tonight’s game in Orlando where they’ll face Tobias Harris’ Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, SportSouth, FoxSports Florida). This weekend, they’ll get a chance to pay back Dancin' Lance Stephenson and the playoff-hungry Hornets in Charlotte. To get back on the good foot, though, Atlanta needs its All-Star starting lineup to cease playing like All-eged-Stars.
The Magic (22-50) are begrudgingly coming around to accept their lot in the NBA standings. Injuries have piled up on James Borrego’s crew over the past month. That includes Harris (17.9 PPG, 39.5 3FG%, 81.5 FT% pre-injury this month), who injured his ankle last week and has missed the last three games. He’s probable to return to the floor this evening, but backup center Dewayne Dedmon (ankle) remains questionable. Evan Fournier missed the last meeting in Atlanta and remains out indefinitely with soreness in his hip.
Channing Frye caught a bug and missed Orlando’s last game, a blowout home loss to Denver, and remains questionable for tonight. Harris, Frye, and Fournier represent over 53% of Orlando’s three-point shot volume this season. Their absences would leave Victor Oladipo, Ben Gordon, and ex-Hawk Willie Green to carry the floor-spreading freight.
From the start of the season through the trade deadline, Magic GM Rob Hennigan made zero moves to acquire veteran leadership that could shore up a team loaded with young first-round talent. The inaction was particularly curious considering a playoff 8-seed was still in sight, despite all the losing in January, while center Nikola Vucevic was rebounding out of his mind. Hennigan (a yung'un himself) chose instead to rely on organic growth under Borrego, a Budenholzer disciple, for the rest of the year, hoping the addition of another lottery pick to the mix might do the trick next season.
Borrego brought that new-car smell to the team in the aftermath of Jacque Vaughn’s ouster, and the team responded by buying-in to a defense-oriented philosophy. It’s an uphill climb anytime your main veterans (Luke Ridnour, Ben Gordon, Green, Frye) lack defensive aptitude, and Borrego has had to turn to capable but generally unseasoned players (Oladipo, Payton, Aaron Gordon, Kyle O’Quinn, Dedmon) to consistently make stops.
The Magic’s defensive efficiency soared from 105.7 points per 100 possessions through January (25th in NBA) to 97.2 under Borrego in February (3rd in NBA). Alas, after it soared, it soured, dropping to a league-worst 110.2 this month. Accordingly, they’ve dropped seven of their last eight games, the exception being a home win last week against a listing Portland squad. With the Magic still shorthanded last Sunday, Denver’s Danilo Gallinari went off for a career-high 40 points, while Jameer Nelson showed Magic fans he’s still got it (15 points in 17 minutes, 3-for-6 3FGs off the bench).
Still, homecourt is where the Magic happens, at least lately. Going back to mid-January, all of Orlando’s last eight wins have come at Amway Center. That’s a flip from the season’s start, when Harris’ buzzer-beating jumper against Atlanta in December earned the Magic just their third home win and first in nearly a month.
The Hawks know a little bit about letting your defense collapse after losing a few players due to injury. Their own defensive rating has slipped from 97.4 in January (3rd in NBA) to 101.0 in February (15th in NBA) to a sieve-like 106.0 in March (23rd in NBA, just ahead of the Knicks). Defensive rebounding was a modest 75.2% (15th in NBA) that magical month of January. Since then, it’s collapsed to an NBA-low 69.7%.
Lately, Atlanta’s approach to defending shooters and the rim has been a lot like hoping that hearing Otis Redding in an ad, for the 50,000th time in a week, will finally entice you to run to a particular restaurant hungry for some “select,” “premium,” chicken tenders.
Opponents have been turning over the ball plenty in the rush to beat Atlanta to the hoop (17.0 opponent TOs per 100 possessions since February 1, 2nd in NBA). The problem is the Hawks have become a gambling “Steal or Bust” defense (49.8 opponent eFG% since Feb. 1, 11th-highest in NBA). Not much different than Orlando, whose 20.5 PPGs off TOs this month eclipses only Atlanta’s 20.3, despite being the league’s most defensively-inefficient team in March.
Whether it’s failing to box out or thwart dribble penetration, or improper rotations leaving shooters way too open, doing the same flawed things over and over again don’t eventually begin to work.
And one cannot paper over all the defensive lapses with occasional bursts of offense. The Hawks shot 50.0% on threes against San Antonio, and eight of their top nine players in minutes played stole the ball at least once. Yet they could not stop the top-seven Spurs (in minutes played) from hitting on nearly 60% of their shots from the floor, over 63% on two-pointers, while getting nearly three times as many free throw attempts.
All-eged-Star center Al Horford (4-for-11 FGs vs. SAS) had five assists and no turnovers, but just two defensive rebounds in over 28 minutes of action. He may not remember what to do at the free throw line (career-low 2.0 FTAs per game) once he finally gets back there. The last one he took was back on March 15 against the Lakers. Al needs to be more aggressive with positioning for boards and finishing at the rim, and will have another tough head-to-head matchup inside with Vucevic (19.5 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 65.5 FG%). When it comes to fighting for that ball around the basket, Al has got to squeeze it, don’t tease it, never leave it…
Another All-eged-Star, point guard Jeff Teague (last three games against Curry, Westbrook, and Parker: 10.3 PPG, 3.7 APG, 4.0 TO/G, 40.7 FG%) has not been trumping opposing point guard starters the way he did, consistently, during the salad days prior to his All-Star berth. Jeff must find ways to feed Horford in the post and not rely solely on his pick-and-pops to get the job done. He’ll have his hands full with the rookie Payton, a reigning conference player-of-the-week nominee after providing back-to-back triple-doubles in recent games against Dallas (15 points, 12 assists, 10 boards) and Portland (10-for-13 FGs, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 1 TO). Teague must keep Payton from loitering in the paint at both ends.
Similar to what transpired in November before a 35-3 Atlanta sprint up the standings, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was not trying a little tenderness with his players, during the critical film session that followed their latest ugly loss to the Spurs on Sunday afternoon. Sparking some fire after getting Joey Crawforded and ejected on Sunday, he and his players have indeed acknowledged a need for defensive adjustments, or at least a reversion to things they were doing that gave them success in the earlier half of the season.
“We are going to need different defensive coverages going into the playoffs. You can’t stick with one,” noted DeMarre Carroll to the AJC. “We’ve been sticking to one ever since the All-Star break has been over. Now, we want to throw out a couple of different schemes. It will be good for us.”
“I think we have (lost a bit of edge),” All-eged-Star forward Paul Millsap opined, one day after getting beaten up and down the Philips Arena court by the likes of Boris Diaw, of all people. “We were on such a hot streak that a lot of things were overshadowed, things that we weren’t good at but we were still finding ways to win games. Now, it’s coming back to haunt us. We’ve got to get back to what we do. Numbers-wise, we played good through that stretch. Numbers-wise since the All-Star break we haven’t been that great.”
Cooling the repeated floor burns of late will be the return of swingman Thabo Sefolosha, whose defensive rebounding and tight man defense grew to be crucial components of Atlanta’s January Jaunt. He will be under a minutes restriction, however, leaving it incumbent on the also newly-returned All-eged-Star guard Kyle Korver (5 TOs in 29 minutes vs. SAS) and Kent Bazemore (17 invisible minutes vs. SAS) to defend and rebound with renewed vigor.
Let’s Go Hawks!