Why Have the Hawks Been Shooting so Poorly?
*Photo via AJC
Through their first eight games of the 2014-15 playoffs the Atlanta Hawks have not looked like the same dominant team we saw in the regular season. The Hawks were the biggest surprise of the regular season. After finishing 38-44 in 2013-14 the Hawks improved to 60-22 this season. The Hawks 22 game improvement allowed them to move from the number eight seed in the east to the top record in the conference. Since the Hawks are fortunate enough to play in the weak eastern conference and looked so good in the regular season, many expected them to have an easy path to the conference finals. Thus far the road to the eastern conference finals has been anything but smooth sailing. The Hawks needed six games to beat the lowly 38-44 Brooklyn Nets and split the first two home games of the second round to the Washington Wizards.
Part of the reason the Hawks have looked like a more vulnerable team in the playoffs is that their stellar shooting has cooled off. In their 82 regular season games the Hawks shot 46.6 percent from the field and a staggering 38 percent from three. In their 8 postseason games these percentages drop to 43.1 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from three. The team statistics for the playoffs come from a smaller sample size, but nonetheless they show a significant drop in Atlanta’s shooting prowess from the field and beyond the arc.
The main culprit for this fall in shooting has been the Hawks late season injuries. Similar to many teams still alive at this point of the season, the Hawks have been hampered by injuries. The most well documented injury was the broken right leg to reserve swingman Thabo Sefolosha that occurred at the scene of Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland’s stabbing in a NYC nightclub. Sefolosha was the first wing off the bench for the Hawks, filling in for Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll when they needed breathers. With Sefolosha out for the year this job has fallen to Kent Bazemore. Unlike Atlanta’s other injuries, this one may actually help Atlanta’s shooting. Losing Sefolosha hurts Atlanta’s depth and defense, but Bazemore is the superior offensive player. In the regular season the two averaged nearly identical PPG (point per game) and MPG (minutes per game), but Bazemore scored much more efficiently. Sefolosha shot 41.8 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from three while Bazemore shot 42.6 percent from the field and 36.4% from three. Sefolosha’s injury fails to explain the teams dip in shooting, but it does hurt the teams defense and depth greatly. In addition Sefolosha is one of the few players on the roster that has valuable playoff experience from his days as the starting shooting guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Part of what makes the Hawks such a great shooting team and so hard to guard is that they always have five shooters on the court. This is because all four rotation big men (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, and Mike Scott) have the ability to shoot from deep. Horford can make long 2s, while the other three bigs are legitimate threats from beyond the arc. Key bench cog Mike Scott suffered a broken toe that caused him to miss 11 games in the regular season before returning for six of the last seven regular season contests. Fans outside of Atlanta may not know much about Scott and how valuable he has been to the Hawks throughout the year. Scott averaged 7.8 PPG in 16.5 MPG while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from three for the Hawks during the season. Since returning from injury Scott has not looked like nearly the same player. In the playoffs, Scott is averaging just 3.7 PPG in 10.4 MPG and shooting just 36.7 percent from the field and 20% from three. If Scott can get back into his regular season form he will provide a great boost for the Hawks going forward.
Near the end of the regular season the Hawks starting power forward Paul Millsap injured his right shoulder. The two-time all-star missed six games before returning for the Hawks regular season finale. Millsap has been playing better of late and has shot well from three-point land in the post season. Nonetheless Millsap’s field goal percentage has dropped from 47.6 percent in the regular season to 42.5 percent in the postseason. Millsap looks tentative driving into the lane and is settling for more outside shots with the injury to his shooting shoulder. Millsap has not attacked the paint the way the Hawks need him to and is averaging less FTA (free throw attempts) per game in the playoffs.
The Hawks other starting big and best player, Al Horford, suffered a dislocated pinkie on his right hand (his shooting hand) in Game 1 of the Hawks first round series vs. Brooklyn. The injury did not cause Horford to miss any games, but it has caused a drop in his shooting. Horford’s shooting has dropped from 53.8 percent to 47 percent from the field in the playoffs and from 30.6 percent to 14.3 percent from three. Horford has stated that the tape on his right pinkie has affected his shooting. With Al Horford and Mike Scott’s drops in overall shooting and Paul Millsap not attacking the paint as often and effectively as usual, the Atlanta offense has suffered greatly.
Kyle Korver is yet another Hawk, who has been affected by an injury. In the midst of a historic shooting season, Korver broke his nose in mid-March. Korver missed a few games and needed to wear a protective face-mask in his first couple games back from the injury. He has since ditched the mask, but his shooting has been noticeably less proficient. After shooting 48.7 percent from the field, 49.2 percent from three, and 90 percent from the free-throw line in the regular season, Korver is shooting just 41.1 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from three, and 83 percent from the line.
The one player that has shown improvement in the playoffs has been starting small forward DeMarre Carroll. Despite being the most unheralded Hawks starter, and the only starter not to make this year’s all-star team, Carroll has been Atlanta’s most important player thus far in the playoffs. He has been the Hawks leading scorer and best overall player in the postseason. The performance comes at a perfect time for Carroll, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the season. Carroll’s postseason play will earn him a lot of money come free agency, whether it comes from Atlanta or another team.
Despite all of these injuries the Hawks are still in good shape to continue their playoff run. Other than Sefolosha, all of their players are active and improving in health as each day passes. The Hawks caught a huge break in Game 2 with John Wall missing the game due to a left wrist injury. This allowed Atlanta to tie up the series at one game a piece heading into Washington. If the Hawks can steal one of the two upcoming games in D.C. from the Wizards they will be in great shape. Atlanta cannot afford to lose both games in Washington and fall three games to one in the series. This would be too big of a hole for the Hawks to get out of, and would likely end their pleasantly surprising season.