How the Hawks Can Turn the Series Around
After dropping a foul infested and competitive game to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves sitting down 2-0 in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, now facing a must win Game 3. Fortunately for the Hawks, the series shifts to Atlanta on Saturday, but unfortunately, Mike Budenholzer’s team doesn’t have a lot of positives to build on after two road losses to open the series. Dwight Howard has been virtually invisible, the Hawks have collectively shot under 25% from 3 and John Wall has had his way offensively against a normally stingy Atlanta defense. Unless the Hawks want to bow out in the opening round of the playoffs for the fifth time in the last seven years, they’re going to need to make some major adjustments. Here’s what Atlanta can do turn their series with the Wizards around.
Rely on Their Star and Sidekick
John Wall may be the only superstar in this series, but Paul Millsap has made 4 consecutive all-star rosters and is the Hawks’ own alpha dog. Millsap was very quiet in Game 1, but came alive Wednesday night, posting a double-double and helped keep Washington’s bigs in foul trouble, as he shot a game high 15 free throws. The Hawks will need Millsap to stay aggressive and assertive if they hope to turn the tides in Game 3. Power forward is the only position where Atlanta has an advantage over Washington and Millsap must do everything in his power to exploit his matchup with the likes of Markieff Morris and Jason Smith.
As good as a player as Millsap is he’s more dependable than explosive (only posted 3 games with 30+ points this season) and is not the type of guy that can carry a team by himself. This means another Hawk starter must elevate their game. Enter Dennis Schroder, who despite struggling with his 3 point shot, has been Atlanta’s best player through the first two games of this series. However, if the Hawks want to make this series competitive, Schroder has to fine-tune his decision-making in a couple areas. Firstly, when Schroder draws Marcin Gortat or one of Washington’s bigs in transition or on a switch he needs to capitalize on this miss-match. Normally the knock on the German point guard is that he isn’t a willing facilitator, but in these situations he’s been too passive and has given the ball up despite having a huge speed advantage on the perimeter. Schroder needs to attack the basket when he is isolated against a center of power forward. The second adjustment comes in the pick in roll, where the Wizards have been content to go under screens and allow Schroder to take uncontested 3’s. Through 2 games Dennis is just 4-13 from deep and would be better served by stepping into long 2’s (a la Andre Iguodala) when his defender goes under an on ball screen. Throughout the season Schroder shot a solid 46% on 16-21 footers and should revert back to this look during the playoffs.
A large part of the strategy to rely on Millsap and Schroder falls coach Mike Budenholzer’s shoulders as he can both increase their minutes and call for more sets for his top duo. Millsap and Schroder have played 34 and 37 MPG to start the series, in comparison Wall and Beal have averaged 38 and 40. Millsap must stay on the floor at all costs to allow Atlanta to have the edge inside for as long as possible. While playing Schroder and extra 3 or 4 minutes would limit the amount of time Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr (two wings by trade) spend running the point.
Make Washington’s Supporting Cast Beat You
Through the first two games of this series John Wall and Bradley Beal have accounted for over half the Wizards’ points, assists, and total shot attempts. Additionally, each player has posted a usage rate over 30%, meaning the Wizards run their offense through these two players 60% of the time when their on the floor. Wall has per usual been dynamic in transition and has knocked down jumpers at a high rate to start the series; while the Beal can get almost any shot he wants when coming off curls and pin downs. Starting in game 3, Atlanta must do whatever it takes to make life tough for Washington’s vaunted backcourt and force the rest of Scott Brooks’ squad to beat them.
To limit what Wall and Beal can do in the half court set, the Hawks can trap Wall and Beal when they are the ball handlers in pick and roll situations. I know that Otto Porter is one of the league's best spot up shooters and that Gortat is a fine outlet when diving to the basket, but Atlanta cannot continue to let Wall get downhill off screens or allow Beal to step into pull-up jumpers. Forcing the ball out of Washington’s guards hands will also frustrate Wall and Beal as it limits their time in attack mode and makes Porter, Morris and Bojan Bogdanovic (3 guys who’ve looked uncomfortable in Games 1 and 2) take on bigger roles as playmakers.
Additionally, the Hawks need to control the damage Wall and Beal do in transition. Through 2 games the Wizards have averaged over 20 fast break points per game. This trend cannot continue if Atlanta wants to be competitive in this series as it plays to Washington’s strengths. The Hawks would be well advised to send less guys crashing the offensive boards and rather retreat in transition and then force role players to win in the half court set as opposed to watching Wall and Beal race down the court for lay-ups. If I’m Atlanta I’m doing everything in my power to make sure Wall and Beal don’t beat me and that means trapping pick and rolls and playing conservative in transition and on the offensive glass.
Play MMA Style Basketball
There’s an old NBA theory that suggests that role players tend to perform better at home then on the road in the postseason. As the series shifts to the Phillips Arena, Atlanta should only ask that their role players play harder on their home court than they did at the Verizon Center. Paul Millsap called out his teammates soft play after Game 1 and he might as well do it again before Game 3 as the Hawks need to play with more passion in this series. Tim Hardaway Jr has looked lost from the field, shooting at a 28% clip in the series, plus an even worse 20% from 3. Kent Bazemore has struggled on defense and has more turnovers than assists, while Dwight Howard has been a non-factor on the interior. Low shooting percentages and high turnover rates can be forgiven if you’re playing with passion, but that’s not the case here and the Hawks need it to change, especially when going up against a physical Washington frontcourt. Maybe Howard, playing in his hometown, can turn up the energy (and turn back the clock) stealing a few extra possessions for Atlanta on offense and deterring Wall and Co. from driving to the rim on the defensive end. Perhaps Bazemore will feed off the energy of the crowd and revert to his roots as a tenacious on ball defender and pester Wall and Beal on the perimeter. And maybe Hardaway will show some the confidence and swagger that Atlanta fans became accustomed to seeing all season long. A harder and physical style of play can also lead to foul trouble and Atlanta thrived in game 2 when Morris and Porter were on the bench. As I mentioned earlier, if the Hawks win this series it will be because Schroder and Millsap elevate their game, but the rest of the roster needs to play with more fire for them to even stand a chance.