Sunday, May 01, 2011

Playoff Series Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Chicago Bulls

The Atlanta Hawks won their first round playoff series against the Orlando Magic because of a specific matchup advantage that allowed them to overcome the general gulf in regular season results between the two teams. The gulf in regular season results between the Hawks and the Chicago Bulls is even greater--18 games by record, 22 games by pythagorean record--and the Hawks are in possession of no such matchup advantage in this case.

Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

ATL 85
0.916 46.1

Jason Collins played just 23 minutes against the Chicago Bulls this season, 17 of those in the first meeting (the one the Hawks won in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion) only because Josh Smith missed the game through injury. There's no Chicago player suitable for Collins to guard. Carlos Boozer, if/when he plays, would-pick-and-pop with impunity against Collins. Joakim Noah moves too well and too freely on the offensive end for Collins to keep up with him. The same goes for Taj Gibson or even Omer Asik to a lesser extent. Nor would having Collins guard any of them figure to have anywhere near the impact on Chicago's offense that his ability to play Dwight Howard man-to-man in the post had on Orlando's offense. Plus, playing Collins would only aid and abet Chicago's exaggerated strong-side defense against the Hawks. It's even easier to defend with two against one or with three against two when you begin the possession defending with five against four.

Collins could conceivably match up against Kurt Thomas to create a one-on-one wrestling/flopping match to run concurrent with a four-on-four game of basketball but even then Chicago would be at an advantage once a shot went up as Thomas rebounds and Collins doesn't. Zaza Pachulia would be a far better candidate for that particular role of uglying things up.

Kirk Hinrich didn't just defend Jameer Nelson effectively in the Orlando series, he provided some crucially efficient offense, scoring 10 points a game with an eFG% of 57.7%, earning 16 assists, and committing just four turnovers. His contributions, on both ends of the floor, will be missed if he cannot play in the series.

Yes, Derrick Rose averaged 25 and 9 in his three meetings against the Hawks, but Hinrich (primarily) made Rose work for those points:

vs. league2548.7.23629.9
vs. Atl2544.6.35427.7

Against the Hawks this season, Rose shot a lower percentage from the field, got to the line less often, and greatly increased his reliance on the three-point shot. At 30 years of age, Kirk Hinrich couldn't stay up on Derrick Rose and stay in front of him but he could use his combination of his residual athleticism, his size, his defensive skill, and his experience to do the latter more often than not. Jamal Crawford can do none of those things. Jeff Teague can attempt to counter Rose with his athleticism but suffers from an extreme experience* disadvantage. Joe Johnson has the size to play off Rose with the goal of staying in front of him but Johnson's lack of athleticism and defensive skill may limit his ability to challenge Rose's shots when the come.

*Not just in general but against Rose in particular. Teague played 28 minutes against Chicago this season, 12:50 of that matched up against Rose. Even that latter total may overstate Teague's experience as he shared the court with Rose for 1:24 of the second meeting, entering the game with the Hawks down 21 points, and for 7:01 of the third meeting, entering the game with the Hawks down 31 points.

Teague's inexperience could be just as detrimental on the offensive end, as the Bulls have isolated Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford from their teammates while thoroughly and successfully forcing them to take their contested jump shots from positions of Chicago's choosing.

Johnson and Crawford in the three meetings against Chicago compared to their results against the rest of the league this season:

JohnsonPts/36eFG%FT RateA/36
vs. Chi13.741.36.54.7
vs. league18.748.417.24.8

CrawfordPts/36eFG%FT RateA/36
vs. Chi11.1503.73.6
vs. league17.148.926.13.8

That Chicago so successfully neutered Atlanta's two primary ball-handlers and allowed the third high-usage player, Josh Smith, to spot up repeatedly on the weak side (Smith attempted 56% (14 of 25) of his field goals against the Bulls from outside of 16 feet. He made three of them.), it's no surprise that the one good half of basketball the Hawks played against the Bulls this season was dominated by Al Horford. In the second half of the first meeting on March 2nd, the Hawks, led by Horford's 22 points (on 12 shots and 5 free throw attempts) and two assists, outscored the Bulls by 20 points. In the other five halves (including one very hot jump shooting half from the Hawks in Chicago), the Bulls outscored the Hawks by 68 points through a combination of excellent defense and rebounding.

Below average rebounding and a willingness to take long, two-point jump shots are and have long been hallmarks of this Atlanta Hawks team. This summer, the organization built a team and conceived of a game plan to beat the Orlando Magic. Their success in accomplishing that should be commended. I think the next week to 10 days will demonstrate that that accomplishment has brought the organization no closer to winning a championship, that using four of (effectively) thirteen roster spots on backup centers will further prove (as the regular season so often did) limiting against quality teams that do not employ Dwight Howard and the best the Hawks, thin to begin with and apparently thinned further by injury, can hope to do in this series is snap their 15-game, nearly 14-year losing streak in the second round of the playoffs.

Prediction: Bulls in 4


Bronnt said...

I'm trying to cling to some optimism. I know that Al Horford can wreak havoc on the Bulls' frontcourt defenders if he's featured in the offense, and I'd like to think that there's someone on the Hawks' coaching payroll smart enough to know it also. Even in the third meeting, when the Hawks were done in by Rose's inability to miss from 3, Horford scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting.

Still, the possibility of not having Kirk Hinrich, and the likelihood that even if he plays he won't be 100%, weigh heavily on this. Even if the Hawks play very well for stretches, it's likely that they're ruined as soon as Jamal Crawford is asked to defend Derrick Rose.

lukas said...

How much of the blame for a sweep would you be prepared to lay at LD's feet? Defensively, the problems are obvious. On offense, however, I can't imagine that we're simply doomed to play the game they want us to. We all know that Chicago wants us to ISO. If we can't but ISO and for that reason get swept, who else can be blamed but LD?

Bret LaGree said...

Bronn --

The Crawford/Johnson backcourt got run out of the gym by CJ Watson in the second quarter of the third meeting. I shudder to think what Rose might do to it given enough chances. Nor do I especially want to think about Crawford or Johnson chasing Kyle Korver around screens.

lukas --

The Hawks take so long to get into their "motion" sets, that I fear it will be easy for Chicago to set their strong-side defensive line once the ball gets to either wing and, if the ball-handler slows for even a second, the Hawks will be in a short shot clock situation that will probably result in a rushed or contested jumper. Maybe Teague can push the tempo if the Hawks grab some rebounds, but that's really not this team's nature.

I think it's ironic that both Games 3 and 6 against Orlando were classic Mike Woodson offensive profile games: shoot a lower percentage from the field than your opponent but get enough more shots (8 more in Game, 12 more in Game 6) up that it doesn't matter.

The new offensive coach figured out a successful defensive strategy the old defensive head coach couldn't while the offense largely remained its old self.

dwayne.bracy said...

As bad as you predicted the last series, you might want to refrain from dipping in the pool again.

jrauch said...

Our only hope is Derrick Rose somehow snapping his foot clean off, and being unable to play on a peg leg or other prosthetic.

Or Pape Sy suddenly becoming this elite perimeter defender.

Seriously, this is a matchup that appears aimed right at the Hawks primary weaknesses: An unbelieveably athletic perimeter player, a shooter who loves coming off screens, and a defense that just begs you to do the things the Hawks love to do naturally.

I really don't see how this ends other than a sweep.

Bret LaGree said...

Dwayne --

I have never allowed previous poor predictions to discourage me from making new, potentially poor, predictions.

RK said...

Prediction: Bulls in 4


dwayne.bracy said...

Hawks win. So much for the Bulls sweep. I wish some of you haters would find a new team to root against, err I mean for.

lukas said...

I'm shocked and thrilled. Also, I know it's, well, hateful and all, but I wouldn't mind if D Rose missed a game or two.

jrauch said...

Let it be known Joe Johnson has earned his exorbitant paycheck for at least one night in this basketball season.

Just astounding to watch.

Can we finally give Teague some more regular run and minutes? Pretty please LD?

This guy torched Ty Lawson in college, who's shaping up to be a pretty good point guard in Denver in his own right.