Wednesday, April 27, 2016


But first, three paragraphs largely about offense. I am not a complete crack-pot.

For the first 18 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a ridiculous eFG% of 20.5%. For the next 18 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a ridiculous eFG% of 84.2%. For the entirety of the meaningful 36 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a reasonable eFG% of 54.2%. 

There are reasons beyond cold probability that the Hawks shot significantly better for one stretch of the game than another. The Celtics came out playing very good defense from the jump. Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko took Marcus Smart's lead, getting physical leverage against Paul Millsap and Al Horford in the post. Smart and Isaiah Thomas defended Kyle Korver as well as they have so far in the series. That the Hawks were not getting the typical looks that allowed them to shoot 51.6% over 82 games contributed to them shooting 20.5% for a quarter-and-a-half last night.

Similarly, it is not entirely coincidental that the Hawks started making shots with unsustainable frequency at roughly the same moment they started turning stops into transition opportunities. A below average offense looked significantly better when it didn't have to face a set defense as often. Analysis! Observation.

The most frustrating thing about watching the Hawks spend much of the last four playoff series missing a higher percentage of shots than they have over the last two regular seasons is, natch, watching the Hawks miss shots. The second most frustrating thing is the tendency to formulate a supernatural explanation for the misses.

It's not impossible that the Hawks have struggled to convert the chances they're pleased to have created in the playoffs due to a collective character or psychological defect, but I contend the defensive performance they put on, possession-by-possession while shooting 20.5%, at home, in front of an increasingly anxious and frustrated audience demonstrates tremendous discipline and commitment. Which conforms with my prejudice to dismiss the character/psychological explanation for missed shots. Funny how that works.

Variance is not confined to shot-making. Though they've been excellent overall, the Hawks have not been perfect defensively for all five games in this series. They looked shockingly unprepared in the first quarter of Game 3. The transition defense* fell apart in the second half of the third quarter of Game 4. Still, the Hawks are holding the Celtics to 95 points per 100 possessions in this series, by bettering their second-best defense in the regular season numbers in three of the four factors.

*The chief culprit in Game 4, Mike Scott, was excellent for the second time this series, in Game 5.

The Hawks entered the playoffs with a 2-3% chance of winning the title, a 7-8% chance of winning the East, because they allowed 5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league this season. The Hawks entered the playoffs with a 2-3% chance of winning the title, a 7-8% chance of winning the East, because they scored 1.3 points fewer than the league per 100 possessions this season. Offensive struggles, especially comical offensive struggles, tend toward the obvious. That's but half the story.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Chains, Weakest Links, Etc.

Paul Millsap was spectacular, the Hawks were playing their brand of top-drawer defense (excellent first shot defense, some occasional slippage when the opposition grabbed offensive rebounds), and they were in good shape to survive the dreaded joint indecisive performances from Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder*.

*Upon whom it is now clearly established to be open season.

The Hawks were up 13 points with 6:33 left in the third quarter. Mike Scott entered the game and was a complete disaster defensively for the next 6:33. Marcus Smart's semi-transition layup at 5:33 was due to Scott panicking and forcing Kent Bazemore not to pick up Smart in transition. Scott could not stay in front of Smart on the downhill, natch. Jonas Jerebko's two threes - at 1:23 to cut Atlanta's lead to 8 and at 0:20 to cut Atlanta's lead to 3 - were both directly attributable to Scott losing all contact with Jerebko at the first opportunity. 

Scott wouldn't play again, but it was game-on at that point, enough for the short-term variance of the Celtics making slop (Marcus Smart's two threes, Isaiah Thomas banking in a 15-footer he threw up at roughly 19-foot weight from the top of the key) while the Hawks missed high-percentage shots (Horford missed a jump hook on the block, a wide-open corner 3, plus wide-open, spot-up 15- and 19-footers, Korver missed both his threes) in the fourth quarter. Said variance then made meaningful Teague dribbling out the final 15 seconds of a tie game in regulation, and the Celtics thoroughly outplaying the Hawks in overtime.

For the glass-half full types, perhaps the Hawks combined the Teague/Schroder dual dud and the lack of quality depth potential losses into a single L. For those inclined toward pessimism, the Hawks just dropped a pair of winnable games against a shameless bunch to reduce their chances of winning the series to home-court advantage over a three-game sample size.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Atlanta's Missing 72 Hours

Game 2 was so broadly, quickly, and thoroughly discussed by professional basketball writers on Wednesday that I didn't bother tossing off a regurgitation of themes in this space. The consensus was that Brad Stevens had a couple of remaining options to mitigate the matchup problems caused by the opposition and his own team's poor health: replace Jared Sullinger to improve spacing and play Isaiah Thomas off the ball to get him opportunities to attack a defense in flux. So why did the Hawks look unprepared for these Boston adjustments defensively? What were they preparing to face for the last 72 hours?

In Game 3, the Celtics started Jonas Jerebko for Sullinger and forced Jeff Teague to chase Isaiah Thomas around the court while Evan Turner initiated offense. The Hawks appeared completely unprepared for the former, sagging toward the lane in their established manner then frantically trying to close down the extra four feet to Jerebko beyond the three-point line. 

When you attack the ball, when you help and recover in sync as much as the Hawks do on defense, four feet is a meaningful distance. If you don't close those four feet? You're either giving up an open shot on the first pass or the next defensive rotation has more ground/less time to close out on the recipient of the next pass. In the first quarter, the Celtics moved the ball and the Hawks couldn't move farther and faster. The Celtics made five three-pointers (Jerebko, Turner, and Jae Crowder* each made their only three-pointer of the game in the first 9:12 of the game), 7 of 11 two-pointers, had a free throw rate of 38.1** and grabbed 25% of the (few) possible offensive rebounds.

*Crowder's three to put the Celtics up 29-14 was perhaps the greatest indictment of the Hawks' lack of defensive execution. Paul Millsap helped down to about 8 feet on a Jared Sullinger iso/post-up in the lane that Mike Muscala (about whom, more below) had under control. Millsap's attention encouraged Sullinger to think about the pass and it was an easy one to make. In short, Millsap gave up an open, spot-up three to a 32% career three-point shooter to double a career 39% shooter from 3-10 feet who struggles to score against length (we remember you, Jeff Withey).

**Season average free throw rate for Hawks opponents: 19.4. Boston's free throw rate in Games 1 and 2 combined: 14.2.

I think the Hawks can adjust to the personnel change. In the last three quarters of Game 3, the Celtics only made six threes, their free throw rate was down to 26.2 (though that would have been higher had the Celtics not missed 7 free throws), and they only grabbed 15% of 33 offensive rebound opportunities. On the other hand, the Celtics continued making two-point shots at a high rate (51.2%) over the final three quarters. There was more space in the lane (and more transition opportunities) than in the first two games. That's where Isaiah Thomas playing off the ball causes real concerns.

Jeff Teague has worked hard over the past three seasons to make himself a passable pick-and-roll defender (at least when he gets to work with Millsap or Al Horford). Chasing a faster player off the ball doesn't allow him to draw on any of those skills he's developed and reduces him to his lowly, natural defensive state. It's not a matter of effort. Teague is trying, but he's being asked to do something new and difficult at the part of basketball he's least good at, at the age of nearly 28.

So how do the Hawks counter? I suspect it will be by rotating their better off-the ball defenders: Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, even Dennis Schroder (when the Hawks play him with Teague*). The hope would be that extra defensive length could trouble Thomas with late close-outs** and that Evan Turner could easily be tempted into taking a lot of mid-range, dribble-heavy isos when guarded by Teague. The Hawks should be willing for Evan Turner to attempt all the two-point shots he wants.

*The Teague/Schroder combo was +1 in 6:22 in Game 3. Nothing in that sentence is meaningful other than eliminating "That was awful. Never try that again." from Mike Budenholzer's rotation decision-making tree.

**They would have to be controlled closeouts, running guys off the three-point line, as the Hawks did so consistently well this season. Atypically, the Hawks repeatedly, wildly contested not-that-dangerous two-point jump shots in Game 3. Their defensive excellence is predicated on playing aggressively and not fouling. Take either element away and they quickly trend toward mere above-averageness defensively. Their offense can't make up for that consistently.

On the other end of the floor, the Hawks continued to create good looks and continued to struggle to convert them. Non-Korver Hawks made 4-27 three-point attempts (they would be expected to make ~9 of those over a long enough sample, or, Marcus Smart made as many three-pointers in 4 attempts as Bazemore, Teague, Millsap, Horford, and Schroder did in 20 attempts) and did the following from 5:45 to 3:06 of the game (from 98-101 to 100-104):

  • 5:45 - Millsap missed dunk (contested by Isaiah Thomas!)
  • 5:31 - Teague layup blocked by Evan Turner
  • 4:56 - Teague missed runner/layup
  • 4:22 - Horford misses six-footer on the block
  • 3:49 - Bazemore made layup
  • 3:06 - Horford transition layup blocked by Marcus Smart

Process? I'm certain the Hawks think so. Sunday would be a nice time to show their work.

Notes on the benches:

  • Dennis Schroder has played very good basketball over the last two games. Mostly defensively in Game 2 and mostly offensively in Game 3. I don't know that the Celtics are on the right side of their risk/reward calculation re: hitting and baiting Schroder. Sure, you might wind him up enough to retaliate or make a few bad decisions with the ball in his hands in the short-term, but if he gets going you've got no one who can stay in front of him and all of a sudden Teague is the second-best point guard the Hawks have that night. Schroder may frustrate the Hawks, but they love him cooking more than you hate him chirping and a good Schroder game elevates whatever marginal teamwork value exists from an adrenalized boost of fraternal feelings about a common opponent.
  • Marcus Smart's block on Horford in transition makes his flopping, sloppy execution (MARCUS SMART CANNOT CONCENTRATE LONG ENOUGH TO GUARD KYLE KORVER), and poor shot selection even more frustrating. It would be a shame if Smart never becomes more than a high-energy Josh Smith with a worse offensive game.
  • Mike Scott continues to play fine-to-good basketball in this series, though committing a lane violation when Korver is at the line to complete a Crawford to tie the game is a maddening demerit.
  • Mike Muscala continues to show why his consistency led to him falling out of the rotation again this season. He offers consistently strong defense and ineffective offense. His spacing and movement on offense is theoretically sound but consistently less productive than you want. He's not a Pero Antic-level defensive savant, so he needs to figure out how to get the ball in the basket without turning it over. (Career 57% TS% and 33% from three though, so maybe the inconsistent minutes are fooling my puny human brain.)
  • It's a toss up on who provided emptier minutes between Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Kirk Hinrich. Which is less of a surprise than Budenholzer playing them a combined six minutes in a competitive game when the Hawks last played on Tuesday. If close, road playoff games don't warrant playing your handful of best players 36+ minutes, then what are we all doing here?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Brad Stevens Has Matchup Problems

There are only so many out of bounds plays Brad Stevens will have the opportunity to call. The Celtics have to figure out a way to get stops because they have to get transition opportunities to score with any sort of efficiency. If anyone other than Isaiah Thomas is dribbling, they look like a college offense and even Thomas was, at times, reduced to throwing himself into the nearest defender and hoping for a referee to bail him out. 

The Celtics were probably fortunate to give up only 102 points. You can maybe wave away the totality of sending the Hawks to the free throw line 35 times through references to late-game intentional fouling and referees with very inconsistent views on allowable contact, but the Celtics don't typically play defense without fouling. They have to be aggressive to force turnovers at their preferred rate. And I don't think you can sell any of the favored narratives used to pretend defenses have a significant influence on single-game three-point percentage. The Hawks 27 three-point attempts were generally taken by the players the Hawks want taking three-pointers, they weren't unduly contested, and they didn't overwhelmingly occur late in the shot clock. 

I don't know what Stevens can do differently, given his personnel, to force the Hawks into lower-percentage field goal attempts. Even hoping the Hawks continue to miss shots is extra cold comfort when you've just let the Atlanta Hawks (the Atlanta Hawks!) grab 27% of their misses. That's an indictment of either your execution or your talent. Amir Johnson is, and always has been, a good player but Millsap and Horford are better than he is at everything he's good at. Stevens showed little interest in playing Kelly Olynyk significant minutes. Jonas Jerebko can only hope to out-Mike Scott Mike Scott*. Jared Sullinger? You can't expect a fat guy with a terrible haircut to accomplish anything substantial against Al Horford.

*Mike Scott played as well as you could hope, more than making up for Dennis Schroder's disappointingly passive play to give the Hawks a crucial seventh contributor. Scott also passed Schroder as the Hawk most likely to take a swing at Marcus Smart. Speaking of, I thought Smart, despite being +6 for the game, offers the greatest hope for improvement for the Celtics in Game 2 and beyond simply by not taking six three-pointers again and showing better assignment discipline when asked to guard Korver.

It's widely recognized going small helps the Celtics less against the Hawks than it does against most teams because the Hawks, since Tiago Splitter was lost for the season, already play 5 out all the time. Going small has less positive impact when Jae Crowder appears incapable of keeping Jeff Teague in front of him. Stevens can't even hide Isaiah Thomas on Kent Bazemore if Bazemore moves without the ball because Thomas will get caught ball-watching. 

All the Celtics guards and wings (with the exception of the now, sadly absent, Avery Bradley) are drawn to the ball, leaving them susceptible to quick, constant, and sound ball and player movement. Which is understandable, given that I started this by talking about how they have to create transition opportunities to score consistently. Such is the stress of being a good team confronting a challenge directed squarely at what you believe makes you good. 

To their credit, there's almost no chance that any doubt the Hawks create for the Celtics will adversely effect Boston's level of effort. Which forces the Hawks to apply relentless pressure to make the Celtics crack the only place they will, the only place that matters: the scoreboard.