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?

No comments: