Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hawks University: A Vocational School for Bench Players

All three games played in Washington have left the impression that neither team played especially well and neither team played especially poorly. Lending credence to that impression of just watching an Eastern Conference playoff series happen before me, the Hawks twice took a 7-point lead in the first half at which point the Wizards went on 5-0 and 13-2 runs. After Washington took their biggest lead of the game (11 points) in the third quarter, the Hawks scored the next 11 points.

As in the first two games, the biggest issue for the Hawks is a lack of talent on the roster. A well-executed offensive possession that ends with, say, an open Kent Bazemore three-point attempt or Ersan Ilyasova having to finish at the rim on the move doesn't have the expected value that leads to road playoff wins. Not to pick on Bazemore and Ilyasova exclusively.

Tim Hardway, Jr. has no chance to guard Bradley Beal and John Wall and, except for a two-minute stretch in the third quarter wherein he scored 8 of his 15 points, can't make up for his defensive ineptitude* offensively at this level of competition. He played the entire fourth quarter, missed all five of his field goal attempts and grabbed a single rebound with nine seconds left.

*His defensive performance in this series should be used in schools to teach young people that playing defense is not simply a matter of trying hard. He's trying hard. He's a bad defender. 

Dwight Howard looked downright spry in the first quarter, twice contesting a shot to force a miss then moving to grab the rebound. Dwight Howard looked immobile in the second half and had a negligible impact on the game. The Hawks outscored the Wizards in both of Mike Muscala's second half stints but, per usual, one gets the sense that where Muscala's defender stands when he's on the court makes a larger impact than anything Muscala actively does.

The Hawks simply lack the talent to put five good players on the floor at any time despite sustained excellence from Paul Millsap* and Dennis Schröder. That the Hawks can stay in a road playoff game despite making 29% of their three-pointers, committing more turnovers, and attempting fewer free throws is a testament** to the soundness of the offensive and defensive framework in which they operate.

*If I can be indulged in one slight criticism of Millsap, he should just ditch his half-hearted pump fakes from beyond the three-point line. The league gets that he doesn't want to shoot that shot so the pump fake turns into more of a pause, allowing the primary and secondary defenders time to get set which makes it more difficult for Millsap to create a good shot (or draw a foul) off the dribble.

**It might be a testament to the Wizards not being that good, too.

On the brink of elimination that soundness provides hope for this team's short-term survival as well as the challenge of building a more talented, balanced roster for the 2017-18 season and beyond.

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