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May 10, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Mr. Smith Goes to the Paint

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Atlanta 100, Chicago 88 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 89.1
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 112.2, Chicago 98.7

We really should sub-contract out to some Dixie-based writer to cover the Atlanta Hawks. We've been so consistently wrong about the Hawks over the last few years that perhaps we should adopt a Costanza approach--do the analysis, then write the opposite of the conclusions of that analysis. What an impossibly-difficult team to read. It's maddening.

After a regular season in which Atlanta was outscored, it seemed like SCHOENE, NBAPET and every other tool we use was finally right about these Hawks. You can out-run the metrics for a little while, but you can't hide forever, and when you are exposed, there will be a reckoning. That's mock-serious, of course. I can only dream of an infallible forecasting system for basketball. It will never exist. Knowing that, the healthy thing to do is to study your misfires and hope to learn from the experience. In fact, I'd argue that is the best reason to partake in the quantitative analysis of sports. With the Hawks, I've found the whole process to be a fool's errand. I still have no idea how to read this team.

After Atlanta beat Chicago in the first game of the series, I asked a close observer of the Hawks what the big difference was over the regular season. "Defense, I guess," he said. "Of course, it was pretty obvious that in the last six games of the regular season, they just didn't give a [goshdarn]." Inconsistency of effort would explain the mercurial ways of the Hawks in general and, in particular, Josh Smith. It doesn't do much to tell us what is going to happen in a conference semifinal series that is dead even entering Tuesday's Game Five in Chicago.

Smith's 23-point, 16-rebound, 8-assist outburst in Game Four was the product of two factors. First, he was more aggressive and active close to the hoop. He shot 8-of-22, but with the Bulls blitzing Atlanta's perimeter shooters, his forcefulness gave the Hawks an offensive foundation. That leads to the second factor--the Bulls may be overreacting to the Game One onslaught of Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford. Since then, Tom Thibodeau has made it a priority to force the ball out of the hands of those two. The Hawks have been slow to react, but witness the progression of their shot selection, expressed as a percentage of their field-goal attempts that have come in the paint: 41%, 47%, 56%, 57%.

On Sunday, the Hawks were 28-of-46 in the paint, getting 56 of their 100 points there. During the regular season, the Hawks had the fewest shots at the rim in the league. The Bulls allowed the fourth-fewest. As the Bulls have become increasingly preoccupied with pinching the perimeter, the Hawks have learned to exploit the approach. Johnson's numbers remain modest. In Game Four he put up a very efficient 24 points with his game leaning more to the side of quality rather than volume. Meanwhile, Smith became the main instigator in the attack, and fellow big man Al Horford shook loose for 20 points on 11 shots. The Bulls have gotten away from what they do best on defense, and it's time to re-adjust and put the onus back on Atlanta's primary scorers to beat Chicago with contested perimeter shots. The paint is supposed to be the domain of the Bulls.

At the other end, the Bulls have become overly reliant on Derrick Rose's ability to create shots for himself. He's taken at least 27 shots in each of the four games of the series; in Game Four he took 32. For the series, the Hawks have more baskets in the paint, off the offensive glass and in transition than the Bulls. Chicago has to get back to the ball movement that was so crisp in Game Three. That was the real lesson of that game, the Bulls' best so far in the postseason. That fact was lost in Rose's efficient 44-point barrage, but what should have been apparent was how the two factors are intertwined. The involvement of the rest of the Bulls made things much easier for Rose to operate.

Carlos Boozer was much more effective in Game Four, scoring 18 points and demonstrating more spring than he had in the previous three games. However, with the Bulls starved for offense, that meant leaving Boozer on the floor down the stretch, when the Hawks went on a 16-4 finishing kick to steal the game. That's all the more reason for the Bulls to continue to push for more ball sharing, a faster tempo and more early offense--it gives them more options down the stretch of close games.

Despite all of this, the Bulls were probably sunk by their 3-of-16 performance from three-point land. The Hawks have been up and down in their efforts to balance closing off the lane with closing out on shooters. They did a good job of that on Sunday, but the Bulls also did not shoot the ball well. Kyle Korver was 1-of-8 from the field and 0-of-5 from behind the arc. For the series, he's 9-of-30 and 7-of-18. He's the bellwether player. If Korver comes in, gets looks, and converts, that's a sure sign the Bulls are firing on all cylinders. He continues to lead the Bulls in plus-minus, but Larry Drew has done a great job of using configurations that leave Korver guarding Jeff Teague. Thibodeau simply can't get away with that for long, at least not with all the attention his defenders are throwing at Johnson and Crawford. It's a fascinating chess match between the coaches, and we'll see who has the winning move on Tuesday.

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