Is it possible that we have whiffed on the Hawks yet again?
The stories change fast in this 990-game sprint we're calling an NBA season. By the time you react to a new trend, it's changed directions and headed the other way. When I saw that Atlanta was visiting the Bulls at the United Center on Tuesday, I sat down Monday night to watch them play the powerful Heat. Of course, Atlanta dismantled the vaunted Miami running game and handed the Heat its first loss of the season. That made the Hawks 4-1 and after the game, Atlanta was sitting at No. 1 in the league in Defensive Rating.
Last season, I looked at the veteran Mavericks early in the campaign and wondered, "What's different?" I mean, can you really run out the same core year after year and expect it to move beyond what seems to be a clearly established plateau? With Dallas, the answer to "what's different" was a who--Tyson Chandler. Chandler turned out to be the catalyst in Dallas' spirited run to its first NBA title. The lesson I took from that is that it's unwise to write off a veteran team that's played together for a long time. If the core is the same, a couple of roster tweaks here and there may be enough to break a squad loose from what felt like permanent stagnation.
There are a couple of obvious differences between last year's Mavericks and this year's Hawks. Dallas had won at a high level in a powerful conference over a period of almost a decade. The Mavs just hadn't been able to take the final step towards a championship, until last year. The Hawks have been good for just three years--perhaps four if you want to count the 37-win version a few years ago that gave Boston trouble in the playoffs--and Atlanta hasn't advanced beyond the second round. The other difference is intraconference competition. Dallas emerged from a Western Conference in transition, while the Hawks will have to traverse an Eastern Conference spearheaded by the behemoths in Miami and Chicago.
Then again, Atlanta beat one of those behemoths on the road on Monday and was seeking to beat the other one on Tuesday. It would have been a nice little one-two punch to start the season. When the game rolled around, I was sitting under the north basket at the United Center, covering the game for the AP. I was most interested in watching for evidence on whether the Atlanta defense that had held its first five opponents to under an aggregate .9 points per possession was for real.
But first, I had to ask the same question that I asked Rick Carlisle during the preseason last year: What's different? The main thing is the veteran bench Atlanta has assembled. Gone are Jamal Crawford, Josh Powell, Maurice Evans, Jordan Crawford, Damien Wilkins and Pape Sy. In their stead are familiar names like Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jannero Pargo, Willie Green and Jerry Stackhouse.
"We wanted guys that would help the club on the court, but also in the locker room," Larry Drew said before the game. "This (core) group has kind of been together for a little while, and we just wanted to try to strengthen our bench and bring in guys were quality guys."
McGrady demonstrated in Detroit last season that he's accepted role player status now that he's 14 years into his career, and early in the season he's been off the hook, as they say. Even after a quiet game against the Bulls, McGrady is averaging 18.8 points per 40 minutes with a .589 True Shooting Percentage. He runs the offense when the second unit is on the floor, though that may change once Kirk Hinrich returns from shoulder surgery in a few weeks. McGrady had 16 points in the win over Miami on 5 of 8 shooting and added seven rebounds, four assists and one steal--excelling in his role as a more well-rounded Jamal Crawford.
"I really felt like he still had something in the tank," Drew said. "He's a little different (from Crawford). Jamal, everything was to score. Tracy is a little different. He has the ability to score, but I think the biggest strength of his game right now is his ability to make plays, get the ball to other people. He's a very unselfish player."
Nevertheless, the acquisition of McGrady, not to mention V-Rad, Pargo and Green, doesn't explain Atlanta's ascension to the top spot in the defensive rankings, no matter how ethereal that standing may turn out to be.
For nearly three quarters on Tuesday, the Bulls and Hawks slugged it out in one of those uggo-fests you get in the NBA when one or both teams are playing on tired legs. Atlanta was playing in its third back-to-back during the season's first 10 days and for the fourth time in five nights--all in different cities. The recent schedule has been kinder to the Bulls since they returned from a season-opening Western swing, but they were short in the rotation with Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson sitting out with injuries.
Atlanta held the Bulls to just 42 points through three quarters, 26 in the first half. In the second quarter, the Bulls shot 2-for-21 from the floor and went more than eight minutes without a field goal. The Hawks were doing a good job of keeping Derrick Rose out of the lane and the Bulls were settling for jumpers. Most importantly, Atlanta was keeping the Bulls out of transition. Chicago had just five fastbreak points in the first half. When Chicago did get open looks, they missed.
"When we don't play with pace, we struggle," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game.
The Hawks pushed the lead to 19 on an Al Horford layup with 2:40 to go in the third quarter. Atlanta had in general been to apt to settle for jumpers, but Horford had begun to find some lanes diving to the hoop on the pick-and-roll and scored eight points in the quarter. The Bulls were completely out of sorts and it looked like the Hawks were going to find themselves sitting on top of the Eastern Conference standings after the game. In my role as a wire service reporter, my immediate concern was with finding the kind of superficial narrative you need to feed the masses, but in the back of mind I was wondering if there was simply more of a defensive commitment by the Hawks this season. Schematically, they didn't seem to be doing anything different and, as I mentioned, the key pieces were the same.
What happened next was best described by Horford after the game.
"We dominated for most of the game," Horford said. "Just Derrick Rose happened."
Holy moly, did he ever. Rose put on the kind of vintage display you expect from the great ones in which their will puts a team in position to win a game in which nothing had gone right. I'm sorry, I know that's not a very statheady kind of thing to write, but it's awfully impressive to see when it's unfolding 30 feet in front of you. Rose put Jeff Teague on a spindle, pushing him back with crossovers and jab steps to get open for long-range shots, or drawing him close once he got hot from the outside and then blowing by him before the help could get there. Rose scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and keyed a 20-3 run with three three-pointers. When he wasn't scoring, he was assisting--he hit Luol Deng for a corner three that tied the score with 6:19 to go after Atlanta had led the entire game.
"When (Rose) starts hitting them, you're worried about him shooting threes, driving, so you don't know what he's going to do," Teague said.
It's hard to judge the Hawks' defense based on the fourth quarter. The Bulls scored 34 points in the period after, again, putting up just 42 in the first three periods. Rose and Deng combined for 30 of those points, playing alongside Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. It's not like Drew wasn't trying to force the ball out of Rose's hands, the Hawks just weren't able to do it. When they got overaggressive with trying to trap, Rose found the open guy, usually Deng. It's not like they weren't helping once Rose flashed into the lane. On a drive that tied the game with 9.9 seconds left, Rose lost Teague with a crossover and drove the right side of the lane. Josh Smith moved over to contest the shot and was in position with both hands raised. Smith of course is one of the league's most athletic players, a premier shot blocker who is six inches taller than Rose. However, the MVP simply went up and over Smith as if he wasn't there. There is no scheme, design or quantitative analysis than can explain it.
Before the game, Drew was asked if the Hawks could employ the same defensive gameplan he used to harness Dwyane Wade and LeBron James the night before to slow down Rose.
"We're talking about two totally different beasts," Drew said. "With Rose, I think he may be a little bit more explosive. Both D-Wade and LeBron are very explosive, but Rose, with his ability to get into the paint, causes more of a havoc than with LeBron and Wade. LeBron and Wade are more in the open court getting to the basket. Rose will get to the basket in the open court, in the halfcourt--you just have to be concerned with him all times."
That concern cost the Hawks on the game's penultimate play. With the game tied and 7.7 seconds on the clock, the Bulls called an actual play--a real basketball scheme with multiple options and players willing to execute it. If my incredulity seems misplaced, just think of how many times you've seen a team run a clear-out for the team's best scorer on a game-ending possession for a contested hero shot. It's a baffling result of a lack of creativity by coaches who have the built-in excuse that they got the ball in the right guys' hands. It may also be that most star players simply aren't willing to defer to anyone else with the game on the line. The fact that Rose--and James for that matter--are more than willing to make the right play regardless of whether they get the big shot speaks volumes about just how valuable they are.
The ball came into Joakim Noah, who Thibodeau inserted for the first time in the quarter. Rose came over to set a backscreen and two Hawks went with him. Deng cut along the baseline, took an excellent feed from Noah, and laid the ball in for the game's winning points. Joe Johnson missed a hero shot after the Hawks called timeout to end the game.
"We had multiple options," Thibodeau said. "Obviously we were trying to get the ball to Derrick. They did a good job of taking away the first two options. Derrick set a great screen, Jo made a great pass and Luol made a great cut."
If it bothered Rose that he didn't get the ball at the end, he wasn't showing it.
"We run (the play) in practice every day and ... it works," Rose said matter-of-factly. "Lu was able to get open and get an easy basket."
My favorite reaction to the play was offered by Josh Smith, one of the most candid and affable players in the league.
"I was supposed to guard Rose on that last shot," Smith said. "I don't think they meant for all that (play) to happen."
Smith spoke as if he couldn't believe that a team would run an actual play in situation like that. Still, it was a fitting ending for an Atlanta defense that crumbled down the stretch. Again, we don't know if it was simply that Rose was too good or if the Hawks had been overachieving or that Atlanta was simply weary from a brutal schedule or the Bulls just had a bad three quarters. We just know that the Hawks couldn't get stops when they needed them.
"We stopped defending with the intensity that we did in the first three quarters," Drew said.
Despite the poor finish, the Hawks ended up holding the Bulls to .85 points per possession in the game, though the wild swings of the early season dropped them to third in Defensive Rating. There was nothing schematically that I saw to explain Atlanta's defensive success. We've seen in the past that Atlanta is capable of putting the screws to teams defensively as they did during last year's playoffs and perhaps Drew's insistence on that approach has simply gotten through. With no major personnel additions to explain the defensive improvement, it's the only explanation we really have. And it's not a good one. The Hawks have finished 14th and 15th on defense the last two years, respectively, and it's going to take more than six games to prove they have made any sort of leap.
The Hawks' defense is something to keep an eye on. That third spot behind the Heat and Bulls in the East seems to be up for grabs and a more committed Atlanta squad is certainly capable of grabbing it. I don't like their chances to do so based both on the track record of the team's core and the age of its bench. But as I am always compelled to say when writing about the Hawks, we've been wrong about them before.
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