For the past decade, the Hawks have been one of the most consistent teams in the Eastern Conference. This year will mark the ninth consecutive season Atlanta has qualified for the postseason, an impressive feat in today’s era of free agency and constant rebuilding.
Most of those trips to the postseason have ended with disappointment however. Atlanta has failed to make it past the second round of the East playoffs in eight of those past nine seasons. The lone exception came last year when Cleveland swept the top-seeded Hawks out of the Eastern Conference finals.
This year’s Hawks roster is a far cry from that group. The team’s best player last postseason (DeMarre Carroll) is now in Toronto, and head coach Mike Budenholzer has had to adjust the team’s style on both ends in his absence. What can fans expect from this year’s Hawks against the Celtics in round 1? Here are five things you need to know about them going into the series.
1. Jeff Teague has been on fire since the trade deadline
Outside of teammate Al Horford, Teague was the most popular Hawk mentioned as a trade candidate at the deadline, mostly for good reason. He’s a strong player on a team-friendly contract ($8 million per year) and the team was actually performing better without him on the floor for the first three months of the season (-2.0 team net rating with Teague on court before Feb. 28).
Ultimately, Atlanta’s front office didn’t find a deal to its liking and Teague has responded to all the trade whispers in a big way. He’s averaging 16.9 ppg and 6.9 apg per game since the trade deadline all while shooting a career-high 40 percent from 3-point range. He has the driving skills to get past most perimeter defenders, so the improved shooting from distance provides a scary dilemma for Brad Stevens this series. Stevens has to decide how to defend him in the pick-and-roll, since Teague can make you pay for going under picks if his jumper is on.
Perhaps most importantly for the Hawks, Teague has been a net positive on the team’s success for the past two months. Atlanta’s net rating is back up to +12.4 with the point guard on the court, and drops to +4.7 with him on the bench.
2. Atlanta has the best defense in the Eastern Conference
Last year’s 60-win Hawks were known more for their offensive firepower. This year the focus has shifted to the defensive end. Armed with a roster that has plenty of athleticism and continuity, Budenholzer has transformed Atlanta into the second-best NBA’s defense (98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). Outside of rebounding, Atlanta does nearly everything on the defensive end well.
They are in the top-5 in the league for field goal defense, forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off the free throw line. Those three stats make up three of the defensive four factors, underlying their importance. Perhaps the most worrisome thing stat from Boston’s standpoint is Atlanta’s team defense in the paint. Opponents only shoot 56.7 percent against them in the restricted area, the lowest percentage in the NBA. That’s bad news for a team like Boston that doesn’t have a reliable group of perimeter shooters. Essentially, in order to score against the Hawks, you need to hit jumpers, and that’s something Boston has struggled with all year long.
3. Rebounding is Atlanta’s Achilles’ heel
One way the Celtics can win this series is on the glass. Boston isn’t a particularly good rebounding team (especially on the defensive end), but that’s okay because Atlanta is worse. Far worse. Let’s start on the offensive end. The Hawks’ 19.1 offensive rebounding rate is not just the worst in the NBA this year, but that’s the lowest total since the NBA started tracking offensive rebounding in 1974.
Now part of that number is probably a sacrifice of offensive boards by Budenholzer, making sure his team gets back and sets up its defense (a Doc Rivers specialty). However, the Celtics are weak on the defensive glass themselves (25th in defensive rebounding rate) so not having to worry about a Tristan Thompson type player destroying them on the boards this series bodes well for their chances.
On the opposite end of the floor, Boston has found some success as an offensive rebounding team, thanks to some gang rebounding from the likes of Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller, and even Marcus Smart. The Hawks struggle to hold their own on the defensive glass (tied with Celtics for 25th in defensive rebounding rate), so second chance points will be an area Boston can do some damage.
4. Atlanta’s offense isn’t as good as you might remember
The Hawks have had tremendous success against the Celtics (110 points per game) in their matchups this season, but that’s been the exception rather than the rule in regards to their offensive output this season. Atlanta averages 103 points per 100 possession, a total good enough for just 18th best in the league and a big step back from last season’s 6th overall mark.
What has caused the decline? Outside of Carroll’s departure, the Hawks have performed worse in almost every significant offensive area this season. The team still has plenty scoring threats (five players average in double figures), but outside of Millsap and Teague, no one gets to the free throw line regularly. They don’t rebound the ball well and they also have a top-10 turnover clip. Essentially, if the Hawks aren’t hitting shots from the field, they aren’t able to find other ways to score (second chance points, trips to the line).
Boston hasn’t had much success in shutting down their offense this year, but the blueprint is out there for them.
5. Paul Millsap is Atlanta’s x-factor
The All-Star power forward averaged a double-double against the Celtics this season (22.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg). Additionally, he’s one of the best defenders in the NBA and his size and versatility limits the effectiveness of Brad Stevens electing to go small at the four. Guarding guys like Crowder or Turner isn’t a big problem for him.
The key for Boston this series will be finding someone who can slow Millsap down on the offensive end of the floor. Boston elected to sacrifice open jumpers in the team’s last matchup and that’s a high percentage play (31.9 percent from 3-point range on season) even though it didn’t work last Saturday. Whether it’s Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson or a third possibility, Stevens must find an answer for the All-Star forward and prevent him from taking over the series on both ends.