With Josh Smith sidelined by an ankle injury, the Hawks gave the Boston Celtics all they could handle last night. Atlanta entered the game 4th in points allowed per 100 possessions and their improved defense was on full display against the defending champions.
Marty Burns of CNNSI.com penned a great article on the Hawks yesterday. Burns wrote that the Hawks “can point to several on-court factors for its success: Johnson’s All-Star-caliber play; Mike Bibby’s leadership; Al Horford’s muscle; Josh Smith’s athleticism; the additions of veterans Flip Murray and Maurice Evans to the bench; and a suffocating team defense.”
Burns spoke to Hawks coach Mike Woodson and Woodson described the “psychological” effect that Atlanta’s 2008 first round playoff series with the Celtics had on his team.
“It had a huge carryover,” he said. “I mean, you hear all the media people talk about how you’re not even going to win a game, and you wind up winning three and forcing a Game 7, which hadn’t happened very often in history of our game, [let alone] from a young team like ours. It was huge.
“Then the way our fans showed up in Philips Arena and showed their support, it meant a great deal to our players. They fed off that. It left a good taste in their mouths.”
For Woodson, the benefit of that Celtics series wasn’t just in terms of confidence. He believes his team also got to see firsthand the importance of team defense, something he had been preaching for four years.
“Everybody looks at Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, three great players,” Woodson said. “But it was their defense and rebounding that won that title last year. From Day One, in exhibition season, [Boston] took pride in defending and rebounding, and it carried over to the regular season. That’s why they were the best team in the regular season.
Defensively, the Hawks undoubtedly benefited from their playoff series against the C’s. But Atlanta’s offensive transformation began when they traded for Mike Bibby. Sure, the Hawks finished the season 15-17 with Bibby running the show. But as John Hollinger pointed out in his Hawks Forecast, Atlanta’s offensive efficiency improved by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with Bibby at the helm.
The Hawks put both sides of the equation together after losing to the Celtics by an average of 21 points in that series’ first two games.
“Our guys, after going through that seven-game series, they knew after the first two games in Boston, that’s how it’s got to be played. And when we came home, we played exactly how they played us. It was a nice carryover to this year because they know that defense won it for Boston, and the only [way] we will have a chance to be in the same arena is if we defend and rebound too.”
The desire is there. The Hawks are playing with great intensity. But they’re also benefiting from a few more factors.
1. Mike Woodson. Woodson hasn’t received enough credit for Atlanta’s defensive improvement. Woodson was the top-assistant on the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons team that won the NBA championship. The 03-04 Pistons were a great defensive ballclub and Woodson was the defensive architect behind the scenes. The guy knows how to get the most out of his players defensively.
2. X-factor Flip Murray. The Hawks are getting solid bench production from Murray and Maurice Evans. Evans is a consistent player, the Hawks know what to expect from him. Murray is a streak shooter who could make or break Atlanta’s bench rotation. The Hawks are thin as it is, but have benefited from Murray’s 11.6 points per game thus far.
3. Atlanta is shooting the lights out from beyond the arc. The Hawks are shooting 42.4% from the three-point line. Evans is shooting 52% from long distance, while Marvin Williams has connected on 7 of his 11 three-point attempts this season. As PTH pointed out, it’s hard to imagine the Hawks maintaning their team three-point percentage. However, it’s imperative that the Hawks continue to connect at a high rate since they lack a traditional back-to-the-basket scorer.
4. Athleticism and versatility. Aside from the 6-1 Bibby, the Hawks start four players who are 6-8 or taller.
SG: Joe Johnson 6-8, 225 pnds.
SF: Marvin Williams 6-9, 230 pnds.
PF: Josh Smith 6-9, 225 pnds.
C: Al Horford 6-10, 245 pnds.
What does that mean? It means the Hawks can switch just about anything defensively without leaving themselves vulnerable. This gives the Hawks a tremendous advantage because NBA offenses thrive upon exploiting the defensive vulnerabilities of their opposition.
As with any team, injuries will go a long way towards determining Atlanta’s fate. But after seeing how Atlanta gave the Celtics all they could last night without their best defensive player and after witnessing their offensive and defensive improvement over the past year, the Hawks appear to be legitimate contenders for the Eastern Conference championship.