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Hawks Need to Keep Playing Big Lineup

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With DeMarre Carroll’s exit, the Atlanta Hawks came into this season thin in terms of wing players.

Kent Bazemore had a solid start to the year, and the problem seemed to fix itself. If Bazemore plays well, the Hawks can essentially put him in Carroll’s spot and get by with Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Justin Holiday and Lamar Patterson pitching in minutes along with playing Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder.

Bazemore’s recent injury caused Mike Budenholzer to get creative with Tuesday’s lineup, inserting Tiago Splitter in Bazemore’s place. This shifted Paul Millsap to small forward and Al Horford to power forward.

After the Hawks unexpectedly lost to the lowly Nets, there’s reason to think that the lineup didn’t play well and shouldn’t be a part of the future plans. Both of these assumptions, however, would be wrong.

For starters, the lineup played only 12 minutes together for the game and scorched the Nets while it was on the floor. Atlanta scored 104.3 points per 100 possessions compared to Brooklyn’s 73.9, per NBAwowy.com. It was only 12 minutes, but it proves that the big starting lineup wasn’t the reason for the loss.

With the wing rotation not getting any better, Budenholzer should continue rolling out this lineup even when Bazemore returns. It’s an excellent way to leverage the versatility of Millsap and Horford.

Since Horford and Millsap combine to attempt 7.3 three-pointers per game and make them at acceptable rates (Millsap’s at 37.5 percent on threes this year and Horford is at 36.2), Atlanta doesn’t have the same spacing issues typically associated with big lineups.

Take a look at Atlanta’s opening possession Tuesday night:

There’s no spacing issue here, as Brooklyn had to respect the range of Millsap on the three-point line and Horford at the mid-range. Obviously, Kyle Korver’s defender has to stay glued to him at all times, making it difficult to help on the Horford jumper until late.

This possession also detailed the other advantage Atlanta has over super-big lineups of other teams. The Hawks’ big men are all excellent passers, so the ball won’t stick in one area. The reluctance of some teams to play big lineups often is because of the lack of great passing big men. This isn’t an issue for Atlanta.

The big lineup allows the Hawks to exploit mismatches. All three bigs are capable of posting up smaller defenders, and one of them will have a smaller defender when they play together. Atlanta can use this mismatch to force help to come, thus initiating its offense in a way that gives it an advantage right off the bat.

Obviously, the bigger question is on defense and whether Millsap can be good enough to guard perimeter players for multiple possessions at a time. Millsap has very quick feet, however, and is capable of handling most small forwards. He’ll have difficulty against the bigger stars, but against most teams he’s passable on this end.

The early returns defensively on the big unit have been excellent defensively. It’s only been 34 minutes, but opponents have scored just 81.3 points per 100 possessions against the big lineup, compared to 104.3 overall. With Millsap being able to guard wings and the formidable Horford and Splitter duo patrolling the paint, teams are going to have difficulty to score.

The biggest concern other than asking too much of Millsap might be pacing. Atlanta isn’t a particularly fast team, but it does like to get into sets quickly and get transition points when they’re available. Although the drop off in pace hasn’t been too significant yet with the big lineup, it’d likely be more difficult to get going down the floor.

It’s easy to see why it’d be difficult to go with a big lineup in a league that keeps getting smaller, but Budenholzer needs to at least see if it can work for extended stretches. With the skill sets of each of his big men, Budenholzer could create nightmare matchups for opposing teams on a nightly basis. It’s worth a shot.

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