For sure, the season is still young, but the Atlanta Hawks are (and will be) playing with one ultimate goal in mind — reaching the championship series. To do that, they’ll eventually have to meet and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs.
However, based on the clues revealed in their tip-to-buzzer 109-97 loss in Cleveland, this goal looks to be mission impossible. And the Hawks’ problems were evident on both ends of the game.
Basically, Atlanta is a jump-shooting team. No question that Jeff Teague and Dennis Shroder can take advantage of momentarily confused defenses by zipping to the rim for easy scores, but Cleveland’s defense was always alert and Atlanta’s point guards shot a collective 6-20. Overall, Atlanta shot only 37 percent — a no-win stat for a team that has to shoot the lights out to prevail.
Otherwise, the offensive game plan is to launch jumpers from near and far. Kyle Korver, of course, is the designated long-distance bomber, and he did perform up to expectations — 3-6 from beyond the arc, 4-10 overall, for a team-leading 14 points. But the Hawks only ran two plays for him — curls off weak-side staggered screens. Otherwise, Korver had to rely on his super-quick release to get his shots.
Al Horford was 4-14 including 1-3 from the outskirts, with 10 rebounds, three assists and 10 points. But he missed the only shot he took in the low post. Indeed, Horford is a powerless-forward masquerading as a center.
The only real center in the rotation is Tiago Splitter, who scored on a pair of driving baby hooks after receiving the ball in the pivot. Aside from his 2-2 shooting, the only other stat that Splitter recorded in his nine minutes of daylight was one personal foul — no assists, blocks or rebounds.
The only Hawk who can usually be depended on to create his own shots is Paul Millsap, but he had a bummer of a game. Losing the ball when trying to drive through a crowd (three TOs), throwing up wild off-balance shots (3-13) and being anything but a go-to scorer (14 points). True, though, that Millsap did his part in trying to keep the ball moving (five assists), but his efforts weren’t enough to keep the Hawks in the game.
Last season’s 60-win team was celebrated for always making the extra pass, for constant ball- and player-movement, and for being the epitome of an unselfish squad. But that’s not been their modus operandi often enough thus far this season. Too much dribbling; not enough weak-side activity; sloppy screens; too many quick three-balls taken (11-28); too many careless passes (12 TOs); and, worst of all, for a team that has trouble scoring, too many missed layups (11).
Of their 41 total field goals, only 10 were point-blank makes — but two of these came during garbage time. Compare this to the 19 easy deuces made by the Cavs.
Their efficiency on offense is very fragile and desperately in need of certified wing – and interior scorers.
Because of their iffy offense, the Hawks depend on generating TOs to provide good looks in either fast-break or early-offense situations. And they did register 22 points as a result of inducing 22 Cleveland TOs.
However, their scheme is to use frequent double-teams near the sidelines, baselines and coffin-corners to create these miscues — a tactic that the Cavs routinely defeated by making quick skip or swing passes that resulted in dozens of uncontested shots. That’s one reason why Cleveland converted 48 percent of its field goal attempts.
Another reason is the Hawks lack of a true shot-blocker. Not to mention the shoddy nobody-to-man defense plated by their backcourt.
Moreover, Kevin Love had his way with Millsap in the low post. Splitter has the habit of turning and losing contact with his man. Plus, Horford, Splitter and Millsap were frequently guilty of making late rotations.
On one possession, Millsap launched a trey but stopped to watch the ball kick off the rim while his defender (Kevin Love) took off down the court. A rebound by Matthew Dellavedova and a subsequent long pass created a breakaway dunk for Love.
And then there’s the recurring rebounding problem. Because even the undersized Hawks starting five has to play small-ball, it’s no wonder that their percentage of rebounds grabbed is only 46.7 percent. Only Milwaukee’s 46 percent is worse. No surprise, then, that the Cavs out-rebounded the Hawks by 51-38.
With the loss, Atlanta’s record is 9-6, which projects to a 49-win season. At this rate, they won’t have to worry about having to get past Cleveland to get out of the East. Only because they’ll be eliminated before they get to face the Cavs.