Well, here we go at last! The regular season begins for the Atlanta Hawks in two days, and it starts with two games at home against Eastern Conference opponents, followed by a 4 game swing out west. Hawks fans couldn’t ask for a much better way to begin the season than to have the first two games at home. Well, a victory would sure be nice. Two victories would be even better. In fact, that should be the expectation, particularly because the Hawks played pretty well at home last season, and certainly finished the season better than the two teams they’ll face first this season.
Up first is the Indiana Pacers, a team that is most likely doomed to struggle this season, particularly without forward Mike Dunleavy. Danny Granger will get his points and Troy Murphy will get his rebounds. Jeff Foster will be tough and solid. Roy Hibbert showed himself to be serviceable in somewhat limited minutes last season. TJ Ford is quick and can score a little on his own. Beyond that, the Pacers are not a major threat, though taking any NBA team lightly can prove to be a mistake. Anyway, here’s a breakdown of what the Pacers bring, versus what the Hawks bring.
DEFENDING THE FACTORY
The Hawks will make more headway this season in much the same fashion as they did last season: by defending well in games. More to the point, defending home base. Defending homecourt isn’t just about winning games. It’s also about winning the fans over. Nothing makes homecourt the bane of visiting teams more than a fan base that is fully, enthusiastically, and maniacally behind their team. And to get your fans fully behind you…well, winning at home always helps. Especially on opening night!
Having said that, let’s review what the Pacers have to offer on offense, and what the Hawks should be concentrating on:
For Indiana, it’s the Danny Granger show. He gets the most shots, as most of the plays run around him. Granger is going to get his points most nights, but he isn’t the difference between winning and losing unless it’s a close score at the end of a game. The guys who can make the biggest difference are Ford, Murphy, and possibly Luther Head.
Troy Murphy doesn’t do much damage on the block, but he can and will stretch the defense with his outside shooting touch. TJ Ford’s greatest threat is penetration. Never known for his outside shooting, Ford has gotten better in recent years, and is one of the game’s fastest players. He can get less creative teammates involved with dump-off passes once he gets into the lane, and is just as adept at faking the pass and getting the layup, as 15 points per game on 45% shooting showed last season. Make him beat you from the outside, and he’s not nearly as effective.
Roy Hibbert can’t be ignored, as he’s shown himself to be better than many thought he would be. But he still plays limited minutes, producing numbers that are decent, but not overwhelming. As long as he’s not given free rein in the post, he won’t hurt you too much. On the other hand, if he has improved this facet of his game…look out. Speaking of free rein, Luther Head is not somebody you leave open. Head doesn’t shoot a high percentage from the field overall, but he the fact that he’s sitting on 39% career shooting from 3-point range would suggest that you don’t want to let him get too many good looks at the basket.
To be successful on defense, the Hawks need to improve on what plagued them last year: hound the ball and prevent easy penetration. Close out on shooters and bottle up the passing lanes.
BATTLE OF THE BOARDS
This is actually a problem that the Hawks have been having, and it needs to stop. Winning the contest on the boards helps you win the game, pure and simple. Troy Murphy is a near-prolific rebounder, but he’s not alone. Hibbert can grab a few, and if he has worked on his game at all, this is probably one area that will show. Of course, being 7′2″ and 280 lbs never hurts. Jeff Foster is as solid as they come off the bench, and between ex-Hawk Solomon Jones and Josh McRoberts, I expect there to be some hustle from these guys. The Hawks have to counter that by out-hustling. Horford established himself as a solid rebounder when he came into the league, but he’ll need help from his cohorts. Josh Smith is capable of getting 11 or 12 rebounds in any given game, but the effort and committment isn’t always there. It’ll have to be, particularly against the Pacers, who won’t have a whole lot else going for them. But it’s not just Josh. Marvin Williams has to get in on the act as well. Joe Johnson just about always helps out in this category, but if you’re depending on your star shooting guard for a meaningful rebound contribution, then you’re in trouble.
The big difference may come down to the bench. Zaza, Joe Smith, and whomever else Woodson decides to give playing time to in the frontcourt will have to man up to the task. If nothing else, bench players need to be able to rebound well. A rebound is either gaining possession of the ball, or keeping it.
Where the Hawks’ offense is concerned, it should be “pick your poison” for the Pacers, if all is going according to plan (uh, assuming the plan calls for something more productive and efficient than…well, you know, that same old play…). Despite “that play” being what it is, nobody on this Pacers team can stop Joe, who is of course option numero uno. Bibby is usually good for double figure points if you get him a few good looks at the basket. Foster and Hibbert can make things difficult for Horford, but that can be counteracted with Horford’s superior quickness and his ability to step out and hit the 15-17 foot jumper. In the meantime, playing a little high-low (with a lob or two passed back and forth) with Josh Smith should draw the attention away from the backcourt, and anything that involves a fast break will be more than Indiana can handle. Marvin will respond according to the number of touches he gets. If he gets 7-9 shot attempts, one of them will be a three, and he may even go to the line once or twice, netting 13 or 14 points. If he gets more, look for something closer to 2o, or above it. Let’s see what the game plan calls for.
If I’m the Pacers, I’m hating the idea of facing the Hawks bench as much as I am the starters. Maybe even more. Why? Well, who do they have that’s going to want to, much less be able to, keep up with Teague and Crawford? Teague will go to the rim every single chance he gets, and will get to the line in the process. Oh, I almost forgot….he can pass a little bit too. Speaking of which, most teams will be keying on Jamal Crawford and expecting him to shoot, but he will probably do more damage by passing to Mo Evans, Zaza Pachulia, and Joe Smith. Gone are the days of sending out a lone hitman from the bench, accompanied by either tired starters or reserves without real assignments. This means more focus, hustle, defense, and rebounding from the reserve unit. Good for Hawks. Bad for Pacers. Look for the bench to absolutely hammer the Pacer reserves and starters alike.
So what do you think the Hawks need to do to win this game? Will we see a different offense than in years past? Who is going to be at the game on opening night?!