What on earth does it take for the Hawks to beat the Cavs? To be on equal footing as the Cavs? Can it be done as is, or are there changes that have to be made? Are the changes something in execution, gameplan, player personnel, or what?
It’s not that the Hawks played a bad game. We’ve certainly seen worse from them, and the level of effort was greater than it was against Orlando earlier this year, or the L.A. Lakers. Is effort even the problem? Maybe it’s just part of the problem. How much of a part, is the question. After watching the Hawks hang in there until the very end (and even the last minute or so showed that it wasn’t quite over….well, until Iggy hit that 3, that is), only to lose a heartbreaker, I’m not sure we can pinpoint any one thing here. But, we can run down the list, no? And, we can see how many things, if any, are related.
Let’s start with what is perhaps the most popular one. The Cavs are bigger. Okay, we knew that already. They had dominated the boards against us with 43 total rebounds, while we had 30. Automatically, you want to revert to the idea that they are bigger. Yet not a single Cavalier player had as many rebounds as Al Horford. Shaq had 8, Ilgauskas had 5, Varejao had 8, Lebron had 8, and Delonte West had 5 . Do you count Lebron and Delonte? Given their production in that category, you have to. So basically, the Cavs had five guys who made rather meaninful contributions in the rebounding category. Now for the the Atlanta counterparts. As mentioned before, Horford had 9 rebounds. Josh Smith added 8. After that, things fall off considerably. Crawford had 4, while Bibby and Pachulia had 3 apice. Okay, you say, that’s only a difference of 8 rebounds. Well, that can be a lot, especially if they are offensive rebounds. And guess what? The Cavs had 10 offensive rebounds. The Hawks? Just five. Now before you begin to lambast the Hawks front line, take a look at a deeper issue here.
The Cavs played four guys in the frontcourt rotation, and that, my friends, is WITHOUT including Lebron James. Shaq had 25 minutes, Ilgauskas 20, Varejao 33, and Hickson 16. Add Lebron to the mix, and you have 5 frontcourt guys playing, though it could be argued that Lebfon is both frontcourt and backcourt. Conversely, the Hawks played Josh Smith 30 minutes, Horford for 40, Marvin 30, Zaza 18, and Joe Smith for 5. But considering that Marvin only contributed only a single rebound, it’s hard to count him. And again, of the Hawks’ significant rebound contributors, two are backcourt-only players (Crawford and Bibby). Look again, and you see that Jamal Crawford had the most minutes off the bench by far with 34. Did the Hawks think to win the battle on the glass by playing backcourt players more than frontcourt players?
So, did the Cavs beat the Hawks because they are bigger? Did they outrebound the Hawks because they are bigger? Or did they play more guys who are regular rebound contributors, while the Hawks played fewer guys who can regularly be counted on to provide rebounds? Why would you counter a bigger lineup with more minutes for smaller guys (like Jamal Crawford and Mo Evans)? This leads us to another thought:
The Cavs are bigger. What, is there an echo in here? No, but there may as well be. Again, we knew this already. So why counter an opposing bigger lineup with a smaller one, then play to the opponent’s strengths? This certainly appears to be what happened tonight, as the Hawks insisted on running half court sets most of the night against the bigger Cavaliers. What’s scary is that it almost worked. Well, that is until the Hawks returned to an old bad habit, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Seriously, why counter with smaller guys if you aren’t going to take advantage of your speed? The Hawks didn’t run much, and it’s plain to see that running doesn’t work so well if you’re not rebounding well (a point that Astro Joe had to make plain for me one day when I was wailing about the Hawks not running). Perhaps simply countering with smaller guys is not the answer. Either the guys you have on the floor are good rebounders, or they can find a way to outwork their bigger opponents for rebounds….or, you have to add another rebounder to the lineup, and take away a shooter/scorer. Fact is, the Hawks have a whole stable of guys who can get down the court. And after watching Zaza Pachulia beat the Cavs down the floor to receive a hail mary pass (that ended in a dunk), it’s hard to say that it’s not possible. So what is the best way to counter a bigger lineup? Playing half court offense with a bigger team is clearly not the answer. Because it only leads to one eventuality, which is the next thought.
Whenever the Hawks find themselves outclassed our outmuscled in a half court contest, they resort to the usual: ISO plays. ISO-Jamal worked more often than it didn’t, but it wasn’t enough (Crawford missed 7 shots, while making 10). ISO-JJ barely worked a third of the time. Part of that was due to JJ getting double teamed a lot. But the double team is nothing new, is it? What’s also not new is JJ’s seeming reluctance to pass out of it. For that reason alone, it makes sense as to why teams instantly try to double Joe, besides the fact that he is the team’s leading scorer. ISO plays are live-and-die plays. The Hawks have to figure out when to use them, and who to run them through. In the meantime, what’s wrong with running the pick-and-roll against a team that struggles to defend it from the post position?
The Hawks also shot themselves in the foot by missing ten of their 26 free throws. None was worse than Josh Smith, who went 1-6 from the line. Surprisingly, Jamal Crawford hit just 2 of his 4 attempts. Still, even if the Hawks hit all but 2 of their free throws, they still lose.
Lastly, there is defense. Much is made about the Hawks interior defense, but next to nothing is mentioned on the perimeter. First, let’s start with a highlight. Say what you will, but Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson gave Lebron James all he could handle and then some. “The King” was harrassed into 6 for 20 shooting, and a very uncharacteristic 14 points. Unfortunately, he is as much playmaker as he is scorer, and recorded 10 assists by passing out of double teams and other bad situations (ahem…somebody should be taking notes) to cutting teammates (ahem again…some other somebodys should be taking notes, including the ones with clipboards in their hands). Marvin did his job in that respect, and there is no denying it (or so you’d think, but…ah, nevermind). So did Joe. However, Delonte West and Mo Williams did some serious damage from the outside and occasionally on backdoor cuts (like when Ilgauskas and Lebron were drawing Josh, Marvin, and Al away from the basket). The Hawks have got to defend the perimeter shooters better, or teams are going to blast us from there. No more wide open looks!
So is that it? Can the Hawks just not beat the Cavs? Are the Cavs just too big, or is it something else? What gameplan and in-game adjustments can be made to counter the Cavaliers? Is it going to come down to roster moves? Perhaps playing Joe Smith more when Josh Smith is in foul trouble (and Marvin is not producing on the boards) is an idea. Perhaps not. What do you think? One thing is for sure. It’s much harder to win at Quicken Loans arena….