Post Game: HAWKS VS. BUCKS
There is nothing like a blowout win to seal the deal. With “win or go home” staring them in the face, the Atlanta Hawks ended a rough first round series with a tough-minded Milwaukee Bucks team in fairly fine fashion at Philips Arena, setting a date with the Orlando Magic in the process.
Rather than spend time telling you what you already know, I’ll highlight what stood out to me most. Mike Bibby did what this team needed him to do most by hitting shots and putting forth effort on defense, and on the glass. Al Horford led the way with his play on both ends, dominating the way he should against a team lacking great interior size. Jamal Crawford justified his Sixth Man of the Year award, played like a veteran, and gained some playoff confidence. Marvin and Zaza played their roles instead of getting lost in the mix. There was more that happened, and much of it will be needed in the next series. For in the amount of time the Hawks took to learn the lessons they did, they’ve a bigger challenge coming soon.
Taking it to the Next Series
The Hawks did indeed learn some tough lessons, and they need to take them to Orlando. You see, 53 wins was almost like a mirage. Were these guys really entering the playoffs as a better team than last year because they won 6 more games? Or were they entering as a more talented team? There really is a difference. We can hash out stats and argue what stat sites are saying until we’re blue in our respective faces (or computer screens for that matter). But what this team survived or overcome many a time in the regular season is what nearly deep-sixed them in the postseason. What lessons did the Hawks learn, and how can they apply them in the second round? Feel free to jump in with your own observations or call me out on mine. For what it’s worth, here they are.
All this time, we’ve squawked and blathered about these guys not trusting each other on offense. Did it ever occur to us that part of the problem was not trusting each other on defense? Has it been a matter of the frontcourt and backcourt not trusting each other, or the other way around? Maybe it’s been certain guys not trusting other guys. Really, does it matter all that much? What does matter is committment. For the Hawks to compete, much less win, they have to be committed on defense in three ways:
_ Players have to commit to playing defense at the individual level. No matter how you spin it, back or forth, so much depends on this. Players cannot depend on their “system” to work for them. They cannot give 50%-75% effort, then rely on their teammates to give the rest. I realize that some guys are much better defenders than others, and some guys have had some bad habits for very long periods of time. Effort is something that you can bring, and must bring, anytime you are able to get on the court. Lack of effort cannot be made up for, not by the world’s greatest shot blocker, not consistently. Sooner or later, something gives.
We’ve heard Mike Woodson say that he has used the switching defense to hide certain players. I understand this, but the time comes where that will not suffice. Sometimes it happens during the regular season against smarter, tougher, or more talented teams. But it’s guaranteed to come when the playoffs arrive. There is no hiding in the postseason. If you have a problem, it will be exposed, and soon.
Bottom Line: Each player on a team is responsible for his own personal effort to play defense. Individual plays and results will vary from player to player, based on what they are capable of. Some will make great plays (a block, a steal), others will do things that won’t show up in a stat column. The only thing that truly hurts a team 100% of the time is lack of effort.
_ Players must commit to playing defense as a team, which involves constant communication. The idea behind a good screen is to separate the offensive player from the defender. The defender who is on the ball-handler simply cannot see every screen coming, which means he has to rely on his teammates to let him know about it. He certainly cannot see everything that is going on with the other 8 guys on the floor with him. In the switching defense, communication is especially important. If players do not communicate, they will be lost. One breakdown leads to two, and then the play is well and truly busted. We’ve seen this from the Hawks too many times, and they’ve been through that joke show enough by now, to know better. Shooting your teammate a dirty look for missing an assignment as you run back up the court is NOT effective communication. The idea is to correct the problem, no exacerbate it. This also involves admitting your mistake when you make it, and then redoubling your efforts to not make that mistake again.
The problem with the Hawks has been their attitude. Some guys cover other guys’ mistakes, but don’t try to help and encourage them to get to the right places. They just keep doing it, and then won’t say anything until a post game interview. How is that supposed to help? Other guys make sure they are playing defense, but don’t help out when others are struggling. This is the NBA, which means there are players who simply cannot or will not be stopped one on one in every single play, and some almost never. Help defense exists for a reason. Either players work together and help each other, or the defense breaks down. This includes over-committing to compensate for other guys. There is a two-fold problem here: keep doing this and some guys will naturally slack off if you keep trying to take over for them. And, if you keep doing it, the other team will quickly figure out how to exploit you by anticipating your move, and coutering it with off-the-ball movement and open shot opportunities for the guy you were supposed to be guarding.
Some guys will watch others give a half-hearted effort, and the disease begins to spread. Soon enough, everybody is taking plays off, and guess what? They’re all doing it at the same time, more often than not. The other team goes on a run, and the inevitable happens. Post game quotes? “We didn’t commit to playing defense. We just have to play better defense. We got away from doing that.” No kidding.
Bottom Line: Trust your teammates to bring the individual effort. Help them when they need help. Pay attention to what is going on around you. Ask for help if you need it. Lend a hand when it’s asked for. Observe what is happening, and talk with your teammates about it. Encourage and cajole each other.
The coaching staff must recognize what is working, what is not, and adjust accordingly, in a timely fashion. Naturally, Mike Woodson is most responsible as head coach. However, his assistants have a duty to observe the game every bit as keenly, and point out to him (and the players) what they are seeing. We ride Woodson because it took 3 games or more for some defensive adjustments to come into play. By then, the Hawks were facing elimination. Now, some may want to put that blame squarely on the head coach and nobody else. Does he listen to his assistants at all? One would imagine that he does (or hopes so), but what are these guys telling him? Assuming that this is not a pure dictatorship (and we have no credible reason to believe so right now), that means that several guys wearing suits on the bench ALSO failed to make or even suggest adjustments. This is what the “coaching staff” is here for. “A meeting of the minds”, “Five heads are better than one”, and so forth. These guys are going to have to do quicker and more efficient work. More talented teams make you pay for mistakes and bad habits quicker. Players cannot be counted on to counter stategy, largely because they are in the game, not observing it.
The coaching staff is also accountable for making adjustments on offense, and calming players down. When Joe Johnson is struggling, who is talking to him on the sidelines? A coach, or some guy who spends 98% of his time sitting on the bench? That’s not to say that coming out of the game should include a good talking-to. If a guy needs a breather, then let him rest. If he’s out because he’s struggling or failing to get something done due to lack of effort or focus, shouldn’t somebody have a word or two with him? A word of encouragement or a suggestion couldn’t hurt, and it need not take up the entire time the player is on the bench.
Bottom Line: The coaching staff has to have these guys ready to play, and in the right mindset. They need to closely observe throughout the game and recognize what is causing a team to slide, or what could cause them to rise. They have to be fluid and fleet. The playoffs don’t give you time to sit back and idly ponder the wonders of the game of basketball. Correct what is wrong, encourage what is right. Their failure is the team’s failure. Their success is the team’s success.
All in all, these three cogs in the wheel of defense feed off of each other. Individual effort on defense supports the effect of team defense. Team defense attitude helps to encourage and lift up individual efforts. Mike Bibby may not be able to stop Jameer Nelson on his own, but if he doesn’t allow Nelson the open shot, and funnels him towards Josh Smith or Al Horford, then Nelson’s shot could be altered or blocked. By the same vein, if Horford or Smith comes and helps out when Bibby gets nailed with a screen, or Nelson beats him off the dribble, then Bibby knows he has backup. When the coaching staff recognizes how the opposing team is exploiting the defense in a particular way (especially if they repeat the play a number of times successfully), they can change the way the Hawks are defending it, forcing the offense to try something else, something less comfortable. It all works together, but effort and communication are at the root of it.
We all know that the Hawks do well when they share the ball. We know the fast break only works if it’s kick-started by good defense and rebounding. We also know that this team has some good individual scorers.
Talking about this team’s habitual ISO offense (that would be ISO anybody, not just ISO-Joe) gets old, but it’s inevitable. The Hawks have been slow to make adjustments, but one key to competing with the Orlando Magic is making them work on defense. Dwight Howard is the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the second time, but can you name anybody else on this team that is known for their defensive effect on games? Pietrus, perhaps, but he’s not that dialed in all the time. Matt Barnes? Jameer Nelson? Vince Carter??? Give me a break! Those guys can be made to work hard, and when they do, the “magic aura” fades considerably. Better yet, put a lot of pressure on them and Howard will begin to overextend himself, leading to foul trouble.
What ways can the Hawks poke holes in the Magic defense? How can they expose them for the one trick pony they are on this side of the ball, even if that one pony is a heck of a horse? What wrinkles might Mike Woodson and his staff try to put the pressure on Orlando? Playing not to lose to these guys will only result in just that….losing. Play to win, and you have a chance. It doesn’t just require tough defense. It requires smart, aggressive, opportunistic offense.
Is the glass half empty, or is it half full? That would depend on your individual perspective. Some would prefer to see an up and down Hawks team go home early, just for the sake of change being made. Nevermind the details, just make some changes, right? Others are more wary of such thinking, and are probably just glad that the Hawks pulled this one out, but anxious to see if they have learned their lessons at all. Should the Hawks have knocked the Bucks out earlier? Absolutely. However, that is for later summer pontificating. For now, the Hawks have weathered the storm…just in time for a raging tempest.