“Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…”
Think fast… who still has the worst road record in the NBA? And who still has the most in-conference losses in the NBA? That’s right, it’s your Atlanta Hawks, still in the running to be awarded as the NBA’s Best Bad Team. Tankamaniacs will hope those two facts hold by the conclusion of tonight’s game in Milwaukee, as the Hawks take on the rejuvenated Bucks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin), and tomorrow’s in Detroit.
Since sacking Jason Kidd, back on January 22, and handing the coaching keys over to longtime assistant Joe Prunty, the Bucks have won eight of their past ten games. They want to formally establish themselves as an upper-echelon team in the East (2 games behind 3-seed Cleveland), not one scrapping just to remain above the playoff line (4.5 games ahead of 9-seed Detroit). They still have quite a bit of work cut out for them.
While the past ten games for Milwaukee (31-24) have been encouraging, propelling the club well above the .500 mark, few of those contests involved playoff-bound opponents. Their two losses during this stretch were at Minnesota and here, at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, against Miami. Of the eight victories, two were against the LOLKnicks, two versus the Nets, and the rest against the Suns, Bulls, Sixers and Magic. A schedule that easy might have been enough to preserve Kidd’s jerb, had he lasted that long. That schedule also would have caused members of the Illtankanati to chew their fingernails raw, were it assigned to Atlanta (18-39).
The Bucks are navigating their way into the All-Star Break with depth challenges in the front and back of the lineup. A quad tear is sidelining ATLien and reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, probably through mid-March. Also, not returning to the floor until after the Break is Matthew Dellavedova, as a sprained ankle will keep him from wrecking anybody else’s for at least the next several weeks. Prunty has granted backups Sterling Brown, Sean Kilpatrick, and ex-Hawk Jason Terry upticks in floor time to help compensate.
Starting center John Henson has been in-and-out of the lineup with a sore hammy and is unlikely to play today. Jabari Parker returned to action last week after a one-year injury hiatus. But his minutes have been closely monitored, and he sat out Saturday’s 111-104 win in Orlando since it was the second night of a back-to-back. Prior to the Trade Deadline, the Bucks shipped Rashad Vaughn and a 2018 second-rounder to Brooklyn to acquire Nets starting center Tyler Zeller, in hopes of buttressing the front line.
From the coaching staff to the roster, that’s a lot of moving parts for a club aiming at a playoff slot with first-round homecourt advantage. The good news is the All-Star Break is right around the corner, and they have a probable win to pursue tonight.
Even better news is that guard and salon expert Eric Bledsoe (last 4 games: 22.0 PPG, 42.9 3FG%, 7.0 APG) is beginning to display some consistency, while swingman Khris Middleton (last 10 games: 19.6 PPG, 39.5 3FG%, 1.6 SPG) is rounding into form at the right time. The best news is they have Giannis Antetokounmpo playing, as Tim Hardaway, Jr. would concur, in a whole other stratosphere (last 9 games: 26.6 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 5.2 APG, 36.8 3FG%).
The Greek Freak will continue moonsaulting over his competition; coaxing him into settling for mid-range jumpers all night will be a tough ask for Atlanta defenders. But the primary challenge for the Hawks this week is to figure out how not to leave behind their A-Game at The A, particularly against stout competition (sorry, Knicks).
Without the dulcet tones of Ryan Cameron serenading them from courtside, the Hawks (5-22 on the road) tend to shy away from things coach Mike Budenholzer preaches. They’re more apt to take shots inside the 3-point line (64.7% road 2FG frequency, 14th in NBA; 60.7% at home, 27th), and more likely to rush up a contested shot, or over-dribble and get sloppy (1.38 road assist/TO ratio, 25th in NBA), than seek out the extra pass (66.8 home assist%, 2nd in NBA; 57.7 road assist%, 13th). Away from home, Atlanta is less likely to box out (72.7 road D-Reb%, dead-last in NBA) and more likely to foul (20.6 road personals per-48, 10th in NBA) in lieu of properly defending shooters and ballhandlers.
In his first meeting with the Hawks this season, Bledsoe will try to use his speed and strength to overwhelm Dennis Schröder and the Atlanta guards. The Hawks tempt opponents into deploying roll men, although the Bucks’ bigs like Giannis and the brick-handed Thon Maker (13 points @ ORL, 3rd-highest this season) are low-usage in this area. But Bledsoe is better off seeking out perimeter kickouts to Middleton and Tony Snell, as roll-man plays have become a losing proposition for the Hawks’ opposition.
Only Detroit (8.1%) has been summoned to defend P&R roll-man action as frequently as Atlanta (8.0% of opponent plays). Yet opponents on these plays have been bottom-10 in both eFG% and FT frequency, scoring at least a point on just 47.8 percent of their chances (4th-lowest in NBA). Further, Atlanta has been forcing roll-man turnovers (8.3% of possessions) more often than they’ve committed shooting fouls (7.6%). The 1.01 points-per-possession the Hawks allow has been superior to more vaunted defenses like Utah (1.03) and San Antonio (1.06), despite being attacked by offenses more often in this regard than all but one other team.
The inverse of this has been the Hawks’ offense for the P&R ball handler. Eschewing post-up plays almost entirely (only 49 points by Atlanta players all season), Schröder and the Hawks’ ball-handlers attack on the P&R more than any other outfit (22.1% of possessions). Yet only the Lakers have done worse at finishing on those plays (42.2 FG%, 29th in NBA; 36.9% Score Frequency, 28th in NBA) while the turnover frequency gets elevated (17.2 TO%, 8th-worst in NBA).
Milwaukee’s defense cranks out a turnover on 21.3% of Ball-Handler possessions (3rd-best in NBA) and 11.0% of Roll-Man possessions (tops in NBA). Atlanta’s transition defense will have to be primed and ready, especially for Parker and Antetokounmpo, when the predictable P&R turnovers show up.
Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince accounted for 17 of Atlanta’s 27 dimes, but 10 of the Hawks’ 16 TOs during their 117-106 home loss back on October 29, a game where Milwaukee built up a 19-point cushion through the opening three quarters of action. Giannis (33 points, 11 rebounds, six assists) and Middleton (27 points, 9 assists) carried the proceedings with the help of cameo appearances from the inactive Henson (9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals) and the since-departed Vaughn (4-for-6 3FGs) off the bench.
Even with the departures of Marco Belinelli and Luke Babbitt, Schröder (28.3 3FG%) has his next nine active leading-scorers on the Hawks all shooting above 35 percent beyond the 3-point line (but for Tyler Cavanuagh’s injury, it would be ten).
Even Prince’s downturn (0-for-14 on threes in three of the last four games, kicking Orlando aside), with his sketchy mechanics needing work, has him sitting at 37.9 3FG% for the season. DeAndre’ Bembry sits right at 35.0 3FG%, a shade behind the experimental John Collins (35.3 3FG%).
With his hands off the wheel and TMZ out of his hair, this two-game road trip may be an ideal time to get Bembry back up to speed at both ends of the court, certainly before Tyler Dorsey (double-digit scoring in past four games) cannibalizes his minutes. Getting a rotation that can stretch the floor and build advantages over opposing bench regimes should be one of the Hawks’ objectives going forward.
Whichever of the leading scorers-slash-assist-men, Giannis or Dennis, finds the open man more effectively on forays to the hoop Is likely to find their team at an advantage through most of this game. Which team you would prefer holding that advantage, of course, is entirely up to you.
Let’s Go Hawks!