Hawks’ future shines bright in 2014 playoffs

Photo by AJC/ Curtis Compton

For a seventh consecutive season, the Hawks found themselves in the postseason. However, this year’s Atlanta team arrived with much different look and philosophy than in previous years. With a 38-44 record, the Hawks were the only team entering this year’s NBA playoffs with a record below .500. First-time head coach Mike Budenholzer was making his postseason debut at the top of the totem pole after spending the previous 17 seasons (1996- 2013) as an assistant to three-time NBA Coach of the Year and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Atlanta’s only game-to-game returning starter from 2013’s playoff lineup was Jeff Teague and the bench for the most part starred a completely new cast as well.

Atlanta Hawks fans understood the challenges that this newly-built team faced in its first season together and the fans were content with the level of success seen during the regular season. In fact, a couple weeks ago it was open debate in the city whether the Hawks should even try to make the playoffs. No way could this battered team play with the top-seeded Pacers or two-time defending champion Heat in the first round and they were better off tanking and hoping for a good draw in the Draft Lottery. That was the logic, and it is not surprising considering the previous six seasons of underachievement and abrupt postseason exits this fan base saw.

The Hawks had to claw their way into the 2014 postseason. A losing skid from Feb. 2-March 8 hit the Hawks hard and saw them lose 14-of-15 games while sinking to 26-35 (nine games under .500). Atlanta had to win 12 of its next 19 games to even earn the No. 8 seed over the New York Knicks and a seat in the playoffs. The resiliency this team showed during this span proved the team was heading in the right direction and Paul Millsap’s break-out season and first trip to the All-Star game was also something for fans hang their hats on.

A possible series win over the No. 1 Pacers was not in the pre-playoff discussions but Budenholzer’s resilient bunch had the confidence to prove otherwise.

“This has been a resilient team all season,” explained Budenholzer. “All year they have battled and bounced back and they are confident with their ability to stick together as a team when things are difficult.”

MESSAGE SENT …

In Game 1 of the best-of-seven series, Atlanta made an early statement. The Hawks only had one previous road win all year over a team with a record or higher than .600 and it was the Pacers earlier that month (107-88 on April 6). Jeff Teague netted a game-high 28 points and Atlanta took the series opener 101-93 to carry Indiana’s late-season swoon into the postseason. The Pacers took Game 2 101-85, but were exposed by this balanced Hawks team throughout Games 3-5. The Hawks continued to look like the No. 1 seed while the Pacers continued to fall deeper in their downward spiral.

“I give Atlanta all the credit in the world,” said TNT analyst Charles Barkley after the Hawks’ Game 5 win. “But this is one of the worst collapses I have ever seen.”

Indiana has obvious issues going on with team chemistry but the Hawks’ new Budenholzer system and the toughness this team is playing with this postseason has only made things more worse for the Pacers.

SHOCK THE WORLD …

In 2013, Indiana opened the series 2-0 but Atlanta would tie it 2-2 after consecutive home wins. In Games 5 and 6 the Hawks trembled under the postseason pressure and the Pacers cruised to lopsided victories of 106-83 and 81- 73 to end Atlanta’s season.

All five 2013 Pacers starters (David West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and Lance Stephenson) are healthy and returned for this year’s 2014 playoffs.

The Hawks’ new cast of players has attacked Indiana’s returning starters with a barrage of three-pointers fueled by good ball movement and Paul Millsap’s physical post-play and versatility on the floor. When the Hawks and Pacers faced in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Atlanta averaged 6.3 made three-pointers per game. Through the first five games of this year’s series, Atlanta had almost doubled that mark with a franchise record pace at 11.8 made three-pointers a game. Atlanta is shooting more threes than any playoff team this year and is the only team averaging more than 10 makes per game.

Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack are each attempting more than three deep balls a game and seven players are averaging 8.4 points per game or higher this series.

STOPPING THE THREE …

Indiana’s offense has not been fluid this series and the defensive side of the ball has been an even bigger issue for the Pacers. This is a team that is supposed to be built around the interior presence of 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert. According to head coach Frank Vogel, “Hibbert is our anchor of our defense and we won 56 regular season games with him.”

This blueprint has not worked this postseason.

Pacers all-star Paul George addressed the team’s defensive issues while trying to guard the Hawks’ deep ball after the Game 5 home loss.

“We are a team that is used to playing big,” admitted George. “Atlanta has five guys on the court at all times that can all play the perimeter and that is difficult.”

When Indiana is guarding the three-pointer, Paul Millsap is able to beat guys in the post down low. Atlanta has flipped the Pacers’ philosophy inside-out this series and sent them out of their comfort zone.

In 2013, Hibbert dominated the Hawks with 14.66 points per game and 8.83 rebounds. This year, Hibbert is averaging 4.8 points per game and 3.4 rebounds through the first five games of the series, including a 0-point, 0-rebound performance in Game 5.

The basketball world is witnessing two franchises go in different directions. As the Pacers sit on the cusp of an offseason filled with more questions than answers, the Hawks have their answers and the pieces to continue building.

The city of Atlanta has hopped on board and created an great home atmosphere this series. When the Pacers have played host, proud Hawks fans are tuning in like never before. According to the AJC, the Hawks’ Game 5 win was the most watched Hawks broadcast in regional Fox Sports South and Sports South network history.

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