Loss to Knicks has Hawks aiming to improve

AJC

Prior to the start of the season, there was good reason to doubt the level of success that this Hawks team could accomplish. Newly-hired general manager Danny Ferry turned heads when he traded a seemingly “un-tradable” contract in Joe Johnson for a group of expiring deals. It set a precedent as Ferry was also able to unload former number two overall pick Marvin Williams for Devin Harris, another expiring contract. With the team appearing to be in a rebuilding phase, many outsiders deemed this Hawks bunch a bubble team when it came to the playoff race. There have been instances this season where that notion could have been validated, but despite significant injuries, particularly to guard Lou Williams, who tore his ACL on Jan. 18 against Brooklyn, and Zaza Pachulia, who is also lost for the season with an ACL injury, the team has remained competitive despite the injuries and currently remains in a battle for playoff seeding with the fourth spot and home-court advantage in the first round still in reach.

 

While home-court advantage is certainly a remaining goal for coach Larry Drew and the Hawks, the ability to enter the playoffs healthy is even more important. The Hawks were without Devin Harris, who is nursing a foot injury, and rookie John Jenkins, who is still battling side effects from a concussion, in Wednesday night’s loss to the Knicks. Despite the fourth-place Brooklyn Nets still within striking distance, Drew stressed the importance of sitting guys who need the rest and ensuring that the team is relatively healthy entering the first round of the playoffs.

 

“As we move forward, we’re going to limit some guys’ minutes,” said Drew. “We still have guys that are banged up, some that are tired.”

 

While he has yet to decide which players will rest and when, he will be monitoring the team’s overall play offensively and defensively as the season winds down.

 

“We want to finish the season strong, but it’s more important to have healthy bodies,” said Drew. He wants to make certain that those who are clearly the most fatigued and banged up get ample time to heal up and be ready for a grueling first round series. The team does, however, have key areas to address before the season concludes and it begins on defense.

 

During Wednesday’s game against the Knicks, who are a potential first-round matchup for the Hawks, the pick and roll defense, particularly in the fourth quarter, left much to be desired as Jeff Teague found himself beat by Raymond Felton off screens multiple times for easy layups in the fourth, which led to the Knicks putting the game out of reach.

 

“We need to sharpen up our pick-and-roll coverage. A lot on my part,” said Teague after the game, “I thought I should’ve backed up a little bit on Felton and let him shoot a contested shot.

 

While Teague isn’t entirely at fault, the team defense in the fourth simply lacked focus and energy, which goes back to Coach Drew’s philosophy on resting players. Home-court advantage does nothing for a team if the energy level isn’t there to warrant it. The team’s ability to matchup against scorers such as Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith was also an area of concern, as Josh Smith, DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones all found themselves beat consistently by Anthony and Smith. There wasn’t a single matchup on either player that was deemed effective, as Anthony finished the game with 40 points and Smith added 19.

 

Shot selection is another area that tends to plague the Hawks, in particular Josh Smith, who shot 5-of-13 from the field including a vast array of ill-advised three-point and mid-range jump-shots. When he wasn’t shooting jump-shots, he tried to force his way to the baskets and draw contact against the Knicks’ front-court, which tended to fail more often than not. While shot selection has been an issue for Smith throughout his career, it becomes even more imperative during the postseason that he keeps the ball moving.

 

The Hawks have been most effective when ball movement is at its best and guys like Kyle Korver, who led the team with 25 against the Knicks, Teague, and Al Horford are able to get more involved in the offensive flow. Smith simply can’t stop the ball movement in order to create an isolation play for himself and shoot shots that don’t play to his strengths.

 

With the Eastern Conference standings surely expected to continue shuffling, particularly with regards to the five through seven spots amongst the Hawks, Chicago and Boston, the effort must be there on both ends of the court, regardless of who is in the lineup on a given night. At this point, the Hawks will likely find themselves against the Pacers, Knicks or Nets in the first round of the playoffs, with Brooklyn likely being the most favorable matchup. Despite going 2-2 against Indiana on the season, both wins came early on in the season, prior to the Hawks’ loss of Pachulia, who was integral in shutting down the Pacers’ big front-line of Roy Hibbert and David West.

 

As seen by both meetings so far, the Knicks, especially Anthony, have given the Hawks trouble. Anthony has scored 42 and 40 points in both meetings against the Hawks this season and, as previously mentioned, has seemed unstoppable for the Hawks, which is why Brooklyn has shown to be the best matchup for the Hawks.

 

The two teams split their four games this year, with each team winning on the opposing home-court. In their two wins over the Nets, the Hawks won by an average of 13 points and had some of the best overall team performances of the season. The ball movement was seamless and Teague and Horford were integral pieces to the offensive execution.

 

Overall offensive and defensive consistency was displayed best against Brooklyn, which gives the Hawks a better shot than either Indiana or New York. With six games remaining, three against playoff teams, the Hawks’ main focus will be to get healthy, while also finishing strong and addressing their weaknesses.

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