In many ways, the identity the Hawks are developing now is nothing new. They’ve been a good defensive team pretty much since Mike Budenholzer was hired as coach, and that’s one reason I think they’ll still be a good defensive team.
What’s changed is the personnel available to Budenholzer, and that’s led to an adjustment in style. They will be scrappier and more aggressive defensively because that’s the way they must play to compete. It doesn’t mean the Hawks will exceed the low external expectations, but it gives them the best shot.
“I think we are going to play really hard every night and I think we are going to have a chance,” Budenholzer said after Monday's exhibition win over Memphis. “We understand how important it is. If we get better day to day as the season moves on, we will be pleased with what we are doing. Detroit game, (in the) second half we maybe didn’t do the things we wanted. But you look at Miami, Cleveland first half and then tonight, I think there is a lot of positives with how we are playing and how we are competing on both ends of court. If we are going to exceed expectations, that’s how it’s going to happen.”
Points may be hard to come by for a team that’s short on plus offensive talent. Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr. departed and were replaced by less-accomplished scorers. The Hawks had better be on point on defense (including creating transition chances with steals and quick outlets off rebounds) because they just don’t have the horses to match most opponents basket-for-basket.
The other thing that’s changed is that the Hawks are younger, faster and more athletic. They have the personnel to play a spirited style of defense.
“Bud always preaches defense, but this year I think us not having a big-name player, everybody is just stepping up,” Hawks guard Malcolm Delaney said. “More athletic, faster and we’ve just got a different method this year. We want to play more aggressive. Last year we played a lot more with our ‘bigs’ playing off the ball. This year we’ve got athletic ‘bigs’ so we can play more aggressive. That’s just a part of us trying to play faster.”
The shift in defensive style has returned good results for the Hawks in four exhibition games. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Hawks have allowed 0.81 points per possession, 10th-best in the league. They’ve allowed just 0.791 PPP in half-court possessions, which is seventh-best.
There’s a lot of noise in those numbers because of the small sample and the scattered nature of exhibition games. But the Hawks also have looked good defensively from a subjective, qualitative perspective.
The help rotations have been sharp. The Hawks have protected the paint and the basket. They get back in transition and find a man. Really, the only area I’ve seen that’s been lacking is defending the 3-point line.
“That’s all we ask for is fly around,” Kent Bazemore said. “We do a scramble drill pretty much at the end of every practice, that’s pretty much what we mocked (Monday) tonight. If a guy gets beat, instead of thinking ‘Should I be there?' just go. If you go, then the guy behind you rotates and that’s kind of how we do it, by committee.
“We’ve shown some good flashes of being a great, solid defensive team early in the preseason. Obviously, we need to score more but that will come over time.”
I’d say the Hawks are giving the effort Bazemore is talking about. One area that illustrates that is how they are constantly trying to beat drivers to spots and draw charges — they rank among the preseason leaders in that category. And I’ve noticed that even when a Hawks player is called for a blocking foul on those plays, Budenholzer goes out of his way to offer encouragement.
“I would say from the first day of camp up in Athens, guys have been committed to taking charges, committed to making hustle plays and kind of giving up their body,” Budenholzer said. “I think it’s a different way to protect the paint, it’s a different way to be good defensively. Ersan (Ilysasova) obviously has a knack for it but I think other guys have kind of picked up and kind of joining it. Malcolm does (it), too. Dennis (Schroder) will do it. A lot of different guys will jump in, take a charge. It’s been good.”
The Hawks know that pretty much every outside observer expects them to be a bad team. It’s no surprise that they don’t share in that pessimism. Every team with low external expectations says they are setting the bar higher, and some of them even believe it.
But at least the Hawks have a clear identity and (so far) are buying into playing a style that suits their personnel and circumstances.
“Last year with Paul it was more finesse, him and Dennis in the pick-and-roll it was more of a kind of finesse offensive style,” Delaney said. “It was good but this year, we are going to play faster. We are going to be a scrappy team. If you saw how Miami played in the second half of the season last year when they went on that run, that’s kind of how we have got to play.”
The Heat did it by getting a little better on defense and a lot better on offense (especially their shooting) while using a smaller lineup that included current Hawks forward Luke Babbitt. The Hawks may have to do it a different way, but they have a plan.
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