The news of Al Horford going down with a pectoral injury for the second time in three years was a tough blow to an Atlanta Hawks team poised to claim a top 4 seed in the anemic Eastern Conference. And they still might, considering the state of wreckage and ruin that has consumed the New York-based teams that were expected to compete coming into the season. But unfortunately, it’s a down south threat that lacks less punch without the team’s best and most impactful player.
Like a revolving door, Paul Millsap came walking through the same opening that Josh Smith simultaneously exited this offseason. With him came a new offensive system being installed and new responsibilities for all those involved. For one, he has been asked to spread the floor with the leash to dispatch threes on unsuspecting opponents. Through the first seven years of his career in Utah in over 500 games, Millsap totaled 113 threes. Through the first 31 games of his Atlanta career, he has already logged 80 threes. And the result has been overwhelmingly positive, as he has nailed 42.5% of attempts to date in the process of ushering in a new spacing ideology.
The magnitude of positive impact Josh Smith brought to Atlanta often gets lost when discussing his flaws, but as a complete package, he was a segment of the mediocrity of which General Manager Danny Ferry sought to rid the franchise. Little did he know that instead of complementing the centerpiece Horford, Millsap would find himself seated temporarily on his throne of in-game usage.
In the last three games without Al Horford, Millsap has averaged 28 points and 11 rebounds per outing. Although these have come against weaker Eastern Conference fodder, every one of Paul’s contributions have been necessary, as the two wins of the trio were by a total of 3 points, including one overtime match.
Possibly the biggest representation of Paul’s attempt to fill the Horford void is the 17 shots and almost 13 free throws per game taken in the last three contests. Both figures would easily represent career highs. Millsap is used to lurking in the weeds, reduced to making the most of his limited allotment of shots as he has not been a primary option in an offense since his days as a multiyear national rebounding champion at Louisiana Tech University.
What makes Millsap so effective is that like Horford, he can face up opponents from anywhere within the arc and win most matchups. Give him enough space and he will drain mid range shots at high level. But his real focus is toward getting to the rim, where he takes over 50% of his shots according to NBA.com. In this sense, he continues the accompanying effect Smoove brought in Atlanta, a low post orientation to Horford’s elite midrange skills. But even without Al, the show goes on, except now the aim is for players to complement Paul’s effect.
The power forward position was thought to be the strongest position on the team heading into the regular season. But due to the unfortunate injuries to Horford as well as third year big Gustavo Ayón, it may not quite reach expectations. Yes, there are crazy pump faking, one-legged shooting antics from Pero Antic, the emergence of second rounder Mike Scott, and the steady and surprisingly imposing Elton Brand, but it has become even more evident that the team will ebb and flow with Paul Millsap’s performances.