Like a starfish a long time removed from an limb-severing accident, the Atlanta Hawks have coped with the a big loss and formed an appendage to move forward. It took a period of healing and direction-finding, but the ship seemingly is righted once again. Directly, that has meant more minutes for Elton Brand, Mike Scott, and Pero Antic, but indirectly, it has meant a sharp return to what this team has done best: sharing the ball.
Ball movement and self-sacrifice for the good of the team have been key foci for the Hawks this season, as I have previously written about here and here among other junctures of the pre-Horford injury season. Al Horford last played for the Hawks on December 26 of last year, when he went down to a right pectoral injury in an overtime game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, even with the unfortunate loss of their best player, the Hawks have remained true to the ideals of floor spacing and finding the open man, and that was very evident by the Hawks’ play on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Philips Arena.
Monday, the Hawks dispatched the Heat 121-114 behind stellar passing and balanced scoring. The Hawks had 33 big assists on 42 made shots. Coming into Monday’s action, according to TeamRankings.com, they were the league leaders in assists per field goal made (.669), assists per possesion (.258), and assists per game (25.6).
After a disappointing pair of losses to Memphis and Brooklyn in London, the Hawks were clearly enthused to exorcise demons against Miami, against whom they had previously lost 9 straight. Consequently, with the Hawks devoted to pushing the pace in this match, it made it that much harder for the Heat defense to maintain high enough rotation speeds when the ball was pushed around the arc.
While the Heat were missing Dwyane Wade to knee soreness, they still had plenty of top heavy star power between LeBron James and Chris Bosh to overwhelm the shorthanded Hawks. Trying to go toe-to-toe with that duo would certainly be a lost cause. The solution Saturday become obvious: use all five guys on the floor as equal weapons in a scheme to find the open man. Obvious, right?
In short, returning to the basics netted the Hawks their biggest win of the season. The Hawks have fine players, many possessing multiple valuable and multimodal skills. But simply putting the ball in the best two or three players is the worst thing you can do against this Heat team with championship pedigree.
Longtime Atlanta Hawks fans are all too familiar with the ball sticking in players hands for too long, only to watch him dribble down the shot clock into an unfavorable position. But with the arrival of Mike Budenholzer among other, the new coaching staff has sought to rid Atlanta of any unnecessary isolation play possible.
How have the Hawks embraced moving the ball effortlessly, despite losing their best offensive option? Motion, selflessness and more motion.
Take a look at this video. Out of a broken play, Jeff Teague finds Kyle Korver coming off a down screen set by Paul Millsap. Chris Bosh rotates out at Korver but Battier doesn’t get the memo as he continues to fight toward Korver. One more pass finds Millsap right under the bucket for an easy lay-in. Red shirts are constantly in motion, unselfishly setting screens, and continually making the extra pass.
This one was one of the rare non-assisted buckets from Monday, but nevertheless take a look at Millsap’s effort to help his teammate. Initially, Paul Millsap tries to slip a screen and roll to the basket for an easy look. The ball didn’t come his way but Millsap doesn’t hang his head at the missed opportunity; rather he uses his position for the good of a teammate. It would be difficult to get up an uncontested layup with the lurking shot blocker Chris Anderson in the area, but a sealing pick from Millsap leaves a clean path for Shelvin Mack to do so.
This sequence is a great example of moving as a collective unit in the halfcourt set. In order to preserve spacing, the trio of Teague, Millsap and Brand are always moving without the ball and replace the spot on the court that the ball handler just left. The added long range threat of Paul Millsap is an additional boon, and it means that Carroll and Korver hardly have to even move to get an open opportunity. The typically stellar Hawks ball movement eventually creates a collapse on Brand near the basket, leaving DeMarre Carroll a wide open three pointer.
Even in crunch time against the two time defending champions, the Hawks remain true to their identity. As soon as Millsap gets hit with a double team, Pero Antic has enough recognition to cut toward the basket for an easy bucket.
Yes, the Hawks were aided by an overworked Miami Heat defense, on the fifth game in their last seven days — one of the indications being the many fouls by being out of position and “And 1” opportunities at the rim the Heat donated. But it took a determination to keep the ball hot, move, and frustrate the Heat defense.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, Al Horford’s contributions were far from unimportant and it’s fallacious to say the Hawks could be better without him, but on a team with no central figure, Atlanta has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to unforeseen obstacles.
And so, the Hawks march on, finding themselves hanging onto the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference by a thread. And they probably continue to surprise many with their lofty seed position thus far. But it takes no more than a glance at the movement of the ball on offense to understand the results, despite seeming undermanned in many aspects. It looks like these Hawks will float on thanks to the helping hands of teammates.