Dec 31, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague (0) goes to the basket past power forward Paul Millsap (4) and Boston Celtics power forward Kris Humphries (43) during the fourth quarter of Atlanta

Have the Atlanta Hawks Really Played Better As of Late?

Arbitrary endpoints; the phrase seems oxymoronic. An endpoint is unambiguous, written in stone in accordance with the laws of the universe like the atomic clock. But to be arbitrary would be as if in an act of throwing a dart at a dartboard, the random landing point of the dart was the ultimate decider.

All endpoints have an amount of arbitrarity. Even seasons of the National Basketball Association have an randomly designated length of 82 games. Yes, there is a six month period when a team or player can improve or decline, even precipitously in the respective cases of Phoenix and Philadelphia, but it is not a point of definition beyond all doubt.

Despite these caveats, setting these markers can useful for pointing out indicators of success and failure. As we turn our attention to the Atlanta Hawks, we must remember one player, coach, or any single factor cannot turn the tide. No one player can decide the outcome of a game. But over a period of many games, the absence of a crucial team component can result in a tougher hill to climb forever match against the rigorous NBA schedule.

The Hawks sit at 31-35 heading into Friday’s game against New Orleans, but it has been nothing near a smooth ride. A new coaching staff along with a bunch of roster moves appeared to present a difficult challenge from the get go. The de facto best player on the team was lost less than two months into the season. Other minor injuries have knocked players out left and right for days or weeks at a time. Atlanta saw their playoff aspirations almost completely melt away in late February and early March, sitting at a record of 26-35. But that’s not where the story ends.

The Hawks followed up a stretch of 14 losses in 15 games with a five-game winning streak, the longest of the season. The most recent win was a 118-113 overtime victory over the tough Toronto Raptors, who sit at 3rd place in the East and had won 32 of 48 (.667) games since starting 6-12 before the loss. Go figure.

Of course, that in itself would be citing an arbitrary endpoint. Was there a major change on the date that Toronto was 6-12? Is it fair to use the 32 of 48 winning stretch as representation of how good Toronto is? As it turns out, there is some merit in using that date and an endpoint.

The 6-12 record coincided with the 7-player trade centered around Rudy Gay sending him and others to Sacramento before their December 8 match against the Los Angeles Lakers. Gay was the target of many poor efficiency bashers in the blogosphere first in Memphis and then in Toronto. But from that day on, the lone Canadian NBA team has played inspired basketball, seeking to claim the 3 seed in the East behind a revitalized DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, and others.

From the Indiana loss on February 4 to the Clippers loss on March 8, the Hawks had a run of unremarkable and uninspired basketball. The futility sank them from honest home court positioning as a top 4 seed to clinging to a playoff spot at 8th in the Eastern Conference. However, following five wins have nearly pushed the idea of Knicks securing that last playoff spot to the brink of nonexistence.

Take a closer look at those losses during the tragic slide of February 2014. Indiana twice, Chicago twice, and Phoenix, Portland, Golden State, and Los Angeles Clippers all on the West Coast. Many of these games were without the services of four crucial Atlanta big men against large, skilled teams.

Consideration of the schedule works both ways. Utah, Milwaukee, Denver, Charlotte, Toronto. Those are the the three teams the Hawks have knocked off in the past five games. You can quickly gather that the first three teams are playing for the 2014-15 season, rather than this season, at this point. In other words, these haven’t been the most impressive wins imaginable. Still, this gift from the scheduling gods could not have come at a better time for a reeling Hawks team.

The stat lines below coinciding with those stretches are revealing.

As losers in 14 of 15:

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 1.20.47 AM

As winners of 5 straight:

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 1.19.52 AM

Assists are up, turnovers are down, and the Hawks transformed from a putrid shooting team back into the above average offense Hawks fans saw in the first half of the season. And those were just on the offensive end.

Defensively before:

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 1.19.05 AM

And after:

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 1.20.28 AM

Clamping down on three point shooting, as a piece of much improved defense overall, is a big reason the Hawks have turned around their season. For that wretched 15 games stretch, the Hawks lost by an average of 8 points per match, but in the 5 games since, it has been an average of 5 points in victory. In short, the function of two big, abled bodied post defenders back patrolling the painted area has done wonders for the Hawks hope of making the playoffs in a 7th straight season.

A better effort on the defensive end, and the ability to stretch the defense to a greater extent with the return of Paul Millsap and Pero Antic. Millsap has been the stabilizing force Atlanta has needed in the wake of Al Horford’s torn pectoral muscle. His averages of 18 points and 8 rebounds per game is a huge reason why the Hawks remain competitive. In addition, Pero Antic pump faking antics and three-point shooting prowess has allowed the offense to function as one that shares the ball above all else. The Hawks live off the three point ball as much as any team in the league. They have taken the 3 most threes coming into Wednesday’s action and make the most.

Specifically in the Toronto game, the attention being paid to Millsap seemed to open up pathways for Jeff Teague. It’s no secret that Jeff Teague has been an inconsistent performer this season. On the other hand, Millsap is as steady a hand as there exists in this league. Like the yin to the yang, both segments are needed to maximize talents, and that may have manifested itself in this pair of positive and negative runs. Interestingly enough, Teague took more shots and logged more points in the games in which Millsap appeared than the ones he missed. With more presence inside the arc, Teague has shot 50% on his threes in the past 5 games, compared to 32% in the 5 games previous.

The presence of Millsap may be a better boon to Teague’s ability to get to the rim than making him the premier option on offense. In the following video, Amir Johnson was very reluctant to stop a driving Teague, sticking very close to Paul Millsap until it was too late.

These opportunities were not present during the matches Millsap missed. He is so skilled and strong near the hoop, and as a result defenses are always protecting against low touches. But a slip of focus when Teague has the ball has proven to be deadly in recent games.

You can also see in the next clip the attention Millsap draws, even in the corner.

Toronto looked to trap Millsap as DeMarre Carroll comes to set a screen but Paul has enough vision and awareness to recognize Carroll has enough space to get to the rim and the ability to make it with 4 hands in his line of vision. Look no further than the Jason Kidd-like 19 point, 13 rebound, 10 assist line Millsap stumbled upon Wednesday.

The insertion of Paul Millsap back into the lineup has had obvious positive effects on the offense, but also the defense. Despite being somewhat undersized, he defends his position well, or certainly better than 30 minutes a game of Mike Scott. There is no more need for DeMarre Carroll or Cartier Martin to play out of position at the power forward. Improvements like the stat line above are the clear result.

These returns from injury have caused a positive domino effect, pushing roles players back to the bench to the team’s benefit. Shelvin Mack and others have led a reinvigorated second unit in recent days.

All of this is to say the Hawks didn’t turn from the worst team in the league into the best overnight. There were signs that showed they certainly improved with the return of two starters. But the other factors included random fluctuations in performances in conjunction with a changing schedule. Move the endpoints and the Hawks are 11-16 in their last 27 games, somewhat in line with their 31-35 season record. Or even 75-73 since the Joe Johnson trade, dating back to last season.

There are too many variables to concisely declare what a true representation of the team’s ability is. But there are signs of improvement that have emerged through the trials of the past month, and upon these positive traits, there is a path forward on which to build.

*All stats taken from Basketball-Reference.com

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Tags: Al Horford Atlanta Hawks DeMarre Carroll Jeff Teague Paul Millsap

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