Earlier in this space, I covered some stats that further illustrate the relative ease with which the Orlando Magic have handled the Atlanta Hawks of late. The Hawks need to adjust, and quickly, if they are to make their second-round series against Orlando competitive. Yet it's unlikely that anything they can do will turn the tide.
Personnel plays a big role here. Atlanta's front office has assembled a very talented team, with a core trio (Al Horford, Joe Johnson, and Josh Smith) that rivals just about any other in the league, flanked by a dynamic bench scorer (Jamal Crawford) and three talented veterans who usually play within themselves (Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, and Zaza Pachulia). The issue is that the personnel dictates the Hawks play a style which, unfortunately for Atlanta, plays right into Orlando's hands on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Johnson and Crawford like to take their man one-on-one off the dribble and aren't opposed to pulling up from 20 feet out. The Magic's defense encourages such a strategy, since long jumpers are the least efficient shot in the game, and rarely result in free throw attempts, though Crawford has an uncanny knack for drawing fouls out there. In a post entitled "A Dead Horse," Bret LaGree of Hoopinion explains further why the Hawks can't afford to keep running their offense this way, especially given the precision with which the Magic run theirs.
Defensively, the Hawks prefer to switch every screen because the athleticism of Horford and Smith enables them to stick with wing players more effectively than many other big men. Hawks fans have decried this tactic, however, and Magic forward Ryan Anderson told me earlier this year that the switching "kinda made it be easier" for him "to get open shots in the post." We saw that specific scenario play out with Anderson last night, as a switch earlier in a Magic possession helped him get Bibby on his back. Mickael Pietrus found Anderson underneath for the easy finish. Finally, Bradford Doolittle has some Synergy-assisted stats that show how the Hawks' screen-switching hurts them against Orlando:
The Hawks are well known for their preference to switch on the pick-and-roll. Good for them. Meanwhile, Atlanta was middle of the pack overall defensively, ranking 23rd in pick-and-roll spots when the ball handler shoots and 20th when the screener gets the ball. Orlando ranked second and fourth, respectively, in those areas on offense. Versatility can be a dangerous commodity in the wrong hands.
But the Hawks have switched screens for years, and it's unrealistic to expect them to abandon doing it so abruptly. That's their scheme, for better or for worse. It's not something that's going to change in time for tomorrow night's Game 2. But a few things can change.
For one, Woodson needs to trust Horford, his All-Star and arguably his best player. He goofed in Game 1 when he subbed him out early in the first quarter in hopes of putting him back in against Magic backup center Marcin Gortat, which Magic coach Stan Van Gundy countered by playing Dwight Howard for the first 21 minutes of the game. I'm not sold on Woodson's coaching credentials overall, but I don't believe he's foolish enough to make that mistake again in Game 2. He learned his lesson and I expect Horford to log heavy minutes tomorrow, barring foul trouble.
Secondly, there were some positives in Game 1 for the Hawks, despite the 43-point loss. Indeed, in the first period, the Hawks limited the Magic to 45% effective field goal shooting, held a 13-12 advantage on the glass, actually ran some plays, and trailed by just 2 points. Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal Constitution has more on that aspect of the game here. The Hawks have the talent to hang with the Magic if they execute a game plan, which apparently included making the Magic's defense move and, at the other end, limiting Howard's dunks. They failed miserably on both counts in Game 1, sure, but they can at least remedy the offense.
Another way to do that? Run plays for Smith. He's more effective in transition or creating his own opportunities on the offensive glass, but here, it might make some sense. Neither Rashard Lewis nor Anderson has the athleticism to stay with him on a drive to the basket, and if he can manage to get there without dribbling off his own foot or thigh, he can finish. Or, at the very least, draw Howard away from Horford. It'd certainly make the Magic's defense react, which is something it didn't have to do much of in Game 1, considering the proliferation of isolation play.
Defense is another story altogether, though. Woodson plans to activate Randolph Morris, his 6th big man, for Game 2 in order to give him another body on Howard. A better strategy, as J.E. Skeets suggested on today's The Basketball Jones, might be to intentionally foul Howard at every opportunity and put him at the line. That option might be preferable to what happened in game one, which was letting Howard catch in the post, sending a double-team his way, and either conceding the baseline drive-and-dunk or watching as he kicked the ball out for an open three-pointer or a ball reversal leading to an open three-pointer. Or, the Hawks could vary their double-team coverage. They tended to bring the help defender from the top of the strong side. They can still do that, at times, but occasionally sending someone from the baseline or the weakside might at least delay Howard's reads and give the other defenders time to rotate properly. And sending a little guy from the baseline may seem analogous to shooting a spitball at a Mack truck, but it makes some sense in that it could result in an offensive foul if Howard runs him over and/or the guard takes a dive.
What's clear is that using defensive specialists won't work. Center Jason Collins, who's only still drawing an NBA paycheck for his defensive work in the low post, and swingman Mario West are too deficient offensively for the Hawks to leave out there for more than a possession or two at a time. The Hawks somehow have to tighten their defense while still playing their top offensive guys.
Indeed, we're talking about Smite-a-Dwight and flopping as two ways the Hawks can strengthen their D, which gives you an idea of how ill equipped they are to handle the Magic's four-around-one offense. But I do think that the Hawks can give Orlando a tough game if they keep their wits about them on offense. Then again, I won't blame you for doubting me: as Tania Ganguli reports, the Hawks might be doubting themselves at the moment, as Woodson said today that his team is "still learning how to win." Considering the circumstances--down 1-0 in a best-of-seven series against the defending Eastern Conference Champions--it's hard to imagine a worse time to try imparting that lesson.