Second Round Matchup: Previewing the Atlanta Hawks
The Pacers tested the Bulls with their logjam of Forwards, making a 1-8 series into a physical test that nobody was expecting to see. This is playoff basketball, ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to see things that you didn’t expect to see.
Now Atlanta, this is a whole different beast. Of course, Atlanta is going to apply tactics that Indiana used that were effective, but they have an entirely different personality as a team.
The Bulls will be favorites across the board, from every expert and analyst outside of the haters and Hawk homers. But what exactly should we expect going forward in this best of seven semi-finals matchup?
First off, I have to address this whole, Atlanta is still unproven in the playoffs nonsense. The Bulls are not proven in the playoffs, so as soon as I hear someone spurt out this argument, it’s an instant face to palm reaction. Experience in the playoffs helps a team like Atlanta, who has made it into the 2nd round for the thirst straight year, and they lost to the eventual NBA Champions the year before in 7 games in the first round. The season before? Irrelevant, that was an entirely different Hawks, and the same season as the Bulls last trip the the semis. This Hawks team is, very much so, a playoff experienced team. They can play the dark horse at any time, and steal wins from supposedly better teams. We can not sleep on the Hawks, the way we slept on the Pacers to start the first round.
Lets break down their starters and role players.
I guess at this point, the question is more, how much has Kirk changed since he played in Chicago. How much has changed since readjusting his game to fit the needs of the Atlanta scheme?
It doesn’t look like it on paper, but Kirk plays more minutes setting up at the 2 on offense, and covering the point on defense. It’s similar to what he did here, except the way Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford interweave with Kirk is uniquely different than how Derrick Rose and John Salmons did.
Kirk will call plays when he doesn’t have the ball in hand, which is a very good way to use his experience and vision. Because he hasn’t had an entire season to mesh with Atlanta, the code that the Hawks speak, to set up plays has been dumb’d down a bit more than what Head Coach Larry Drew would like to do.
At the end of Game 6 against the Magic, Kirk Hinrich injured his hamstring, and there may be some uncertainty in how Atlanta will adjust their starters. But knowing how competitive Hinrich is, it’s likely that he will attempt to play injured.
Joe Johnson loves isolation, chucking the Ball, and making opposing guards look small. The problem is, Joe Johnson is pretty consistent as a chucker. He’s not a streak shooter and he knows how to get out of a funk this year, something that he has had trouble with in the past. Joe Johnson gets singled out for Atlanta’s failures a lot, and he will play his way out of games if the tables are turned on him. As long as there is consistency coming from the point guard, expect Larry Drew to pull Johnson quick for Crawford during any moments of uncertainty. Also, watch for Joe Johnson to move into the 3 a lot, to match up with Luol Deng. This is Joe Johnson’s most comfortable role against the Bulls, because he can switch with Josh Smith and Damien Wilkins on coverage, yet create confusing zone switches and offensive mismatches.
I know what you’re going to say. But Josh Smith has been playing SF, and Horford at the 4, with Collins and Pachulia splitting minutes at center. That was a line-up adjustment to put pressure on Dwight Howard, and it’s not what the Hawks have gone with for most of the season and after the trade deadline. We could very well see Williams come off the bench, but many indicators point to him getting back into his old role for the Bulls series.
Marvin Williams is a sleeper on both ends of the court. He is a consistent double digit scorer, and he plays respectable help defense, but poor one-on-one defense. Marvin has had a few injuries this season, which threw off his game a bit, but Atlanta fans have grown to love his play this season. He finished the season on a sprained ankle and has been a slow healer. Marvin should be back to normal come Monday.
This season Josh Smith was not included in the conversation of defensive player of the year, although he has been for many seasons. Whether or not he was in that conversation means nothing, and he still brings defensive energy to the floor, as he has been doing for nearly his entire career.
To go with his unpredictably good defensive energy, he also has an arsenal of offensive tricks. Josh Smith is not a go to scorer, but he can carry the team in bursts. He will take open long range shots with an unexpected level of accuracy. He will also take a lot of bad buzzer beaters/shot clock shots instead of making an extra pass to a better shooter(which his team has quite a few of.) If Josh Smith keeps his composure, which he has done a lot better job of under Coach Drew, then at no point, will the Bulls feel entirely satisfied with their post play. Because of Josh Smith and Al Horford, look for Coach Thibodeau to work the paint early to get these guys into foul trouble. If the Bulls are successful, the Hawks will retaliate and try the same thing on us, leaving the lanes open to anyone with gas in their tank when closing out the games.
In the Bulls loss to the Hawks this season, Horford went off. It was an incredible performance for him, and a dismal performance for the Bulls on defense. Noah was out, and Boozer kept running his mouth early on in the game. At some point this ignited a fire under Al. Even as a Bulls fan in a losing side of the battle, you couldn’t help but respect how dominant he was on both sides of the floor. I’m sure Horford will look back at that game and figure out how to play at that level of confidence in this series. He does not like Boozer, and Boozer does not match up with him at all. The good news is, that former teammate and buddy, Joakim Noah is a sight for Al that should distract him slightly from being annoyed with Carlos. Of course, this is only assuming that the altercations were not forgotten, which they very well could be at this point.
When Horford plays aggressive, he reminds people why he is absolutely a legitimate All-Star Center. He can do everything shy of hitting shots outside the key.
Crawford is a big-shot shooter that can unleash a lot of buckets in a short amount of time. He covers the 1-3 spot, and plays defense on the wings but gives up easily on drives, and I mean easily. He’s an open door to the lane, and that forces guys like Horford, Smith and Pachulla to throw hard fouls at fast wing players. The Bulls will need to adjust Watson and Rose to use diversions when Crawford is on the floor.
Damien Wilkins is also an honorable mention. He has matched up well against the Bulls second unit, and while he is not the level of bona-fide 6th man, Jamal Crawford, Wilkins provides mismatches against the Bulls that Larry Drew is comfortable in utilizing.
Pachulia and Collins have stepped up a lot in a series against Dwight Howard. Their bodies are 12 fouls that Atlanta used frequently in attempts to get Howard and Brandon Bass into foul troubles of their own. Don’t expect Atlanta to mess with that game plan too much against Noah and Boozer. Although I’m not sold on Atlanta keeping Collins as a starter for the entire series, if Atlanta steals game 1, that will ultimately change how the rest of the series goes as far as locking in starters. Pachulia’s role was to make Dwight Howard earn his points from the line, and not give up the three point play. Joakim is a better free throw shooter than Howard, changing Pachulia’s role considerably. If he becomes the enforcer of this series, expect him to attack the Bulls less experienced bigs, in Taj and Omer first.
Teague is a solid point guard in limited minutes. He does make mistakes under pressure, but the Hawks can hide his flaws easily, depending on who he is on the court with. If Hinrich misses time, the Hawks will be in trouble down the stretch of the game.
Atlanta’s home crowd.
The Hawks have not had an active fan-base in a while. This season, the fans took it’ to the stands. Basketball is alive and well in Atlanta, and you can expect games at Philips Arena to get louder as the series goes on. If the Hawks steal a game in Chicago, the Bulls will not have the comforts of seeing a venue packed with Bulls fans, as they saw in Indianapolis.
Another thing to look for, the Atlanta Cheerleaders. Perhaps in desperation to fill seats, the Hawks Cheerleaders have become the raciest group of dancers in the league. If the cameras don’t purposely avoid them for the sake of “family television programming” you’ll see more dances from the club, than a cheerleader’s dance book. Although the Hawks are doing a better job filling the seats at the Phillips Arena, these girls may tone it down a bit. We won’t know until game 3 on Friday. For the sake of Faptastic, I hope they are not an issue!
The series schedule.
Game 1: Atlanta at Chicago, 7 p.m. Monday, TNT
Game 2: Atlanta at Chicago, 7 p.m. Wednesday, TNT
Game 3: Chicago at Atlanta, TBD May 6, ESPN
Game 4: Chicago at Atlanta, 8 p.m. May 8, TNT
Game 5*: Atlanta at Chicago, TBD May 10, TNT
Game 6 *: Chicago at Atlanta, TBD May 12, ESPN
Game 7*: Atlanta at Chicago, TBD May 15, TNT