Hawks’ defense will be biggest asset against Cavaliers

It’s not often you hear an NBA defense being compared to a cruise ship.

That’s exactly the analogy that Kyle Korver used recently to describe the Hawks’ commitment to defense this season. You see, offense will come and go but defense is constant.

It took a while for the Hawks to fully commit to the defensive mindset. That may make the difference in playoff success. The Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals last postseason. They will get another chance when the team’s open their semifinal series on Monday.

“I kept on saying the ship is turning,” Korver said of the team’s defense. “It’s like this big, huge Carnival cruise ship that’s turning. Eventually we got to a place where we felt we could really go again.”

There wasn’t a moment of epiphany. Korver said he felt the ship fully turned around the first of the year. He remembers the west coast trip Jan. 20-25 with games at the Trail Blazers, Kings, Suns and Nuggets. The Hawks went 2-2 on the trip with bad losses to the Kings and Suns between quality wins.

“I don’t think we played particularly well but I think there was an understanding amongst ourselves that we had to change some things up,” Korver said. “I think for a while we were just waiting for last year to happen again and all of a sudden you are going to get open shots and things were going to be easier for us.

“I think there was a good, healthy realization that we had to evolve. Hey, we all have to evolve in life, right? You can’t just keep doing the same thing forever. The people who get ahead in life and do well are open to it. I think you have to give our team and our coaching staff credit. There’s been a nice shift. We still care about our offense. I think we were decent on defense last year but there has been an understanding that our defense has to be really good. I think it has been.”

The Hawks were seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season at 100.7. The statistic measures the number of points by an opponent per 100 possessions. The Hawks’ coaching staff and management use the statistics to best judge the team’s success.

This season the Hawks jumped to second in the league at 98.8, trailing only the Spurs’ 96.6. During the postseason (through Saturday), the Hawks are second in the statistical category at 91.3, trailing only the Warriors at 89.2 and Spurs at 91.2. Good company.

“You have to have both (offense and defense),” Al Horford said. “You always want to be great on both ends. We quickly realize that you don’t have a lot of good shooting nights and the ball is not going in the basket. “You have to be able to rely on your defense to help you win games. I guess you can say, that is all we talk about. We watch film and it’s 80 percent how we can be better defensively. We are probably a more of a defensive-minded team. … If we want to put ourselves in a position to be a winning team, we have to be great on the defensive end.”

Last season the Hawks were the talk of the NBA as their ball-movement, pace-and-space offense led them to 60 wins and the top seed in the East. The offense has been inconsistent in a season with 48 wins and a fourth seed.

Defense – individual and collective - has been a major focus since training camp. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer agreed that 80 percent of the video work the team does is focused on defense. After several years in the system it’s the small, often unnoticed, improvements that have made all the difference.

“A lot of it are the small details that make it work and not work,” Thabo Sefolosha said. “Once we understand that we realized that one step to the right or one step to the left is the difference sometimes in between stopping them going to the basket or getting the open lane. Once we all see that on tape and what it takes to get it done, we’ve been very consistent and very good.”

The Hawks finished sixth in the NBA at 99.2 opponent points per game during the regular season. They are fifth in the postseason at 93.8. Budenholzer pointed to the play of several individuals for the improvement in the defensive scheme.

“Individually there is a lot of effort and a lot of effort,” Budenholzer said. “Kent Bazemore, Thabo (Sefolosha), Kyle (Korver) on the wings. I think Paul (Millsap) and Al (Horford) are unique. I think Jeff (Teague) is working harder and improved and Dennis (Schroder) off the bench is a very disruptive point guard. I think there is a lot of defensive talent. I think it always starts with the individual.

“I think Paul and Al, the way the game is played today with all the pick-and-rolls, I think how unique and how gifted they are. There are different things we can do and still manage to protect the paint and block shots. It’s a lot of individual talent and they work well collectively.”

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