It would not have made a difference in how deep into the playoffs the Hawks made it this season. No brilliant scripted play or defensive coverage or any player short of a LeBron James clone was going to make them better than the Cleveland Cavaliers in this second round.
But they need help. They need a star. They need a go-to offensive force, somebody who can be counted on the last five minutes of a game, every game.
It’s not Paul Millsap, who too often was absent offensively in this postseason. It’s not Al Horford, who isn’t strong enough physically to be counted on inside, nor a consistent enough shooter outside.
It’s not Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroder, because nobody knows what to expect from either quarter-to-quarter, let alone game-to-game. It’s not Kyle Korver, who’s at that point in his athletic lifespan that he probably should be coming off the bench next season, or Kent Bazemore, who also proven to be best as a reserve (which is why he may be elsewhere next season when some team pays him like a starter).
Major change and major improvement is needed. Or the Hawks aren’t going anywhere of significance.
On Sunday, they went out the door. They played with effort, they often even played impressively. But they lost Game 4 to Cleveland 100-99 for the same reason they lost Games 1, 2 and 3. The Cavaliers are better. They’re so much better that they didn’t even have to necessarily play a great series, notwithstanding their absurd three-point shooting. Statistical anomaly: Cleveland had a better percentage shooting threes (50.7) than twos (42.4). They made nearly as many from outside the arc (77) as inside (81).
But other than Game 2 humiliation, the difference was what Cleveland had and the Hawks didn’t:
“Size. And scoring,” Jeff Teague said when asked what the Hawks need moving forward.
The Cavaliers made plays down the stretch of Games 1, 3, 4. The Hawks had leads in all three games. They had double-digit leads in both home games. Three of the four games were winnable. But their best players didn’t take over. Their best players weren’t remotely on the same plane as Cleveland’s best players.
Teague: “They have a lot of capable scorers and they play everyone. No matter position, size or whatever, they just play whoever is on the floor. It doesn’t matter if it’s three point guards, two small forwards, two centers, they play with whatever lineup and get it done.”
Kent Bazemore: “Their three-point shots were kind of demoralizing, especially when we’re getting tough buckets around the rim. Kyrie (Irving) is special. We tried to switch everything and Kyrie took advantage of that. Switched onto LeBron and he was hitting jumpers. He was getting to the rim and finding people. They were just amazing.”
The Hawks: solid, but unspectacular. Often impressive defensively, offensive mediocre offensively. At times very good, seldom great. A tease.
Owner Tony Ressler must know Atlanta is a bandwagon pro sports town. If he doesn’t spend money, mandate major change and bring in a star, or two, watch the number of seats that go unsold next season.
Sunday’s playoff elimination game for the Hawks came down to LeBron James to Dennis Schroder.
How does that happen?
With the Hawks trailing 96-93, Schroder drove the lane for a layin with two minutes remaining, then put the Hawks ahead 97-96 with another drive at the 1:31 mark.
At the other end, Horford blocked a James shot inside – and three ensuing tap-in attempts. James fifth straight shot was pinned by Millsap but ruled goaltending, giving Cleveland the lead 98-97.
Millsap: “Personally, I thought it was a clean block.”
In the final minute, Schroder drove the lane but was blocked by Tristan Thompson; James hit a fadeaway jumper; Schroder drove the lane to make it a one-point game again; James missed a jumper; Schroder drove the lane one final time, only to have James slide over, tie him up and force a jump ball with 2.6 seconds left.
LeBron James vs. Dennis Schroder.
This is what your season comes down to?
Nobody gave Schroder a ladder. LeBron easily knocked the ball into the corner. Millsap eventually got his hands on it but too late to get up an accurate shot. That was it.
Budenholzer conceded that offensive help is needed.
“Coaching and execution offensively,” he said. “(Calling it) inconsistent would be fair. We need to be better. I need to be better.”
The roster needs to be better.
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