The Hawks went into their second-round series against Cleveland understanding, even if not publicly admitting, that they were overmatched in almost every area except one: defense. And today, that one thing they believed they could cling to looks like the after-shot when your dad accidentally backed over your Big Wheel.
“You’re trying to get some help from somewhere,” Kyle Korver said of defensive adjustments that did nothing to slow the Cavaliers’ 3-point launches in a Game 3 loss Friday. “We tried to switch everything. We tried a lot of coverages. We tried different coverages that we hadn’t tried before.”
It’s not the coverages. It’s not the effort. It’s not the coaching. It’s the pieces.
The Hawks are being humiliated by Cleveland for the second consecutive postseason. If they lose Sunday at Philips Arena, it will complete a Cavaliers sweep, mirroring last year’s Eastern Conference finals. A Game 4 loss actually would finish a third consecutive Cleveland sweep, dating to the teams’ 2009 playoff meeting, and overall the Hawks have lost 11 consecutive games to the Cavs.
OK. I’ll stop now. New owner Tony Ressler’s head is probably hurting.
So should Mike Budenholzer’s. He’s a fine coach. The question is whether he’s a fine general manager. The jury is still out. This season has represented his first real test as the Hawks’ big picture guy because it followed the first offseason in which he ran point on the team’s roster build following the dismissal of Danny Ferry.
Nobody can know whether Ferry would have done a better job. We only know Ferry had a resume of success in Atlanta, and Budenholzer had a blank page.
The loss of DeMarre Carroll in free agency hurt, but it wasn’t realistically possible for Budenholzer to re-sign both Carroll and Paul Millsap (especially after Toronto offered Carroll a borderline absurd $58 million contract). The acquisition of Tim Hardaway Jr. from the New York Knicks for first-round pick Jerian Grant didn’t deserve the criticism it received. Hardaway began the season slow, but played well down the stretch as he got healthy and became acclimated to the Hawks’ systems.
But overall, the Hawks took a step back. This team lacks any physical and mental edge it might have had a year ago, it lacks the offensive flow and generally got pounded on the boards all season.
Cleveland had 18 offensive rebounds Friday (leading to an 18-9 advantage in second-chance points). The Cavs’ starting front line (Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, LeBron James) outrebounded the Hawks’ front three (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha) 41-13. Actually, the Cleveland trio outrebounded the entire Hawks team (28).
On defense, the Hawks believed they were better prepared for this series, but the Cavs have shredded them with 54 percent shooting from 3-point range, and far too many of those shots have been open. Wide open. Like catch-the-pass-pause-and-take-a-one-bounce-dribble-before-shooting open. (That was James before giving the Cavs a 104-103 lead in Game 3.)
Budenholzer acquired Tiago Splitter in the offseason. He wasn’t good. Then he was lost to hip surgery. Budenholzer looked for help in February but whiffed on Anderson Varejao (who chose Golden State) and Joe Johnson (who chose the beach and Miami). So they were left with Kris Humphries.
Budenholzer’s first offseason as the Hawks’ president of basketball operations: C. Maybe.
Is that good enough? Ressler lives several states away in California. But unlike Colorado-based Liberty Media (Braves), Ressler has a face, not a stock price. He seems to care about his team. Budenholzer had all of the leverage in contract negotiations after last season, when Ferry was gone and the coach was there to collect all of the credit for a 60-win regular season and the franchise’s first run to the Eastern Conference finals. But that seems like a long time ago.
Ressler isn’t about to strip Budenholzer of personnel authority, and I’m not suggesting he should. But I do think the coach/team president needs more help in the personnel department. Getting part owner Grant Hill involved in basketball decisions also could help.
This offseason will include potential core-changing decisions, with Al Horford and Kent Bazemore both becoming free agents, and Jeff Teague having one year left on his deal. Ressler surely doesn’t want to see this team slide downhill again.
Budenholzer, wearing the coach’s hat, is choosing to not look past Sunday. When asked about where his team needs to get better, he said, “The offseason is hopefully a long, long ways away. I know in reality in may not be. But I don’t want to talk about the offseason. When the offseason comes, I’ll try to be less of a pain in the (butt).”
It’s probably not the most fun thing to look forward to, anyway.
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