For Hawks, going to East finals may be as simple as making open shots

Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young, right, goes up for a shot against Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris during the second half of Game 5 in a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Caption
Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young, right, goes up for a shot against Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris during the second half of Game 5 in a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Credit: Matt Slocum

Credit: Matt Slocum

The Hawks have played 11 games this postseason. They’ve been good on offense in two, OK in three and bad in six. The Hawks surged to the playoffs on the strength of their scoring. They haven’t scored that well since making it, and that’s mostly because they’ve missed a lot of open 3-point shots.

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Credit the Hawks for making it to one game from the Eastern Conference finals, anyway. They’ve been great on defense. They’ve converted scoring chances inside the 3-point line against two opponents that make that difficult, the Knicks and 76ers.

The Hawks proved their mental toughness by twice rallying from large deficits to beat the Sixers in the semifinals. They won two games each in New York and Philadelphia. They closed out the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and have a chance to do the same to the Sixers on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center.

All that is why it would be a letdown for the Hawks, a good-shooting team, to be sent into the offseason because they couldn’t make enough open 3-point shots. There will be lots of emotion for Game 7 at Philadelphia on Sunday night, but their fate could come down to that dry, mathematical fact.

“I really feel like we’ve been getting good looks,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said the morning after his team’s 104-99 loss Friday at State Farm Arena. “We are just not knocking those shots down. Our shooters are getting good looks this series and the ball is just not dropping for us.”

There are few things more frustrating in basketball than losing because of a lot of missed open shots. It doesn’t matter that even the best players in the world can’t make every open shot at game speed. The losing side and its supporters don’t want to hear about the NBA being a “make or miss” league.

Yet the reality is that, as McMillan said, the Hawks have missed a lot of open shots against the Sixers. The NBA’s tracking data confirms it.

The Hawks have generated “wide open” shots, defined as the closest defender more than six feet away, on 21.6% of their field-goal attempts vs. Philadelphia. That’s the second-highest rate of wide-open shots in the NBA conference semifinals behind the Clippers (all statistics are through Friday’s games). Call it the Trae Young effect: The Hawks point guard is outstanding at setting up his teammates for good shots.

But the Hawks have made only 40.4% (36 of 89) of their wide open 3-point attempts against the Sixers. That ranks sixth among the eight teams in the conference semifinals. For “open” 3-point shots, with the closest defender 4-6 feet away, the Hawks are shooting 24-for-77 (31.1%). That’s the second-worst accuracy in the semifinals behind the Bucks.

Hawks guards Trae Young and Kevin Huerter celebrate after a pass from Young to Huerter for a three-pointer.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
Hawks guards Trae Young and Kevin Huerter celebrate after a pass from Young to Huerter for a three-pointer. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Hawks started their semifinal series hot. They were 13-of-23 (56.5%) on 3-pointers in the first half of Game 1. They are 55-for-174 (31.6%) on 3′s since then. The Hawks were 10-of-31 on 3-pointers in Game 6. According to tracking data, the Hawks made only 4 of 9 wide-open 3-point attempts in Game 6 and only 6 of 17 open tries.

The Hawks likely would be on their way to the East finals if they had made two or three more of those shots.

“That’s what you work for, to get those kind of looks,” McMillan said. “Right now, they are not falling.”

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The Hawks have the right guys shooting them. Four players have collectively taken 79% of the team’s 3-point attempts in the series: Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. They are the team’s best volume 3-point shooters. The problem is they collectively aren’t making enough of them.

Young and John Collins are the only Hawks regulars making 3-pointers in this series at a clip equal to, or better than, their season mark. The sample size is small, but that’s the nature of the playoffs. There aren’t many opportunities in a seven-game series.

There doesn’t seem to be a strategic adjustment that McMillan can make to improve his team’s shooting. The goal is to create open shots, and the Hawks have done that. McMillan is offering his players more practice and reassurances.

“We’ve really been getting in the gym and trying to get up more shots for our guys,” McMillan said. “Just continue to encourage them to shoot the ball. Shoot it with confidence. When you get that look, take that shot. We believe in those guys shooting the ball.”

It will be even tougher for the Hawks if Bogdanovic can’t play in Game 7 or is limited. He couldn’t finish Game 6 because of what the Hawks said was right knee soreness. Bogdanovic missed 25 games during the season with an avulsion fracture in the same knee. McMillan said the recent soreness came up in “the last game or so” and isn’t related to the previous injury.

Bogdanovic was the team’s best 3-point shooter when he returned from the injured list. He made 45.5% of his nearly eight tries per game from March 2 through the end of the regular season. Bogdanovic slipped to 33.3% shooting (14-for-42) on 3′s against the Knicks in the first round and is 14-for-46 (30.4%) vs. Philadelphia.

McMillan will face a dilemma if Bogdanovic is out or ineffective. Bogdanovic has struggled shooting from the perimeter, but he’s done well hunting shots closer to the basket. He also has done good work as a defender and playmaker. None of McMillian’s other options are that versatile.

Gallinari figures to play more if Bogdanovic is out. The Hawks have had success against the Sixers with big lineups featuring Gallinari alongside Collins and Clint Capela. When the Hawks staged their Game 5 comeback at Philadelphia, they outscored the Sixers by 17 points over seven minutes with a lineup of Young, Williams, Gallinari, Collins and Capela.

Maybe that alignment wouldn’t work as well over more minutes. It’s probably worth a shot. The Hawks need to find more scoring punch to close the Sixers.

They can’t lean too heavily on Young darting through the lane to make floaters over Philadelphia’s big men, or splashing 3′s from the logo. Embiid and backup center Dwight Howard make finishing at the rim difficult. Trying to draw fouls is an iffy proposition for the Hawks when the refs mostly are letting ‘em play in this series.

The Hawks just need to make more open 3-point shots. They have the players to do it. It would be an unsatisfying end to a great season if they go down missing them.

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