The flash is fun, but Nate McMillan’s Hawks winning with tough defense

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan addresses his team during Game 4 of first-round NBA playoff series Sunday, May 30, 2021, against the New York Knicks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won 113-96, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan addresses his team during Game 4 of first-round NBA playoff series Sunday, May 30, 2021, against the New York Knicks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won 113-96, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Don’t be blinded by the flash of Trae Young’s fantastic floaters and pinpoint passes. Hawks 3-pointers splashing through the net shouldn’t sidetrack you from the real story of their playoff series against the Knicks. The truth is that the Hawks, constructed to score against any foe, are playing below the offensive standard they set during the season.

ExploreCapela says Hawks can be physical too

Tough defense is the reason why the Hawks are up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference playoff series after winning two games at home. It’s why the Hawks can end the series Wednesday at Madison Square Garden even if Young and Co. aren’t crisp on offense.

The Knicks might get more stops at their place. Can they score enough to keep their season alive?

I didn’t expect that would be the big question at this point of the series. The Hawks were getting lit up nearly every night during their February skid against a tough schedule. Over the season’s final month, some teams that didn’t usually score much did it a lot against the Hawks. The Hawks kept winning because their offense was humming.

Then the playoffs started, and the Hawks dug in on defense. They’ve taken it to the Knicks in a physical series. Interim coach Nate McMillan and his staff have quickly fashioned the Hawks into an effective defensive unit, right at the perfect time.

“He really preaches physicality, being ‘into the ball’ and kind of establishing ourselves at that end of the court,” Hawks forward Kevin Huerter said Tuesday. “We played well at home. We shot it really well. Both games we had runs where we moved the ball, and we looked really good.

“But our staple has been (defense). Defensively, we’ve really been good his series. We’ve forced them into tough shots, and we are willing to live with the results. (McMillan) always says, ‘You can’t just be a one-way player on this team. You’ve got to be a two-way player here to play for me.’”

The Hawks have responded to that message. Purported weak links Danilo Gallinari and Young have held their own. Huerter, a 3-point specialist, has been a key defender off the bench. Clint Capela and De’Andre Hunter have done their usual good defensive work. All the Hawks have executed the defensive plan so well that the Knicks have struggled to create good shots.

After four games for all the NBA playoff series, only the Heat had a worse offensive efficiency than the Knicks. The Heat already started their offseason. The Knicks will join them unless they beat the Hawks three games in a row. That’s not happening unless New York can figure out a way to score when the Hawks are making it hard.

During the regular season the Knicks ranked 24th in offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). But there were reasons to believe New York, a very good defensive team, would score enough to win a playoff series. Julius Randle’s ability to score in isolation should be an asset in the playoffs, when plays break down at winning time. He can shoot 3-pointers and pass to a collection of good perimeter shooters.

The Hawks aren’t letting any of that happen. Hawks defenders, especially Hunter, have crowded Randle on the perimeter. When Randle has started to make moves against his man, four other Hawks defenders creep closer to the basket, ready to swarm. The Hawks have anticipated and shut down Randle’s attempts to drive-and-kick to shooters.

Hawks defenders Bogan Bogdanovic (from left), De’Andre Hunter, Clint Capela, and John Collins block a shot by New York Knicks forward Julius Randle during Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff matchup Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks defenders Bogan Bogdanovic (from left), De’Andre Hunter, Clint Capela, and John Collins block a shot by New York Knicks forward Julius Randle during Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff matchup Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Those are signs of a well-coached team that’s locked into its defensive plan. In a nod to the adage about the NBA being a “make or miss” league, Huerter said that success wouldn’t necessarily last:

“We could go in with the same defensive plan (for Game 5) we’ve had this whole series, and Julius Randle could shoot really well and make our defense not look as good,” he said. “You try to force them into tough shots and live with the results. You take away what you can, and if they exploit your defense in areas you didn’t practice, then kudos to them, and you might change it for the next game.”

If that happens, I’m betting McMillan will find a way to counter it during Game 5. Except for the second half of Game 2, McMillan has been a step ahead of Knicks counterpart Tom Thibodeau. Once the NBA’s coach of the year, Thibodeau has committed strategic malpractice in this series.

Most egregiously, the Knicks haven’t tried very hard to get Young into defensive mismatches by forcing him to switch on screens. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Young’s assigned man set 14 ball screens during Game 4. That matched the combined number of on-ball picks set by Young’s man during the first three games.

Repeatedly attacking Young should be an obvious strategy for the Knicks. Incredibly, it’s been an afterthought. That’s the sign of a poorly coached team without a coherent plan. The Hawks have had the coaching edge in this series. McMillan has pressed the right buttons.

The offense fell apart without Young or Bogdan Bogdanovic in Game 2, so since then, McMillan has made sure either player almost always is on the court. He’s supplemented the pick-and-roll centric attack with off-ball actions. McMillan tried Tony Snell off the bench for two games, then realized he needed to turn to Solomon Hill to make the Hawks stouter.

Most important, McMillan has helped the Hawks become an aggressive-but-sound defensive team. Better health has made a difference. Hunter, their most versatile defender, has rounded into form after returning from knee surgery three weeks ago. Capela appears re-energized after seeming to sag under the burden of carrying the defense late in the season.

But the Hawks have clamped down on the Knicks while getting nothing from two of their best defenders. Cam Reddish is out injured. Kris Dunn played three minutes of garbage time to end Game 4. It turns out the Hawks don’t need those two to play rugged defense in the postseason.

It’s been fun to watch Young in total command during his first playoff series. There was a soiree at State Farm Arena when Gallinari, Huerter and John Collins buried the Knicks with 3-pointers. Everybody knows the Hawks can put on a good show, but defensive grit is why they are on the verge of eliminating the Knicks.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News