These playoffs show why Hawks need to get serious about defense

Miami Heat guard Victor Oladipo, center, drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and guard Kevin Huerter (3) during the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: AP

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Miami Heat guard Victor Oladipo, center, drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and guard Kevin Huerter (3) during the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: AP

It’s been fun watching Al Horford play a major role for the Celtics in the NBA playoffs. The ex-Hawks star will be 36 years old soon, but he still has it. Horford is winning with a Boston team that reminds me of some of his best Hawks squads. The Celtics are punching above their weight because of their relentless and unyielding defense.

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It’s been a long time since the Hawks did that. They’ve been a bad team on defense for five consecutive seasons. Yet after their first-round loss to the Heat this season, much of the chatter has been about adding more players to supplement Trae Young’s special talents on offense. That’s important, but the team’s deficiencies on defense are a much bigger issue.

I’ve been guilty of focusing too much on the needed offensive tweaks for the Hawks and not enough on their defense needing major repair. Watching Horford’s Celtics and the other teams still playing snapped me out of it. Good defense still is needed to win in the NBA’s dribble, pass and shoot era.

The conference finals include the Celtics, Heat, Warriors and Mavericks. Among playoff teams they rank second (Celtics), fourth (Heat), fifth (Warriors) and ninth (Mavericks) in defensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass. Garbage time, of which there has been a lot in these playoffs, is excluded from those stats.

The top-ranked defensive team, Milwaukee, lost to the Celtics because its scoring cratered without injured forward Khris Middleton. The third-ranked defensive team, Memphis, couldn’t keep up against the Warriors once star point guard Ja Morant was sidelined by injury. The outlier defensive team still alive, Dallas, will try to avoid a sweep by the Warriors in Game 4 late Tuesday.

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The Mavs, like the Hawks, are built around a special player on offense. Luka Doncic, like Young, is doing all he can to carry the Mavs to the NBA Finals. Doncic, like Young, is finding out that’s difficult to do when shots aren’t falling and there’s enough defense to keep games close. It’s all fun and games until scoring gets hard.

The Hawks need to rediscover the grit they had on defense during Horford’s days with the team. The Hawks drafted Horford in 2007 and (not coincidentally) their streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances began the next season. The Hawks never ranked worse than 14th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) during that time and were top 10 in five of those seasons. In 2016-17, the season after Horford left, the Hawks ranked fourth in defensive efficiency with Dwight Howard at center.

The Hawks changed coaches during those years from Mike Woodson to Larry Drew to Mike Budenholzer. Good defense remained a constant. Woodson established a culture where it was expected, and his successors carried on that tradition. They had rosters built for defense, and the Hawks won with it despite never having an offensive player as good as Young.

Now the Hawks are an offensive-focused team with bad defense. Their defensive rankings over the past five seasons were 21st, 27th, 27th, 21st and 26th. Throw out the first three seasons because the Hawks were tanking. That still leaves bad defensive teams for the past two seasons. Changing coaches from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan didn’t make much difference in that area.

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The Hawks ranked ninth of 16 playoff teams in defensive efficiency during last season’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. That’s acceptable, if not good. But that number was inflated by favorable matchups against the Knicks (limited on offense) and 76ers (Ben Simmons stopped shooting). The Bucks had little trouble scoring on the Hawks even with two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo missing two games and leaving another early because of an injury.

The Hawks don’t have much room for offensive improvement. They ranked ninth in offensive efficiency last season and second this season. They can get only so much better at scoring. They can get a lot better at stopping opponents from scoring.

It’s challenging to build a good defensive team with Young as point guard. The Hawks already have one important element: good, versatile big men behind him. Veterans Clint Capela and John Collins are rim protectors who also can defend switches. Onyeka Okongwu showed outstanding potential on defense in his second season.

Perimeter defense was the main issue. McMillan’s frequent lament after losses this season was his team’s inability to keep the ball in front of them. Young wasn’t the only weak link in that area, but he’s the biggest one. General manager Travis Schlenk still is trying to build a roster that can make up for Young’s defensive limitations.

The good news for the Hawks is that good defenders generally are cheaper to acquire than good scorers and playmakers. It tends to take less in draft capital and salary-cap space. The price goes up for good defenders who also are plus offensive players. But the Hawks can afford to add good defenders who are below average on offense because Young creates good scoring chances for everyone.

To overcome his team’s struggles guarding the ball, McMillan emphasized having help defenders shade toward the paint to prevent drives. That can work against initial ball-screen action. The problems start when opponents move the ball around the perimeter. Now Hawks defenders have longer distances to scramble out to shooters and are vulnerable to pump fakes before drives.

Switching on ball screens is another way to help the perimeter defense. That was Woodson’s strategy. He used to take some heat for it because of the bad optics of mismatches. But it turns out Woodson was ahead of his time. It’s now commonplace for NBA teams to switch on ball screens. It’s a good way to defend pick-and-rolls if you have big guards and nimble big men.

Woodson’s Hawks were built like that. He had Horford and Josh Smith in the frontcourt, Marvin Williams on the wing and Joe Johnson at guard. The current Hawks aren’t as well-suited for switching. The big men can do it, but Young ends up in mismatches that force the Hawks to help and scramble, which defeats the purpose of switching in the first place.

McMillan must figure out the playing rotation, scheme and accountability to maximize his team’s defense. Schlenk needs to find a way to operate around salary-cap constraints and provide McMillan with more defense-first players on the perimeter. Young has to become a better defender while still carrying most of the load on offense.

If those things don’t happen, the ceiling for the Hawks will remain somewhere short of the NBA Finals even though they have one of the league’s best players on offense. If the Hawks make significant improvement on defense, then they can become a true contender like Horford’s Celtics.