Josh Smith

NBA Playoffs: Hawks take Game 1, scoff at the notion of unsustainable offense

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After years of watching the Atlanta Hawks operate within a zone of improbability, you’d think we might be better prepared to see them again best a sure favorite.

Yet here we are, as dumbstruck as the now 0-1 Boston Celtics. Atlanta didn’t stumble into a revelation of efficiency or make a crucial late-season addition. They merely played the same illogical brand of basketball that has marked the franchise for the last half-decade, and by way of talent, energy, and flat-out good fortune, they pounced on a Celtics team that wasn’t quite ready to begin their playoff run. I won’t submit into cliché and say that the Hawks “just wanted it more,” than the Celtics, but they certainly wanted to work more than their breathless opponents; Boston practically began the game hunched over, while Atlanta started their night with a 31-point rampage. That contrast speaks for itself, and although the game eventually leveled out, that almost seems beside the point.

By the time Atlanta’s shots stopped falling at such a ridiculous rate, the damage had been done and the game had been sufficiently mucked up. Although the Celtics typically benefit from uglied games minimized to single-possession battles, the Hawks — with their grit and uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers — too have managed to make this style their own.

That approach may have been epitomized by the odd success of Atlanta’s makeshift rotation of bigs. Josh Smith still provided his expectedly dynamic contributions, but beyond Smith were Jason Collins — whom Hawks head coach Larry Drew again elected to start as a defensive counter — and Ivan Johnson, two big men skilled in basketball’s dark arts, and thrown into relevance due to injuries to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. The decision to play an offensive liability like Collins against one of the best defensive teams in the league was an odd decision by Drew, but one that ultimately paid off; Collins played a huge role in erasing Kevin Garnett during the first half, and in his own detour into the impossible, actually converted three field goals — a feat he’s accomplished just seven times in the last four seasons.

For his part, Johnson contributed a surprisingly beneficial four points and five rebounds. That output may not seem like much, but considering that the Hawks only managed 83 points total (in a win, mind you), that Johnson himself matched the scoring total of Boston’s entire bench, and that three of his rebounds came on the offensive end in a game where extra scoring opportunities were much-needed, his impact stretched well beyond what those underwhelming numbers might imply.

It was micro-level contributions like those of Collins and Johnson that fleshed out Atlanta’s otherwise baffling performance, and gave it the texture to make it something other than what it was. The Hawks were on top of the world for minutes at a time, but as is usually the case with this team, every brilliant play was eventually met with several highly questionable ones. Only zeal was left to fill in the gaps; whether by feeding off of an earned home crowd or drawing from a self-instilled bit of confidence, the Hawks approached this game as one they could steal. They stared down a team that had been playing brutally effective defense over the last several months, drove into the paint at their whim, and dared try to beat Boston with Collins in tow and spot-up jumpers from Smith as a consistent weapon.

And it worked, because these are the Hawks, and this is just what they do. They render discussions of offensive sustainability completely irrelevant with their style and audacity, and the mitigate the importance of defense by managing to create shots in spite of it. Nothing is easy and nothing is aesthetically pleasing, but they manage to win in spite of themselves and our better judgment.

Even if all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, the Celtics are undoubtedly left doing the same.

Closing thoughts:

  • Just to make things that much worse for Boston, Rajon Rondo — the single Celtic who managed to put together a decent game — decided to fully embrace the game’s madness and make physical contact (a chest bump, but still) with official Mark Davis. Davis had all but killed Boston’s hopes for an endgame comeback with his correct determination that Josh Smith was fouled on what Rondo thought should have been a jump ball, and Rondo responded with harsh words and foolish action. The NBA doesn’t take any player making contact with an official lightly; it seems very likely that the Boston will be without both Ray Allen (ankle) and Rondo for Game 2, making things that much more fun for the struggling Celtics.
  • Joe Johnson did some nice work defensively against Paul Pierce, but was absolutely miserable as a spot-up shooter. Smith, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague were able to get some nice penetration against Boston’s defense, but when they looked to the perimeter, they often saw Johnson standing more than a foot behind the three-point line. Even with the understanding that nothing that these Hawks do makes sense, I’m not sure how to even approach the peculiarity of Johnson’s placement. (On a related note: Johnson finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc.)
  • Smith is a tremendously fun — if curious — player, but I’ll never quite understand how he manages to have such great court awareness without having even the slightest bit of self-awareness. He’s a wonderful practitioner of the “extra pass,” and yet many of his shot attempts betray the basketball savvy that seems to inform his more altruistic efforts. You remain an enigma, Mr. Smith, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

James Harden makes impressive chase-down block. Really. (video)

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If we’re going to post all of James Harden‘s defensive lowlights, it’s only fair to acknowledge this impressive block.

Please overlook the fact that Jason Terry is 39 years old.

Steven Adams posterizes Rudy Gobert AND Derrick Favors with one thunderous dunk (video)

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Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors form an impressive defensive tandem that usually walls off the paint.

If there were any walls here, Steven Adams jumped right over them.

Video Breakdown: How Kyle Lowry dismantles NBA defenses from 3-point range

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Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry is arguably the team’s best player thanks in large part to his increase in 3-point shooting ability this season. He’s just above 43 percent from deep this year, much better than his career average of 36 percent. Lowry has increased his 3-point percentage six points over last season, and he’s a big part of why the Raptors are so good on offense, and why they’re a contender in the Eastern Conference.

So how does he do it?

Watch the full video breakdown on Lowry’s 3-point shooting above, or read the text version of the article below.

Early Offense

I looked at a lot of tape of Lowry over the last 3 years and he hasn’t changed much on his shot mechanics. There’s no big change in his sweep or sway toward the basket when he shoots, and he still brings the ball up from his left side.

Part of his leap is be how quickly he’s getting his shots off and how many of his early offense field goal attempts come in the form of 3-pointers.

Lowry has bumped up how many 3-pointers he’s taken in the early offense, recorded here as between 24 and 15 seconds on the shot clock. Year-over-year he’s taken nearly eight percent more of his field goals as three pointers in this range.

This takes form on the court in a couple of ways, both in transition on the fast break and on quick 1 or 2 dribble pull ups off the pick-and-roll.

Transition

With the ball in secondary transition here, Lowry gets a quick screen from DeMarre Carroll to open him up for a 3-point bucket against the Hornets. And that’s still with 18 seconds left on the shot clock!

Pull-up and off-the-bounce jumpers

The other way Lowry scores quickly is off the dribble, with quick pick and rolls. Toronto is great at screen assists — picks leading to an immediate field goal — and have three players in the Top 50 and two in the Top 10 in setting them.

Here, the Celtics defender cuts off Lowry’s attack to the middle of the floor. The screener sets up to Lowry’s right, but then quickly flips it to his left. One dribble, and it’s an easy 3-pointer.

Here against Portland, the Raptors run a two screen setup with one wing and one post. The Blazers make the switch and try to blitz Lowry, but he stays resilient and sinks the bucket with what little space they allow him anyway.

Working with DeMar DeRozan

The other thing that’s been talked about a lot is the gravity of DeMar DeRozan, who himself is having a career year for the Raptors. While Lowry is making a ton of unassisted 3-pointers this year, the Raptors point guard does benefit from DeMar.

Part of that is how good they are in transition together.

Here you can see DeMar bringing the ball up the court with Lowry in front of him. He sets the screen, then fades to the arc. Three Utah Jazz are trying to stop DeRozan, and Lowry is left all alone.

When he’s not the primary ball handler on the break, Lowry will immediately get out to the wing. DeRozan has a way of finding him to get up quick Js.

Of course, in good old set plays the Raptors see this gravity effect as well.

Here Toronto is running another double screen with a guard and a post, but Lowry is one of the screeners. At this point, all three Heat players are guarding against DeRozan’s midrange jumper, leaving just enough daylight for Lowry.

Toronto is also third in the NBA in “hockey” or secondary assists, which means two or more passes leading to a made field goal.

On this baseline out of bounds play, again it’s DeRozan’s gravity that frees up Lowry. As the ball is inbounded, DeRozan sucks three warriors defenders with him, including Lowry’s. Meanwhile, Kyle is running down the baseline to get a bucket off a pass on the opposite side of the floor. All the raps have to do is rotate the ball.

So that’s a little bit on why Kyle Lowry has been so good. It’s been about shot selection, decisiveness, and some practice in addition to the effectiveness of his teammates.