Hawks have no answers for Pacers offense, now are down 2-0

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The Atlanta Hawks have a problem. Well, right now they have a lot of problems, but one is bigger than the others — they cannot stop the Indiana Pacers offense.

That would be the Pacers offense that was 19th in the NBA in points per possession this past season (or if you prefer the offense that averaged 94.7 points per game, 23rd in NBA). That would be the Pacers offense that nobody feared. Their defense was what made this team a threat. The offense was the weak link. But the Pacers put up 109 points in Game 1 against the Hawks.

Then in Game 2, they beat that and cruised through the fourth quarter to a 113-98 win. That puts the Pacers up 2-0 heading to Atlanta for Game 3 on Saturday night.

Give the Hawks credit for standing up and trying to match the Pacers energy and physicality, but while the Pacers play their style for 48 minutes the Hawks have lapses. And those lapses mean Pacers runs and the Hawks keep finding themselves in holes they cannot get out of.

Indiana got its best games from its big stars Wednesday. Paul George was aggressive from the start and finished with 27 points (on 11-of-21 shooting). George Hill had 22 points (on 12 shots) and Roy Hibbert had a strong game with 15 points and 9 rebounds.

The Hawks did a much better job of attacking, trying to get points in the paint and pushing the pace early in the game. It worked early in the first quarter, but as the pace slowed down some the Pacers got their defense set and contested everything. Hawks shot just 42.1 percent for the first quarter. Plus, that aggressiveness from the Hawks led to two Josh Smith fouls in the first three minutes of the game and he sat a long time, making the Hawks easier to defend.

At the end of the first quarter came a great example of the the kind of mental lapses that did the Hawks in. Going for a final shot Devin Harris tried to drive, he ran into the brick wall that is Hibbert so he tried to fall and draw the foul but didn’t get the call. Indiana grabbed the loose ball then the Hawks’ Johan Petro committed a foul on Paul George in the backcourt with 0.7 seconds left (George hit one of two free throws). Then the Hawks turned the ball over on the inbound and with 0.4 the Pacers got off a final shot (Hibbert knocked down a three but released it just a click after the buzzer so it didn’t count). All that may have been just one point but it really summed up the kind of lapses the Hawks had all night.

The Pacers much-feared defense, which struggled some at the end of the season, once again didn’t distinguish itself. The Hawks are scoring plenty. It’s the kind of trend that could get the Pacers in real trouble in the next round against the dangerous Knicks offense. If Frank Vogel has one thing to focus on the next few days, it is this.

But that weakness didn’t matter because the Hawks couldn’t slow the Pacers offense. It wasn’t just the shooting, it was the Pacers turning the ball over less, getting more offensive rebounds and being more aggressive so they drew more fouls.

And that aggressiveness wore the Hawks down. Somewhere late in the third quarter you could see the energy the Hawks had fade away. They had tried to match the Pacers, but by the fourth they had all but thrown in the towel. There were a couple pushes by the Hawks, but the Pacers would answer and grow the lead. The Hawks body language was that of a defeated team.

At home the Hawks may have keep that energy back up — they were a dramatically better team at home this season. They need to play faster, they need to keep their big men out of foul trouble and on the court, they need a lot of things.

But the biggest is they need to find a way to stop the Pacers offense. Fast.

Dwight Howard’s offensive rebounding defies convention

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Hawks president/coach Mike Budenholzer has the authority to set the Hawks’ priorities.

“Organizationally, fundamentally,” Budenholzer said, “transition D is more important than anything.”

Dwight Howard challenges that daily.

Howard has already built a Hall of Fame résumé:

  • Eight-time All-NBA center, including five-time first teamer
  • Three-time Defensive Player of the Year
  • Five-time rebounding champ

But the big man is doing something he’s never done before: Grab 15.2% of available offensive rebounds.

And he’s doing it at age 31 in a league that has increasingly deemphasized offensive rebounding. The NBA will set a record this season for lowest offensive-rebounding percentage for the fourth straight year.

Teams have just figured getting back on defense trumps crashing the offensive glass, the strategy emanating most prominently from the Spurs. Budenholzer, a former San Antonio assistant coach, brought the plan straight to Atlanta. The Hawks ranked 28th, last and last in offensive-rebounding in his first three seasons — in part for philosophical reasons, in part because they’ve lacked the personnel to do better. They’ve also been a below-average defensive-rebounding team each season under Budenholzer.

Then Howard signed and forced Budenholzer to adjust.

Atlanta has become an above-average offensive-rebounding team and far better with Howard on the court – a helpful crutch with ace 3-point shooters Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague traded. The Hawks are ceding more transition opportunities, though they remain very good at defending those.

It’s an obvious tradeoff, says Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons coach who coached Howard with the Magic sees the center in the rare class of players who deserve full autonomy to chase offensive rebounds.

“You don’t limit those guys,” Van Gundy said.

Howard has made the most of his freedom to chase rebounds. His 15.2 offensive-rebounding percentage ranks second to only Kenneth Faried among qualified players.

And, again, Howard is 31. Offensive rebounding tends to be a young man’s game.

Here’s top 10 in offensive rebounding this season, plotted by age:

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Player Team Age Offensive-rebounding percentage
Kenneth Faried DEN 27 16.1
Dwight Howard ATL 31 15.4
Andre Drummond DET 23 15.2
JaVale McGee GSW 29 15
Tarik Black LAL 25 14.8
Tristan Thompson CLE 25 14
Rudy Gobert UTA 24 13.9
Enes Kanter OKC 24 13.9
Kyle O'Quinn NYK 26 13.9
Willy Hernangomez NYK 22 13.8

Howard’s previous career-high offensive-rebounding percentage was 13.8.

The only other players to set career-high offensive-rebounding rates north of 15% after their age-30 season: Dennis Rodman (20.8% at age 33 with the 1994-95 Spurs) and Alan Henderson (15.6% at age 32 with the 2004-05 Mavericks). Both Rodman (Cooke County Junior College and Southeastern Oklahoma State) and Henderson (Indiana) played four years of college basketball, giving them less wear and tear on their bodies and fewer opportunities to post career highs at a young age.

Howard jumped to the NBA straight from high school.

Yet, he’s having a resurgent year in his 13th season. How is he doing it?

“One, I’m not super old,” Howard said earlier this season. “Two, my body feels great. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff to take care of my body.”

Known for eating legendary amounts of candy earlier in his career, perhaps Howard has made a breakthrough. His defensive-rebounding percentage (31.8) is the second-best of his career and ranks fourth in the NBA. That has helped him anchor the league’s fourth-best defense.

Howard has been subject to widespread criticism, and last season with the Rockets was a low point. This year, Howard has recommitted to the basics: Rebounding, defending, scoring inside.

“He’s got a big personality, but I think we all knew that,” Budenholzer said. “But it’s all in the right place. He wants good things, and I’ve really enjoyed coaching him.”

So much so that Budenholzer has compromised a core basketball tenet for Howard.

And it has proved a worthwhile decision.

JaVale McGee misses open dunk (video)

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Shaquille O’Neal said he’d stop talking about JaVale McGee, who has featured prominently on Shaqtin A Fool.

This missed dunk, a low point in the Warriors’ otherwise-impressive win over the Spurs, will test Shaq’s sincerity.

Grizzlies’ James Ennis fouls out then hits half-court shot (video)

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Against the Pacers last night, James Ennis missed all three of his 3-point attempts… that counted. And he makes this one after fouling out?

Mike Conley more than picked up the slack to lead the Grizzlies to victory.

Pelicans’ Dante Cunningham jumps on scorer’s table, Anthony Davis jumps on him (video)

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The Pelicans are effectively out of the playoff race, but Dante Cunningham and Anthony Davis are still competing — even if it looks a little silly.

That tone and a big game from DeMarcus Cousins (29 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) led to a 121-118 win over the Mavericks.