Kirk Hinrich is doubtful to play at all in the Atlanta Hawks’ series against the Chicago Bulls. As such, the Hawks are doubtful to even remain competitive in the series that will surely spell their playoff end. I hate to foretell a team’s postseason demise in such certain terms, but Hinrich’s absence makes it easy; without their top perimeter defender, the Hawks just don’t stand a chance.
Atlanta’s playoff success thus far has hinged on making their opponent’s offense operate even less fluidly than their own, and if they’re to follow the same template in the second round, then finding a way to impede Derrick Rose is the Hawks’ foremost priority. It’s a tall order to begin with, but almost inconceivable without Hinrich in the lineup. It’s going to get ugly.
Hinrich’s on-ball defense on Jameer Nelson and semi-frequent digs against Dwight Howard in the post were instrumental in keeping the Orlando Magic’s offense under wraps in the first round; according to NBA.com’s StatsCube, the Hawks were 9.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Hinrich on the floor, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a healthy Hinrich having a similar defensive impact in the second round. It just wasn’t meant to be, as a strained hamstring has created even more difficulties for an outmatched Hawks team.
That said, Hinrich’s defensive value sadly has as much to do with his strengths as it does his teammates’ weaknesses. When Hinrich sits, either Jamal Crawford or Joe Johnson typically defends the opposing team’s point guard, and at risk of spoiling the surprise, let’s just say it doesn’t typically end well. Johnson once had the repute of being a successful defender, but he and Crawford are both similarly flawed on that end of the court. The Indiana Pacers may have successfully utilized a wing defender – rookie Paul George – on Rose in their first round matchup against the Bulls, but the limitations of the Hawks’ rotation wings make employing a similar strategy almost impossible. Atlanta could potentially cross-match Johnson, Crawford, or Marvin Williams to defend Rose, but none of those players have the lateral movement or the athleticism to mimic George’s success. They would merely be empty copies, defenders with size on Rose, but no total skill set with which to use that size as a defensive weapon.
With that in mind, Hawks head coach Larry Drew has reportedly elected to start second-year guard Jeff Teague at point guard for Game 1, though it’s unknown how exactly Atlanta will match up on defense. Assigning Teague to defend Rose could be the best option available, if only due to the aforementioned poor alternatives; not only are Johnson and Crawford limited defenders, but giving them such a taxing defensive role is perhaps too much of a burden given their demanding offensive responsibilities.
Teague is athletic, but — by Drew’s own fault — a bit inexperienced. The same could also be said of George (though he has former Pacers head coach Jim O’Brien to blame), but the fundamental difference in the physical profiles of the two players makes a profound impact. Teague may have a better athletic capacity to stick with Rose than anyone on Atlanta’s roster, but his lack of experience defending quality point guards will only make him prone to defensive mistakes. George may have been similarly hindered by his lack of consistent court time, but height and length privilege defenders with a greater opportunity for recovery. When George made a mistake in the first round, he could still hustle back to block Rose’s shot from behind or get a hand in his face. When Teague makes a mistake in this series, he’ll practically be dead in the water. Length is an effective mask for the limitations of young players, but Teague, who stands at just 6-2, will have no such benefit.
Atlanta has nowhere to turn. Their best defensive option against Rose is sidelined. Their contingency plan is athletic, but can be easily exploited. All other alternatives are too slow, and too unathletic. Rose can create a positional advantage against just about every team he plays against, but this Hawks roster is uniquely incapable of stopping him without excessive trapping, and thus uniquely incapable of maintaining their current level of defensive success.