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Friday, May 6, 2011
Six reasons the playoff Hawks are better

By Bret LaGree, Hoopinion

Jeff Teague
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Sport
Jeff Teague: One of several Hawks giving far more in the playoffs than they did in the regular season.

During the 82-game regular season, the Atlanta Hawks went 12-24 against teams with winning records. Yet over their first eight playoffs games, against the respected Magic and Bulls, the Hawks are 5-3. For those of you who didn’t expect to be learning more about the Hawks in the second week of May, here are six key reasons the playoff Hawks have been better than that squad that was -- believe it or not -- outscored by opponents over the regular season.
  1. Jason Collins The Hawks brought Collins back this season for the sole purpose of single-covering Dwight Howard. Collins played fewer than 600 minutes in the regular season, but he their investment was smart nonetheless, in no small part because of his lighter weight this season. He can’t move as well as he did as an integral part of the New Jersey Nets’ defense nearly a decade ago, but his experience and defensive instincts are intact and usable at his current playing weight. His defensive presence in the post provided the impetus for the Hawks to let Howard get his in the first-round while focusing on defending the 3-point line. Collins may not feature much in the playoffs from here on out, but it’s likely the Hawks would have flamed out in the first round without Collins.
  2. Jeff Teague Teague is poised to be the inverse of Collins. Teague almost literally didn’t play in the first round against Orlando but may be, in the wake of Kirk Hinrich’s hamstring injury, the key to hanging with the Bulls. Teague played less than 14 minutes a game and suffered through 12 DNP-CDs during his second season in the league, facts baffling in the wake of the 84 quality minutes he’s played in two games against Chicago. He’s played solid defense, mostly matched up against the league’s MVP (though Teague moved over to chase Kyle Korver around screens some in Game 2) while also shooting 50 percent from the floor, earning eight assists and committing just a single turnover.  It’s fair to wonder if the Hawks would have been better than a 44-win team had Teague’s quickness been used more regularly in the regular season.
  3. Kirk Hinrich Hinrich is likely done for this series (and possibly for the playoffs) but his defensive work on Jameer Nelson proved an important complement to what Jason Collins was doing in the post during the first round. Rick Sund took a gamble on acquiring Hinrich and his $9 million owed next season. Though the defensive difference between Hinrich and the man he replaced, Mike Bibby, is vast, it took this seven-game series to make that difference matter. Hinrich scored 10 points a game, shot 58 percent from the field, and committed just four turnovers in the Orlando series.
  4. Zaza Pachulia Unlike the three players mentioned above, Pachulia did (barely) play more than 1000 minutes for the Hawks in the regular season but, despite long being a solid backup big man and a fan favorite, his spot in the rotation was insecure for most of the season. In fact, the Hawks held him out their last game before the trade deadline while exploring trades. Pachulia’s always played better when given regular minutes and that proved true again once he was made the third big man in the rotation in March. He's far and away the best rebounder among Atlanta’s bench big men, which has mattered far more to the Hawks in these playoffs than his more celebrated physicality and head-butting.
  5. Larry Drew It may seem counterintuitive to include Drew on this list given that he's the buy who benched the likes of Teague and Pachulia in the regular season (not to mention the new tactical ground he broke in avoiding potential foul trouble in Game 2 of the Orlando series). But Drew deserves credit for the Hawks' defensive gameplan and execution in the first round and how well the team ran Drew’s much-discussed but not-especially-effective-during-the-regular-season motion offense in the first game in Chicago. Based on these eight playoff games, the long-time NBA assistant, but rookie head coach, looks to be learning on the job, rather than, as had been suggested in the local media, in over his head.
  6. The fans The Atlanta Hawks have a long and, sadly, well-deserved history of playing in front of sparse or unsupportive home crowds. The post-season, however, are a different matter. Witness the 2008 first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. While the size of Atlanta’s fanbase may not compare, it’s an intense collective that’s hungry for their team to experience real success. The Hawks have not won two straight playoff series since they moved to Atlanta 42 years ago. The Hawks don’t just return to Atlanta with home-court advantage in this playoff series, they return to to Atlanta to play with a home-court advantage unlike anything they enjoy from October to April.