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Hawks searching for early-season mojo in playoffs

POSTED: May 11, 2015 2:38 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Jeff Teague is one of many key Hawks searching for the success that got them to the playoffs but has escaped them since.

The Atlanta Hawks are suffering an identity crisis. They've rarely looked like a No. 1 seed through their first nine playoff games. Nor have they looked like the only Eastern Conference team that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season.

There were issues on both ends of the floor as the Hawks' regular rotation went down 21 points to the Washington Wizards in Game 3 of the conference semifinals on Saturday. The third string turned things around quickly before falling victim to Paul Pierce's game-winner, but for the Hawks to even the series and re-gain home-court advantage in Game 4 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT), they'll need to play like that for more than 10 minutes.

Multiple Hawks will tell you that they're not playing like themselves.

"We got to be who we are," Paul Millsap said Sunday.

Being who they are starts on offense. Al Horford said that pace is the key, and that it's about "doing things a little quicker" in the team's half-court offense as much as it's about getting into the offense with more time on the shot clock.

"We need to get it up the court faster," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "But even more important is that we attack in the half-court, we move the ball in the half-court, we sprint into screens, we come off of screens.

"All of those things take pace, also. When we talk about pace, it's not just pushing it down the court. There's so many other areas that we emphasize that need to be and can be better."

The Wizards deserve some credit for the Hawks not being themselves. Washington ranked fifth in defensive efficiency in the regular season and shut down the Toronto Raptors' top-five offense in the first round. On Saturday, the Wizards stayed attached to Kyle Korver, not letting him get a shot off in the initial offense (not after an offensive rebound) until the last two minutes of the game.

"When he's getting shots and he's getting loose, that helps us," Budenholzer said. "To a certain degree, if they're that focused on taking him away, then it should become a four-on-four game and other people should be able to get to the basket and other people should be getting good opportunities. So it's not totally dictated on Kyle getting shots."

The Raptors were unable to deal with the Wizards taking their primary options away. But the Hawks have it in their DNA to move on to secondary options and make the defense pay for aggressive defense on the perimeter.

"We strive off of countering," Millsap said. "When teams take something away, we're good at getting to our next options. They've been able get up in us and be aggressive and physical with us. We just got to counter it, do the things we've been doing all year."

To counter the Wizards' defense, the Raptors needed to move the ball more. The Hawks, the team that has led the league in assist rate each of the last three seasons, may need to do the opposite.

Atlanta's point guards did find some offensive success in the second half on Saturday. But it was by attacking the basket rather than running the offense.

Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder combined for 29 of their 36 points after halftime, with 26 of the 29 points coming at the basket (16) or from the free throw line (10). With the Washington bigs out high to pressure the Atlanta bigs looking to set screens and move the ball from side to side, they weren't in the paint to protect the rim.

"They're giving us a lot of open lanes to get to the rim," Teague said. "Last night, me and Dennis, in the second half, started doing that. It opened up the floor for us."

According to SportVU, the Hawks scored 33 points on 24 drives from Teague and Schroder in Game 3. And though it may defy your Spurs-and-Hawks-influenced values, the Atlanta was more efficient the less they passed the ball.

The Hawks scored 1.34 points per possession on 47 possessions on which they passed the ball fewer than three times. They scored only 0.83 points per possession on 46 possessions on which they passed the ball three times or more. Some fast break points are included in the first number, but so are some fourth-quarter buckets from Schroder in which he went straight to the basket on the pick-and-roll.

"We were trying to force motion [earlier in the game]," Teague said. "And all we got to do is drive the ball. There were some open lanes, but we were trying to force it. And that was making our offense really stagnant."

Game 4 will be the most important 48 minutes of the Hawks' season. Lose and they face a 3-1 deficit that few teams have come back from. Win and they regain home-court advantage against a team that's still likely missing its best player.

And to survive, they need to attack.