Have You Noticed The Hawks Doing These 3 Things?

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Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard

Here are a few tactical things that the Hawks have been doing recently. Have you noticed any of them during games?

1) The Hawks have converted into big-ballers

Head Coach Mike Budenholzer almost fell over in mock shock when asked about the high volume of offensive rebounds his team has been grabbing lately.

The season didn't start this way. The Hawks began 6-23, and it didn't help that the depth up front was challenged by injuries: Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, Dewayne Dedmon and Miles Plumlee all missed a number of games. At times, the Hawks played small ball when there weren't a lot of other options. 

Those injured big men have gradually gotten healthier, and the Hawks have played their best basketball of the season. They have compiled an 8-10 record in their last 18 games while featuring two traditional big men in almost every lineup combination that has taken the floor.  

The result? The Hawks have been the best offensive rebounding team in the East in games played since Dec. 17, collecting 25.5 percent of their own misses.

 

Compare that number to previous seasons. In Budenholzer's first three seasons as Hawks coach, Atlanta finished 28th, 30th, and 30th in offensive rebounding rate. Last season, even with Dwight Howard grabbing the fourth-most offensive rebounds in the NBA, the team finished 15th. Even if offensive rebounds weren't an entirely mutually-exclusive goal, Budenholzer prioritized transition defense.  

While the transition defense hasn't been perfect, it has been good, and the rebounds seem to have correlated nicely with an uptick in wins. ​

"Miles being part of our rotation of bigs has had a huge impact on our rebounding, in general," Budenholzer said. "John Collins has been a great offensive rebounder since jump street. And Dewayne being back healthy (helped too)."  

With Plumlee (1.5 offensive rebounds per game this season) back in the fold and Ilyasova (1.9 per game) starting alongside him, the Hawks have had the luxury of bringing their top-two offensive rebounders off the bench. Collins (2.8 offensive rebounds per game) and Dedmon (2.0 per game) have feasted on the offensive glass against opposing backups. 

In their past seven games, all played off the bench, Collins and Dedmon have combined for 116 total rebounds (16.6 per game).

While big-ball has definitely worked with respect to rebounds, one thing to keep an eye on is how the Hawks guard small-ball power forwards. Recent games have seen Collins and Dedmon guarding ball-handling forwards like San Antonio's Kyle Anderson and Utah's Joe Johnson

Dedmon and Collins both said that they won't be fazed by perimeter-oriented players. 

"It's one of the challenges that Coach actually gave me this year: To be able to guard smaller guys when they go into a smaller lineup," Dedmon said. "It's a challenge that I've accepted, and whenever they do it, I'm ready for it."  

2) Luke Babbitt changing roles

Budenholzer has often said that the shooting guard and small forward positions function similarly in his offense. He has said the same about the power forward and center spots. It's routine to see a Hawks player staffing both wing roles, or taking on both big man roles.

Luke Babbitt is doing something a bit different. With a deep roster up front, Babbitt has started making the transition from power forward to small forward, or to put it another way: from big to wing. Budenholzer first hinted at the change after the Hawks' Jan. 5 game in Portland. 

"Luke Babbitt (played) in a little bit of a different spot," he said. "We may look at him some there."

And they have. Babbitt got his first look at primetime rotation minutes at small forward in the Hawks' 14-point win over Utah Monday in a lineup that featured Collins and Dedmon. He made both of his shots, tallying 5 points and 3 rebounds in 11 minutes. 

"It's a different look offensively, different actions," Babbitt said. "I've been working on it for a couple of weeks. It's still a work in progress."

Babbitt played some small forward during his rookie season in Portland, an experience on which he is drawing now. 

"A lot changes defensively as well," Babbitt said. "You go from being the guy who is guarding the screener to the guy who is getting screened. That's big, and I'm guarding different types of players, It's not something I haven't done before. I did it a lot earlier in my career, so I'm just getting back to it and focusing on it."

The tactic has looked good so far: Babbitt has shot 7-10 (.700) from the floor and 6-9 (.667) from beyond the arc over the past three games, giving the Hawks a needed shooting boost.

3) The Hawks have defended some after-timeout plays using a zone defense

When opponents have called timeout to choose a set play with the hope of ending a scoring drought, the Hawks have sometimes broken out a zone defense to try to keep them in a dry spell. Here is an example from when Atlanta hosted Boston earlier this season.  

"Lots of coaches like to draw up a play in a timeout," Budenholzer said, "and most, if not all of them, are drawn up against man-to-man type coverages and defenses. So (we see) if we (can) disrupt whatever it is they're trying to do coming out of a timeout."

If opponents set up a play with player motion and ball movement designed to eventually spring a layup attempt, then positioning a strong rim protector like Dedmon in the paint – as was done in this play – is a good idea for the Hawks. Of course, the onus then falls on Dedmon to avoid a defensive three-seconds violation with well-timed darts in and out of the paint when there isn't a player there for him to defend.

The Hawks try to disguise the scheme during the dead ball. There isn't much in this alignment that screams 'zone defense' but there are a couple of clues: most notably, that Schröder is guarding Al Horford at the top of the key.

The Hawks have typically only mixed in the zone package for one play at a time, usually an inbounds play.

"For the most part, we've only done it possession-by-possession," Budenholzer said. "But one of the things we wanted is to try and work on and grow a little bit of a zone defense and something that we could add to our defensive package."