Hawks Continue to Improve as the Season Progresses
Nathaniel S Butler
Story by K.L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)ATLANTA-The Hawks turned their season around in March. They put together an eight-game winning streak, and when they finished the month with a 9-4 record, the Hawks had compiled their best month in over four years.They have followed it up by going 9-3 in April.No part of their reversal has been more stark than their fourth-quarter fortunes. Prior to March 1, the Hawks ranked last in the NBA with a net rating of -8.2 points per 100 possessions. Since March 1, the Hawks have a net rating of +13.1 per 100 possessions in the final period, the best mark in the NBA.A number of factors play a role in this worst-to-first reversal of the Hawks' late-game fortunes. Trying to pin it on one isn't going to do it justice, so here is a cumulative look at some of the most likely causes.Pace: Go Early or Go LateOne phrase that you'll hear bandied about NBA teams is that they want to be "pace-and-space" teams. They want to space the floor and get up threes while getting up and down the floor. The Hawks used to strive for that goal, but they don't really fit that description any longer.Nate McMillan has said often that he wants an offense that can "go early or go late". If there is a layup or an open three to be had in transition, then McMillan wants that shot for sure. But if not, he wants his offense to regroup, run its sets and find a favorable matchup. Before March 1, the Hawks played at the 16th-fastest pace. Since then, they've played at the 25th-fastest pace.One thing to keep in mind: the Hawks' fourth quarter pace has not changed all that much, dipping just around half a possession per quarter. But their full-game offense is more in sync with the deliberate pace that comes near the end of games, and they have certainly looked more comfortable in that setting as a result.VeteransJust about every single veteran offseason acquisition had a significant uptick since the start of the season. With more time and more familiarity with teammates, each has bumped up his contribution to the team. Clint Capela has gobbled up rebounds all season long, but his defense at the rim has taken a jump to elite status. Danilo Gallinari has been pivotal in late-game offensive actions with Trae Young. Tony Snell has mixed defense and hyper-accurate shooting. Bogdan Bogdanovic has been the hottest shooter east of Steph Curry in April, and McMillan has put in offensive sets to take advantage of his skills as a creator.Enter Lou Williams. In addition to becoming the first point guard to really click with rookie Onyeka Okongwu on offense, Williams has also been a key cog on offense during the recent absence of Gallinari.Against the Magic Tuesday with John Collins playing center, the Hawks tried to run the high pick-and-roll with Trae and Collins. The Magic countered by sending two defenders to trap Trae – and helping on Collins near the rim. The Hawks used Williams as a release valve. They "shorted" the pick-and-roll by escaping the trap with a quick perimeter pass, and then it was Lou's job to get the ball to Collins.
Lou had to work a little bit harder on this one, but he still got Collins to the rim for a high-percentage poster.The Hawks were clearly ready for what transpired here, and it's a good example of the type of poised plays that in-sync veterans can make.Trae is making winning plays in the fourth quarterSince March 1, Trae's minutes have not gone down all that much from what they were earlier in the season. He is only down about one minute per game – but that minute is usually taking place in the fourth quarter. Combine that with the lower pace (see above), and Trae is re-entering the game with a full tank for the stretch run.Take this play as an example:When Dwayne Bacon drives baseline, the Hawks are forced to help to prevent a layup. That leaves Trae with the responsibility of defending two perimeter players on the weak side. Instinctively, he cheats closer to the one with the more open passing lane, but Bacon does a good job squeezing a pass to the corner, leaving Trae with a long way to go. Not only does Trae haul to the corner to chase the shooter off the line, he also gets the bonus of rushing the shooter to the point where he steps out of bounds. As happens with a lot of these plays on the defensive end, Trae immediately followed it with one on the offensive end.Trae did something similar in the previous game, too. Somewhere in the midst of this sequence that saw him get four assists in a hair over two minutes against the Pacers, Trae timed a double team of Caris LeVert perfectly. When LeVert drove, Trae helped off his man, digging down to disrupt LeVert's dribble and forcing a jump ball.Then he won the jump ball.ReboundingThis one probably isn't hard to believe, because the Hawks have the best rebounder in the NBA, Clint Capela, who is averaging 14.7 rebounds per game. I mean, come on. Capela has averaged 20.4 rebounds per game over his last five outings. That's just complete silliness.On the other hand, the Hawks' fourth-quarter rebounding left something to be desired prior to March 1. Since then, the Hawks are tied with the Pelicans for the best fourth-quarter rebounding percentage: 53.0 percent. It hasn't all been Capela, either. While Capela has averaged 2.7 rebounds in fourth quarters over this hot stretch, Collins has averaged 2.4 in comparable minutes. When teams go small in fourth quarters, having a versatile rebounding stretch big like Collins can be a big boon.ShootingIn a way, this one is tough to separate from the 'Veterans' section above, because it is those same players who are making the biggest impact. In the final period in March and April, Gallinari has made 12 of 25 threes (48.0 percent). Bogdanovic has made 20 of 41 (48.8 percent). Williams has made 6 of 13 (46.2 percent). And while it's not quite the same volume, Tony Snell has made 7 of 9 – and one of those shots won a game at the buzzer.While shooting is the one streaky X-factor that seems like it could go away at any moment, it is clear that Travis Schlenk has made shooting a top priority in his veteran acquisitions. When you put this sort of spacing around Trae, good things are going to happen.No one quite knows what this iteration of the Hawks is going to look like in the playoffs if they're able to finish well and reach the postseason. The regular season isn't always a great predictor of what is going to happen in the playoffs. On the other hand, if there's anything about the regular season that looks like playoff basketball, it's the fourth quarter.And the Hawks have been really good in fourth quarters lately.