Coming to Philips: The Best of the West

Thursday, November 21, 2013
By Robby Kalland

best-of-west

The Hawks have their biggest stretch of home games of the season coming up in early December as they will play seven home games (out of eight overall) from Dec. 4-20. In that stretch are three of the marquee home games of the year as Atlanta plays host to the Clippers (Dec. 4), Thunder (Dec. 10), and Lakers (Dec. 16). With only one chance to host each team in the Western Conference and the attention these three teams garnish, the Hawks will have an opportunity during this stretch to make a big impression.

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Hawks vs. Clippers
Hawks vs. Thunder
Hawks vs. Lakers

The Clippers, up first on Dec. 4, are currently the second-highest scoring team in the NBA, averaging 108.7 points per game thanks to a dynamic offensive attack led by Chris Paul. Paul is leading the NBA in assists per game with 12.5 and is second on the Clippers in points per game averaging 19.5. Paul continues to be one of, if not the, top point guards in the NBA despite getting off to a rough shooting start to the season.

Paul, a career 47.3% shooter (35.3% three-point shooter) is shooting just 43.1% from the field and 25.6% from three-point range. His mid-range shooting has been tremendous, shooting 51.9% on shots between the restricted area and the three-point line. However, his poor three-point shooting and relative struggles finishing at the rim, shooting just 52.6% in the restricted area have led to a drop in efficiency. Despite that, Paul has been tremendous for the Clippers and is without a doubt the leader of the team on the court. Paul leads the NBA in touches per game (104.9) and front-court touches per game (91.4), and creates 0.54 points per half-court touch ((points off assists + points scored)/half-court touches) for the Clippers. (per SportVU stats via NBA.com/stats)

Blake Griffin has benefited from Paul’s ability to create and is the leading scorer on the Clippers with 22.7 points per game along with 10.8 rebounds per game. Griffin gets plenty of open lanes to the basket running pick-and-rolls with Paul, but he has also expanded his offensive game to be more versatile. Griffin has shown some improvement in his shooting touch from outside the paint with a 40.4% field goal percentage from outside the paint (up from 33.8% last season). Griffin is still a dominant force inside, and is shooting an incredible 74.3% inside the restricted area where he has gotten exactly 50% of his shot attempts this season (70 out of 140). The added dimension of a competent mid-range game allows Griffin to be more effective facing up from 15 to 18 feet from the basket because defenders have to respect his jump shot, which allows him to use his athleticism to get by his opponent and get to the rim.

Defensively, the Clippers have been one of the worst teams in the NBA allowing 105.1 points per game (27th in the NBA). Part of that is because of the pace they play with (5th highest pace in the league), but they have been, in general, shaky on the defensive end. The entire team has struggled on defense, but they have been particularly suspect when the bench unit comes in the game. The Clippers’ biggest weakness is a lack of frontcourt depth behind Griffin and DeAndre JordanByron Mullens and Ryan Hollins‘ are the two primary back-ups for the Clippers and neither is a very effective defensive presence. When teams are attacking the paint and getting the Clippers’ starting bigs in foul trouble, they have struggled to get quality defensive minutes out of Hollins or Mullens.

The Hawks have the bigs to match-up with and potentially frustrate Jordan and Griffin with Al Horford and Paul Millsap, and could really cause problems for the Clippers if either of they get the starters into foul trouble. Jeff Teague will have his hands full with Paul, and the Hawks will have to be tight on their pick-and-roll coverages to avoid Paul and Griffin from getting going and also to be able to stay out on shooters like Jamal Crawford, JJ Redick, and Jared Dudley. The Hawks’ have struggled early in the season defending the three-point line and that will have to tighten up before they face the Clippers (and really any other team).

When the Thunder come to town on Dec. 10, the focus as always will be on the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant has been dominant early in the season averaging 29.6 points per game (best in the NBA) with a 28.6 PER and a 63.6% true shooting percentage. Durant has been incredibly efficient despite having a 31% usage rate and is the best players in the NBA at getting to the free throw line, with a free throw rate of .762 (number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt). Defending Durant is all about forcing him to be a jump shooter, contesting as many of those jumpers as possible, and keeping him off the foul line (all of these things are easier said than done). The Hawks wings will have their hands full trying to slow down the top scorer in the NBA.

Westbrook has struggled somewhat early in this season as he has played eight games since returning from his meniscus injury. The rust on his game has been noticeable, especially in his finishing, but he’s been aggressive and has not shown any physical signs of being slowed down by the injury. Westbrook has shot very poorly with a 38.2% effective field goal percentage and he’s actually shooting better from beyond the arc (35.3%) than he is from two-point range (34.8%). It’s clear that his touch around the basket is not back to where it was prior to the injury. Even though he has had shooting struggles, Westbrook is still extremely dangerous in the open floor and transition.

Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb have been solid for the Thunder who continue to look for complimentary scorers to Westbrook and Durant. Ibaka’s efficiency is down this season and he has just a 52.6% true shooting percentage, but he has averaged 14.0 points per game and 10.5 rebounds per game. Ibaka is still an excellent defender, especially as a helper at the rim, and his length and timing make him one of the best shot blockers in the NBA.

Lamb has taken advantage of the opening on the perimeter for a third scorer in the absence of Kevin Martin. Lamb is averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes and has been excellent on the perimeter shooting 41.2% from three-point range. The Thunder are at their best when they are able to get out in transition and Durant and Westbrook can push the pace. Keeping turnovers to a minimum and getting back in transition, one of Coach Bud’s biggest talking points early this season, will be paramount for the Hawks to have success against the Thunder.

The Lakers, coming to Philips on Dec. 16, have fallen from their long-time perch near the top of the Western Conference standings, but, as the Hawks learned in Los Angeles, they still have a competitive group and there is the constant threat of Kobe Bryant‘s return. Lately Kobe has been saying he’ll be back by the end of November, so it seems likely he’ll be back on the floor by the time they get to Atlanta.

The Hawks will look to exact some revenge after a poor first half performance in LA led to a Lakers’ win over Atlanta. The Lakers are the fastest paced team in the league, but they are also an inefficient shooting team, with a 47.6% effective field goal percentage (20th in the NBA).

Pau Gasol is the star of the Lakers’ squad with Kobe out, but Gasol has gotten off to a slow start for his standards averaging 13.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Gasol’s not had the spacing he’s used to and draws a lot of double teams without as many talented offensive players around him as he used to have. This has led to him having to take tougher, contested shots, which has shown up in his 39.4% shooting from the field.

Jodie Meeks has stepped up in Kobe’s absence and has been the most efficient Laker perimeter player (by far) shooting 52.8% from the field and 49.2% from the three-point line. Meeks is averaging 13.7 points per game on just nine field goal attempts. The rest of the Lakers backcourt that is healthy like Steve Blake, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, and Wes Johnson have all struggled shooting the ball consistently. Steve Nash has battled a back injury this season and is currently out of the lineup and his status for when the Lakers come to Atlanta is still very much up in the air.

This stretch of games against some of the best in the Western Conference will be a big test for the Hawks early this season. The biggest keys for the Hawks in this stretch will be improving the three-point defense, limiting turnovers, and establishing a presence in the paint offensively whether it be Horford and Millsap in the post, or Teague driving to the hoop. Improving the three-point defense, as I have said before, starts with better defense on initial sets. The Hawks have struggled against pick-and-rolls at times this season, especially keeping up with quicker point guards, which forces defenders to help off of shooters to protect against drives. This forces the Hawks to rotate and chase out on shooters and often opens up the three-point line for good looks at the basket.

The Hawks are currently 1-3 against the Western Conference, all on the road, after a win over the Kings and losses to the Mavericks, Lakers, and Nuggets. This home stretch will be their opportunity to improve that record against the tough Western Conference and make a statement against three of the marquee teams in the NBA.

(Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats)

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