Heading into the playoffs the Hawks, who clinched their berth Saturday night, are playing some of their best basketball of the second half of the season, led by All-Star power forward Paul Millsap. Over the last eight games — where the Hawks are 6-2 — Millsap has led the way averaging 19.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks.
Millsap offered a simple explanation for his play of late. “Just being aggressive and going after it, man. That’s it.”
That aggressive mindset can be seen in his shot distribution.
Millsap is taking 12.9% more shots within eight feet of the rim over the last eight games than he was in the first 66 of the season, and as such the number of long two-point attempts and three-point attempts has dropped. Long twos accounted for 11.3% of his shot attempts, but that percentage has dropped to 7.8% in the last eight games. His three-point attempts have dropped, going from 20.9% of all of his attempts to now being 13.8% of his shots.
Millsap’s ability to shoot the outside shot, particularly from three-point range, has been an important part of the Hawks offense this year, but he is being more judicious about when he takes those jump shots and when he tries to take defenders off the dribble to get a shot near the rim.
Along with being more aggressive, Millsap — and the team as a whole — have been able to return to a sense of normalcy and have gotten comfortable with each other on the court again. After going through a difficult stretch after the All-Star break where the Hawks dealt with numerous injuries, Atlanta has gotten healthier of late, and as their chemistry on the floor comes back they’ve begun to regain the form that had them in the third seed earlier in the season.
“It does ,” Millsap said. “Most everybody’s pretty much healthy. We’ve still got a few knick-knacks, but that’s going to happen. Our lineups have been pretty consistent over the course of the last couple of weeks, and that’s been really good for us.”
The on-court chemistry between Millsap and Jeff Teague is vitally important for the Hawks’ offense, because it operates through them a lot in the pick-and-roll/pop game. Teague had that chemistry with Al Horford after playing together for so many years, and when Horford went down it had a clear effect on Teague’s effectiveness and the team as a whole. Teague had to learn to work with a new primary pick-and-roll partner and without consistent lineups, the process of developing their chemistry has taken time, but they have been excellent of late and Millsap expects them to continue getting better together.
“Never satisfied, you know,” Millsap said. “It’s a work in progress. We’re still getting better at some things. He’s still learning. I’m still learning him, but it takes time. Hopefully over time we’ll get great at it. Not just good at it, but great at it.”
While Millsap’s scoring has been a huge part of the Hawks’ recent success in their playoff push, it’s all the other things Millsap can do that makes him special. His defensive presence has been huge considering the injuries in the frontcourt and the group as a whole being a bit undersized in the paint. He is very adept at being active in passing lanes to get deflections and is in the top 10 in the NBA in steals per game, which helps jump start the Hawks’ transition offense. For Coach Bud, it’s been this defensive impact that has been the most impressive.
“I think where he stood out to me is in second halves or when we need a defensive rebound or we need a stop how he’s really just kind of elevated himself and went and got a big board. Went up in a crowd and came down with the ball or got a deflection and got a steal or a blocked shot. He just does so many little things defensively, and when the game is on the line and you need a stop he’s just got that feeling and that instinct and he’s been able to make some big plays for us especially defensively.”
Offensively, Millsap is more than just a scoring threat, and the Hawks will often run their offense through Millsap in crucial situations because of his good decision-making.
“He’s unique and maybe makes us a little bit different by having a guy who’s a good decision maker,” Coach Bud said. “Sometimes it’s the pass that leads to the pass, or sometimes it’s a pick-and-roll situation where he receives it from a guard and then can find another shooter. As good as teams are defensively, to get them into second and third and fourth rotations, ultimately against good teams that’s what you have to do. Sometimes Paul is the kind of guy that can read the rotation or force a rotation and make the right decision. We’re fortunate to have him. He does a lot of it himself, it’s no credit to anybody else and he’s just a special player for us.”
Millsap’s presence has been a major reason why the Hawks were able to make the playoffs while missing Horford in the middle. Millsap has a unique offensive skill-set that makes him a match-up problem for most any team because he can stretch the floor and is also a strong, physical player in the post. Having him playing at a high level at both ends of the floor is important for the Hawks’ chances in the playoffs.
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