Despite the return of Joe Johnson, the Atlanta Hawks dropped a listless 89-82 appearance in New Jersey against the Nets on Sunday. The loss illustrated a number of Hawks’ sore spots, especially their isolation-oriented offense and their immature defense.
Disregarding transition, extreme early offense, and broken plays, the Hawks had 75 possessions with 40 of those possessions ending with the Hawks making a play (a shot, a pass, a foul drawn) out of an isolation. If post ups are counted as isolations, then the Hawks ran 61 plays where one-on-one basketball was triumphed over team play.
The leader of this brigade was Iso Joe Johnson. Against the subpar defense of the Nets, Johnson’s isolations accounted for 14 Hawks plays, with Atlanta shooting 1-10 from the field and registering only nine points in those 14 possessions, a terrible number. Johnson’s post ups were slightly better, accounting for 3-7 shooting, and nine points in eight possessions. A pair of handoff/fades resulted in two empty possessions, while a cut off a Mike Bibby back screen worked for a basket in one possession.
Tally it together and the Hawks only registered 20 points in 25 Johnson possessions, an unacceptable number. For sure, Johnson had returned earlier than expected from a relatively serious elbow injury, but his game relies totally on his massaging the ball, quelling off-ball movement, and using his tight handle and good-size to elevate for a shot or drive to the hoop, or he’s using his good vision to find spot up shooters. It should be noted that while Johnson sees the floor relatively well—6 AST, 2 TO—multiple passes were slightly off from their targets preventing Atlanta’s shooters from shooting in rhythm.
Atlanta’s preponderance of isolations doesn’t stop with Iso Joe.
Mike Bibby isolated 11 times, leading to 14 points on 6-9 Atlanta shooting. Marvin Williams isolated unsuccessfully four times, leading to nary a single point. Josh Smith isolated six times, for only five points, while Al Horford’s isolations led to no points in two possessions. Jeff Teague didn’t generate any points for his pair of isolations, while Mo Evans hit a jumper the lone time he went one-on-one.
Overall, the Hawks scored only 30 points in 40 isolation possessions, a hideous number. When Johnson gets his mojo working, this number will improve, but there’s a fundamental flaw to strict iso-ball.
For one, because possessions die in players hands so often, it eliminates weak-side offense. Players stop organically running any action on the weak-side. Why should they if so many possessions will end with one drive and one pass to whichever player is vacated by a help defender. Offenses tend to stagnate and become simplistic.
Secondly, against defenses with the talent to match up defensively with the Hawks, and the coaching to know how to funnel Atlanta to help positions, it’s very easy for the Hawks to lay down and die. Since the Hawks don’t play with any continuity, they’re often stuck hoping that somebody heats up, or a defense presents a mismatch. Against the better defenses in the league—last year’s Magic, the 2008-09 Cavs—the Hawks offenses disintegrates in the postseason as they don’t put enough pressure on defenses.
Plus, the rest of Atlanta’s offense can be flaky. Mike Bibby torched New Jersey’s poor point guard defenders for 19 points on 8-15 shooting, but he’s never been a terrific passer, an aspect that was picked apart by the Nets—5 AST, 5 TO. Worse, two of those passes came on post-ups when the post players hadn’t established anything close to position. Bibby has to show better discretion on when to make entry passes.
Marvin Williams is a decent shooter who can sneak along the baseline when defenses load up against Atlanta’s isolations, but he’s not an accomplished one-on-one scorer. In fact, in posting Devin Harris, Williams had the ball poked away, failing to take advantage.
Josh Smith is taking threes again—and making them, knocking down two of his three attempts against the Nets. He doesn’t have the handle or the wide body to be a consistent halfcourt option, and his jumper is still a mite slow on its release to trouble big time defenses.
Jeff Teague can scoot and shoot, but he missed a layup, and has no idea of how to run an offense.
Josh Powell hit a nice left hook in the left box, but included in his other two post ups was a right hook which clanged off the backboard.
Jason Collins set a moving screen and missed an open short jumper, while Zaza Pachulia set a moving screen and threw an awful pass in three minutes of action.
Mo Evans mostly stayed out of the way—1-3FG, 1 AST, 1 TO, 2 PTS.
Only Al Horford has a consistently reliable offensive game, fueled by a smooth stroke on his jumpers, and an accurate right hook—6-12 FG, 3-3 FT, 10 REB, 4 AST, 2 TO, 15 PTS. It should be noticed that Horford virtually never goes back to his left hand on offense, something alert defenses know and gameplan for if they have sufficient time.
Atlanta’s defense was better than its offense, but it’s prone to dribble penetration. This is because Mike Bibby can’t defend his shadow.
Assigning players as most important defenders on given possessions, the Nets shot 11-14 for 25 points in 18 possessions where Bibby was the most important defender. This was mostly because of his awful individual defense where he has to give up too much room to compensate for a lack of foot speed, allowing Nets players an eternity of space for mid-range jumpers. Bibby also failed to show hard on a screen, and was poor in keeping track of players behind the three point line, leading to ineffective closeouts.
Marvin Williams had an inconsistent defensive game. Some of his rotations were soft or inadequate, but the Nets missed the open shot. For the best indicator of Williams’ defensive efforts, one only needs to know that he had Troy Murphy blow by him for a dunk. However, his good hands forced a deflection and one steal, his proper positioning in splitting two defenders on the weak side allowed him to intercept a second steal, and several good perimeter rotations led to unsuccessful Nets possessions. For the game, the Nets scored only eight points in nine possessions against Williams. Joe Johnson was barely asked to make critical defensive plays, and as such, was only involved on five defensive possessions, surrendering six points.
Josh Smith picked up too many ticky tack fouls by unnecessarily reaching in, late rotations, and stupidly trying to pick up a steal in the backcourt. As a result, he never got in a rhythm during the first half, and had to sit out a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter. His perimeter defense was lazy with several poor shows on screen/rolls, plus the complete refusal to throw a hand up on a Stephen Graham jumper that was bailed out when Graham missed the open look.
Smith did earn his bones with several terrific contests of Devin Harris either in transition, when switched after screens, or coming over from the weak side. As the game wore on and Smith got more involved, his defense picked up, and he finished the game with the Nets scoring only 10 points in 12 possessions, showing how good, and how versatile a defender Smith can be.
It’s his immaturity that holds him back. His adolescent fouls. His removing himself from the game if he hasn’t established a rhythm. The possessions off when he isn’t challenging anybody. All these add up, especially against better teams than New Jersey.
Al Horford’s defense was solid, allowing only 13 points in 16 possessions. Included in that total are seven attempts where Horford was posted by Brook Lopez. Horford only allowed two baskets and four points in those seven attempts. While Horford is undersized, he has a long reach which helps against Lopez’ largely robotic moves.
Off the bench, Mo Evans’ perimeter closeouts and shows and recovers were exceptional—the Nets scored zero points on seven possessions targeting Evans. He’s strong enough to body players out of their comfort zone, and he really makes it a point of emphasis to close out hard and throw his hands up at shooters.
Jason Collins was the only other player whose defense was challenged, allowing 12 points on 10 possessions. He wasn’t long enough to bother Lopez in the post, and he’s not quick enough to make an impact as a help defender. He only played as many minutes as he did because Pachulia was so ineffective.
Atlanta’s off-ball defense was passable, and they contested the Nets well in transition with Horford challenging layups, and Smith swatting away a Harris fast break attempt—but there are too many holes, particularly at the point guard spot—for the Hawks to be a consistent defensive team.
As such, the Hawks have the raw talent when Johnson is playing well to be a regular season power. Unfortunately for Atlanta though, it’s still the same cast of characters remaining from a pair of non-competitive postseason series losses. And for all the talk of Larry Drew implementing more motion into Atlanta’s offense, its still solely an isolation-based attack.
And in the postseason, a modified adage about isolation always rings true—survive together, die alone.