What did we learn? First, let hit the games:
First was the second of the two home games against the Washington Wizards on Friday. This means the Hawks wrapped up the home part of the divisional series without having had to play against Wizards PG John Wall.
Whereas the first matchup at home against the Wizards required a Kyle Korver dagger to beat the (then) winless Wizards, the next one required little drama, as the Hawks won 104-95 behind some Korver-esque three point shooting from DeShawn Stevenson (5-11 from three-point range) and a domination of the glass behind Josh Smith (15 boards) and Al Horford (14 boards), an area lacking significantly during that first meeting.
So after the Hawks wrapped up the five game homestand with a 4-1 mark, they took to the road to face the Memphis Grizzlies, who have been very, very hard to beat in general (14-4) and especially at home (9-1). The Hawks used a stellar defensive effort in the third quarter to go on a 20-0 run to take control of the game and hand the Grizzlies their worst loss of the season (10 points), 93-83.
What we learned:
- Al Horford is taking a step forward.
We wondered about this after missing nearly an entire season last season if Horford had peaked or was there another statistical level he could go this season. Currently, he is maintaining his usual stellar effeciency while using a higher percentage of possessions per game than before. Combine that with the team getting more possessions per game due to increased pace, and Horford is averaging more shots per game and grabbing more boards per game than at any time in his young career.
Some of this is due to the ball moving better offensively, as 75 percent of his baskets have been assisted, also a career high. Al also appears to be looking for the ball more, both in transition and in the half court. What has dropped is his percentage of points that come from free throws. Annually, Al averages between 16-19 percent of his points from the free throw line, but this year that number is around 10 percent. This is due to his current 50% FT as much as anything as his foul rate is slightly higher this year than in 2010-2011.
- Josh Smith had a good week.
When we last checked in, Smith had a PER of 11 and was generally underperforming across the board. Per the NBA.com advanced statistical database, in the six games, Smith has seen significant statistical improvement.
And, since he's decided to go ahead an launch threes this year, he's benefiting from the step back not only by getting an extra point for those long jumpers he makes, but because he is hitting a higher percentage of them, though he is taking significantly less threes (8-21) than just ordinary long jump shots (21-78 from 16 feet to the three-point line).
Overall, Smith has increased his efficiency across the board and it's no small correlation that the Hawks are 5-1 in those games.
- Jeff Teague is shooting first and answering questions later.
Teague's usage is up, per NBA.com, so it's not just the team's higher number of possessions per game as the reason to see Teague's counting statistics rising this season.
Over the last seven games, Teague's assist rate has gone down as has his shooting percentage numbers, but he's also begun to limit his turnovers.
Over the weekend he rebounded from his in-game sit down against the Nuggets to post two big +/- efforts (+21 against WAS, +16 vs. Memphis) and a couple of times where you watched and thought, "Man, we've got to get Teague back in there).
- The Hawks have emerged as an Eastern Conference Leader.
Anytime you can claim victory in two very tough Western Conference hideaways (Oklahoma City, Memphis) along with handling your business elsewhere, you can raise an eyebrow about the long term viability of your club. Toss in the appearance of even the toppi-est of the top of the league looking shaky and you can begin to believe in this crazy team making a run.
The Hawks are 10-5 and thriving on defense - originally thought to be a weakness - in an Eastern Conference that hasn't played out as expected. The Nets and Knicks have surpassed the Pacers and Celtics in the race for no. 2 behind Miami, with the Knicks emerging as the early front-runner for that spot. But New York is old and already banged-up, with the Amar'e Stoudemire dilemma hovering over all their success. No one knows when Danny Granger, Andrew Bynum, or Derrick Rose will play again this season. Is it ridiculous to think Team Expiring Contracts could be playing in the conference finals - close enough to June that one ill-timed injury or some other lucky break can put a team in a place even they didn't expect to reach?
Exit Question: What say you? What was the biggest thing you think you learned about the team over the weekend?