The Atlanta Hawks reached the midway point of the NBA's regular season Saturday night with a 107-99 win over the Chicago Bulls. Its been a remarkable run for the team in the second quarter of the season and they have established themselves as the frontrunner in the Eastern Conference.
Jeff Teague and the emergence of consistency
The Atlanta Hawks are as hot as they have ever been, and Jeff Teague is at the forefront of the team's surge. The biggest change in Teague's play? His consistency.
We took a closer look at the team at the quarter pole of the season when they were 14-6 after 20 games. They had won seven straight at the time and nine of their last 10 yet their were valid questions about their strength of schedule and whether their run was sustainable. They answered those questions with an unbelievable run going 19-2 over the next 21 games. Currently they are 33-8 and hold a five-game lead over the Washington Wizards in the eastern conference standings.
The Hawks have passed every test set before them. They have been great at home but have also taken care of business on the road. They currently hold a 12-game winning streak overall but have also won a franchise record 12 straight road games. Their success isn't limited to dominating the east either. They have road wins over the Trail Blazers, Rockets, Mavericks and Clippers. They knocked off the Grizzlies at home and recently swept a road back-to-back against Toronto and Chicago. Atlanta has the best record in the league against teams with a better than .500 record. They have not just passed every test but have done so with flying colors.
That the Hawks are good offensively is not that surprising but they have taken their game to another level this season. One of biggest misconceptions about Atlanta's offense has to do with the three-point shot. Atlanta is currently ninth in three-pointers attempted per game at 24.9 and lead the league in three-point percentage 38.9 percent. However, this season the three-point shot supplements their offense more than it carries it. Atlanta has been much better at attacking the paint. A lot of that has to do with the return of Al Horford from last season's season ending pectoral injury but a lot of credit needs to go to Jeff Teague as well.
One of the most defining characteristics of this Hawks team is the number of threats that they have on the floor. Per Synergy Sports, four of Atlanta's five regular starters average more than a point per possession. Paul Millsap is just under that threshold and Mike Scott is also above a point per possession off the bench.
For a team that has plenty of weapons, the pick and roll remains Atlanta's bread and butter. Its the action that gets the movement started and depending on how the defense reacts, sets up the next action for the Hawks. According to Synergy, Jeff Teague is averaging .973 points per possession in pick and rolls when he is the ball handler in those situations. They also lead to a lot of catch and shoot opportunities. Per Synergy, 48.9 percent of Atlanta's catch and shoot opportunities are unguarded and they are sixth in the league averaging 1.18 points per possession. It is a high-efficiency offense.
As the season has progressed, teams are doing more switching on Atlanta's pick and roll to try and limit the amount of open looks. That often forces Atlanta into isolation opportunities. The word "isolation" tends to send chills up many Hawks' fans spines given the iso tendencies of past regimes. Its not a bad thing in this situation though and here is why. It normally gives the Hawks a favorable matchup with a big trying to cover Teague or a guard matched against Millsap in the post. Here is a great example from earlier this week.
Per Synergy, Atlanta is 13th in the league at .855 points per possession on isolations. Only 7.3 percent of the Hawks' possessions produce isolations but Atlanta has done a decent job at taking advantage.
While Atlanta's offense will always be most talked about its their defensive improvement that has vaulted them to the top of the eastern conference. The Hawks are currently tied for first allowing 96.6 points per game. They are fifth in opponents field goal percentage and seventh in opponents three-point percentage.
Coming into the season, I could have made a convincing case for Atlanta having a Top 5 offense but I do not think anyone saw Atlanta as a Top 5 defensive team. The return of Horford has played a huge part as has the additions of Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore. Still they are thriving as a group with players like Jeff Teague enjoying the best defensive season of his career.
Per Synergy numbers, Atlanta is tops in the league at defending opposing pick and roll ball handlers allowing just .666 points per possession. They are second in transition defense which was a concern early on in the season and plagued the team in Budenholzer's first season as head coach.
If there is a concern, it is still rebounding. Atlanta uses a group approach to offset their lack of size in their front court. They are an improved rebounding team over the last 21 games but are 27th according to Synergy in opponents offensive rebounding.
Enough can not be said for the job that Mike Budenholzer has done in his season and a half as the head coach of the Hawks. I have praised him numerous times and what more is there really to say? He and Steve Kerr are the runaway candidates for Coach of the Year at the midway point of the season. Budenholzer has his team buying into the group being more important than the individual and it has paid huge dividends for the players and the team. The league is starting to take notice.
Despite the success, the Hawks are a humble group. The players and their coach understand that they will ultimately be judged by what they do in the playoffs. For all of the accolades, this group still has not won a playoff series but never before has a Hawks team felt as well positioned for success in the playoffs.
What to expect over the next 20 games?
One of the more amazing parts of Atlanta's 33-8 start is that they have played 22 of their 41 games on the road. They will close out January with seven straight home games and won't play again on the road until February 2 when they travel to New Orleans. The Hawks have lost just three home games all season and have the opportunity to really put pressure on Washington, Toronto and Chicago to keep pace in the standings. Atlanta is also in great position to close the month strong and send head coach Mike Budenholzer to the All-Star Game as the Eastern Conference's head coach hopefully with at least a couple of players in tow.
While it may be a bit ridiculous to suggest that Atlanta continue to win at such a high percentage keep in mind that Al Horford is suddenly starting to resemble the player that was a two-time All-Star. Horford has gotten better every month and is averaging 17 points, 7.1 rebounds and four assists while shooting 55 percent from the field in January. He is shooting 84 percent from the field over his last three games and is getting more aggressive and attacking the basket. It took Horford a bit longer to find his groove this season than a lot of people expected but he's back performing at a high level and that just makes Atlanta more dangerous.
The marquee matchup of the next 20 games will be on Friday, February 6 when the Hawks host the Golden State Warriors in the first two matchups this season. Atlanta and Golden State are without question the best two teams in the league at this point of the season. If both teams can maintain their high level of play then this will be one of the best regular season matchups in the league this season.