The Atlanta Hawks are playing much improved basketball in recent days, and their recent surge can be directly tied to the defensive end of the court. Though it is fair to suggest that the defense has been quite good all season (second in the NBA allowing 98.6 points per 100 possessions), things have been ratcheted up a notch since the calendar flipped to 2016 (best in the NBA), and Atlanta's lock-down defense has peaked in the past handful of games.
There are many reasons that the Hawks have operated at a high level on the defensive end, ranging from the unique mobility presented by Al Horford and Paul Millsap to the simple improvements of a player like Tim Hardaway Jr. as a backup wing. However, there is an unsung hero of the group, and that is Thabo Sefolosha.
The 31-year-old wing stopper has always been seen as a defense-first player and that is Sefolosha's primary role on this particular squad. However, his impact has been felt specifically in the recent past, and the numbers bear that out. Atlanta has allowed a blistering 96.2 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 1, but the Hawks have been even better when Sefolosha takes the floor.
During that time, Sefolosha's sheer presence has resulted in historic defensive production. In 13 games in January, the Hawks allowed 90.8 points per 100 possessions in the 24.4 minutes per game in which Sefolosha was deployed. That number "dipped" to a still incredible 95.4 points per 100 during 11 games in February, but in March (seven games), Atlanta has been utterly ridiculous defensively in allowing only 87.3 (!) points per 100 possessions with Thabo Sefolosha on the court.
It should be noted that Sefolosha's impact has not been limited to the defensive end, either, as the veteran swingman boasts a 57.2% true shooting on the strength of better than 50% from the floor. Atlanta willingly gives up some shot creation and a bit of three-point accuracy when sending Sefolosha on the court in place of Kent Bazemore, but the team has been buoyed by Sefolosha's defensive contributions.
Efficiency numbers aren't everything when evaluating a player's defensive impact, and that is how we can decipher that Mike Scott is not, in fact, the best defensive player on the Atlanta Hawks roster despite his 90.4 defensive rating. With that on the table, Thabo Sefolosha's versatility, defensive focus and overall production on that end makes everything easier for the second unit on that end of the floor, and that is a potential window in Mike Budenholzer's thinking in leaving arguably his best small forward in a reserve role.
Thabo Sefolosha is a player that will never receive a great deal of attention based on the fact that he doesn't stuff the traditional stat sheet. However, it would be hard to oversell his contributions (especially recently) to the Hawks, and his value is apparent when hearing Budenholzer and his teammates discuss all of the additions that Sefolosha brings to the table.
This team is suddenly a defensive juggernaut, and while that isn't all about Thabo Sefolosha, a lot of it is.