Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals was both frustrating and, in a strange way, encouraging for the Atlanta Hawks. On one hand, the team dug itself a seemingly insurmountable hole in the early stages of the contest, scuffling in a similar way to what transpired in last season's playoff match-up against the Cleveland Cavaliers. On the other, the Hawks battled valiantly to get back into the game, eventually taking the lead before running out of steam in the early going.
While there are many issues to dissect, the battle between the starting lineups... did not go the way of Atlanta.
One game or not, the starters have to be better
On a personal note, I regularly plead with Mike Budenholzer to play the starting lineup more often as a collective unit. That won't change after one playoff game, but the numbers were gross in Game 1. The starting unit comprised of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford was outscored by 40.4 (!) points per 100 possessions across their 13 minutes of playing time on Monday evening. On the flip side, Cleveland's starting unit played more often (27 minutes), and their results were staggeringly good, as the LeBron James-led quintet posted a +37.7 net rating, largely on the back of smacking around Atlanta's starters.
The work of Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap (at least with the exception of his 6-for-19 shooting effort) was quite good in Game 1. However, Al Horford played arguably his worst game of the playoffs to this point, Kyle Korver failed to generate much beyond one-shot attempt and underrated defense in a variety of positions, and Jeff Teague simply wasn't particularly good on other end.
In the aggregate, I would expect Teague to be the more valuable point guard for the remainder of the series (shout-out to Dennis Schröder for his Game 1 explosion), and the duo of Teague and Horford must improve. That is incredibly simple analysis, but one of Atlanta's strongest points as a team is the combination of Horford and Millsap on the interior, and even in a difficult match-up, their collective brilliance has to shine through for the Hawks to have a real chance at a series victory.
Tristan Thompson is a problem
Part of the reason that Al Horford was unable to play effectively and Paul Millsap was held to an "off" night in the shooting department was the mere presence of Tristan Thompson. A lot has been made, at least on Twitter by pundits generally smarter than I am, of the dominance of Thompson against the Hawks in particular, and the numbers display that trend to be true.
At first glance, Thompson's raw numbers aren't drool-worthy, but they are quite good. The talented and athletic big man posted 8 points, 14 rebounds and 2 blocks in Game 1, after averaging 9.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in the three regular season games against Atlanta. Beyond that, Thompson was even better in last season's playoff sweep, producing 11.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 39.2 minutes per contest.
Numbers will never capture Thompson's full value, though, as much of his impact comes on the defensive end, where he routinely allows Cleveland to switch by swallowing up ball handlers and possessing the ability to recover with explosiveness. That allows the Cavaliers to be much better with Thompson on the court, including a +22.1 net rating in Game 1, a +12.8 mark in last season's playoff match-up and even a +10.7 net rating in the regular season series this season.
Tristan Thompson being a very tough match-up isn't a new development for the Hawks, but the point remains, and if he continues to act as a thorn of this magnitude, it will be a long series.
Can we not with these lineups?
Let this be yet another plea for a shortened rotation.
The Hawks deployed 10 players while the game was very much in doubt (11 overall), and Mike Budenholzer's unwillingness to slash that number is maddening. While playing small is not the advantage in this series that it may have been against Boston, Budenholzer is probably stuck with playing Mike Scott and either Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries in this series at times. For whatever reason, he is unwilling (or unable?) to extend the minutes of Al Horford in particular, and with his playing time seemingly capped at around 38 minutes in a regulation game combined with Scott's difficulty in certain match-ups here, it is justifiable for Budenholzer to send out a fourth big man.
However, Tim Hardaway Jr.'s presence is not justifiable.
Hardaway Jr. has participated in all seven games during the playoff run, with the Hawks being outscored by 12.0 points per 100 possessions during that time. The athletic swingman hasn't been nearly as bad on the defensive end as you might think with that number, but Hardaway Jr. certainly is not a plus on that side of the floor, and a 31% eFG leaves him virtually unplayable.
While I understand Budenholzer's fear in potentially extending two-point guard lineups for additional minutes, that would be a better option than sending Hardaway Jr. onto the court for multiple stints. Furthermore, simply using the three wings (Korver, Bazemore, Sefolosha) for extended minutes (three players for 96 minutes combined) would also negate this issue.
At this point, Mike Budenholzer just might never shorten the rotation in the way that other elite coaches have, and that is the reality. Still, playing the best players more is a quick and simple way to improve overall performance, and with the clock potentially ticking on the 2015-2016 season, there isn't a better time to push the minutes.