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Hawks have trouble defending off-ball screens against Raptors

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What can they do about shooters constantly getting open shots against them?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After a solid three quarters of play, the Atlanta Hawks completely fell apart in the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. Atlanta’s offense made it through customs for the first 36 minutes but was detained going into the fourth, as the Hawks had more turnovers than made baskets in the period. Nobody was immune to the turnover bug—seven different Hawks combined for eight turnovers in the fourth quarter. The team finished with 21 turnovers on the night, a tie for the third-most on the season, and everybody got in on the act except for Mike Muscala. Atlanta actually outshot the Raptors from the field, but lost every other key battle—turnovers, offensive rebounds, free throws—in what turned out to be a decisive victory for the Canadian hosts.

The Hawks being unable to put the ball in the basket for stretches is nothing new this season. They frequently have long periods in which the offense stalls out, as one would expect with the personnel they put on the floor. As the scouting report gets out on Dennis Schröder, teams are consistently keeping him away from the rim and mucking up the Hawks’ offense when he’s off the ball. Schröder is one of the fastest players in the league and still excels at getting to the basket, but with no further development in his passing ability or jump shot, he’s been unable to take any steps forward on that end of the court. Point guard is the most important position in the sport offensively and having Schröder as the key man for Atlanta hurts them. Backups Isaiah Taylor and Malcolm Delaney come with their own sets of pros and cons and while Delaney is easily the best defender of the three, his ability to create offense for himself lags behind Schröder and Taylor. Delaney didn’t play against Toronto with an ankle injury, which opened the door for Taylor and others to take over ball handling responsibilities when Schröder was off the floor. Kent Bazemore continues to show his ability as a primary ball handler this season, though he did commit four turnovers to just five assists against the Raptors.

A particular area of concern for Atlanta defensively this season has been their defense on “off screen” plays, where a player (usually a shooter) will use an off-ball screen to get open. The Hawks rank dead last in this area this season, giving up 1.14 points per possession on these plays, per Synergy. Toronto’s C.J. Miles got free for several three-pointers using off-ball screens—he scored seven points on six shots off screens in this game. All six were mostly catch-and-shoot jumpers, continuing a trend for Atlanta; they rank 26th in points per possession ceded on catch-and-shoot jumpers, including a ghastly 30th in guarded catch-and-shoot shots. Statisticians usually note that there’s a lot of luck involved in opponent three-point shooting (most catch-and-shoot jumpers are three-pointers), but that doesn’t mean the Hawks couldn’t do a much better job closing out to these shooters on the perimeter or defending the play to deter a shot altogether.

As is typical throughout the NBA, the Hawks usually employ the trail technique when guarding off-ball screens. Watch below how Tyler Dorsey skirts over the screen, trailing Miles by taking the same path as he does:

It’s in this area that Atlanta fails more often than not: their wings aren’t particularly suited to defending these plays. Bazemore is perhaps the only wing who would fit the bill as a good defender in these situations with his ability to get through screens and use his wingspan to contest, but even he’s struggled mightily this season. Given that they’ve been poor all year at defending these plays, perhaps a tweak in the team’s defensive scheme is in order: instead of trailing and locking off the paint with the big man, there are other ways teams can defend off-ball screens that might suit the Hawks a bit better.

Head coach Mike Budenholzer seems to like having his big men hang back in the paint when their mark is setting off-ball screens, which prevents curls and backdoor cuts to the rim if the perimeter defender gets too aggressive. The problem is that the perimeter defenders are rarely aggressive enough to take advantage of the positioning of their big men. Employing “top lock” coverage would help to prevent a lot of these shots from happening in the first place. Watch below how Dorsey is aggressive with Miles before the screen gets there, but doesn’t really prevent him from taking the screen and getting a clean catch:

Top lock coverage is similar to down pick-and-roll coverage, where defenders will forgo traditional principles of staying between their man and the basket in order to force the offensive player away from the middle of the floor. In top lock, the defender gets between his man and the screen, pushing the offensive player aggressively away from that screen and blowing up the offense’s plans altogether. Watch Coach Daniel’s great video below on how teams top lock against these screens:

As Daniel points out in his video, there are plenty of counters to this strategy, but the Hawks might do well to use it anyway. They have plenty of perimeter players if one or two get into foul trouble, especially with Jaylen Morris on a 10-day contract and Andrew White riding the bench on his 2-way deal. If anything, mixing up their coverage will put their opponents in uncomfortable positions, unaware of what might come next; the best defenses are constantly changing what they do to force the offense to react to them, rather than the other way around. If top lock doesn’t work, there are multiple other coverage options they can try, but it certainly can’t get much worse than it’s been so far this season.