The Atlanta Hawks got back into the win column in Orlando on Monday evening, knocking off the Magic by an eight-point margin. Atlanta fell behind by as many as 18 points in the first half of the game, at which point the contest took on an all too familiar feel. However, consistent defensive stops in the second half led to just 36 points for the Magic in the final two periods, buying enough time for the Hawks to find their offensive footing, even in the absence of Trae Young.
Before digging in to the specifics, it is important to establish that Orlando is not the most impressive offensive team in the NBA by any means. The Magic lack dynamic play makers (especially with Aaron Gordon sidelined) and, statistically, Orlando is one of the worst shooting teams in the league. The Magic are able to win games but, when they do, it is usually on the back of their defensive execution and by limiting their own turnovers on the offensive end.
During the recent stretch of ugly defensive play, though, the Hawks have allowed a significant amount of points to opponents, seemingly irrespective of offensive reputation.
Here, the focus will be on what has been consistently missing in Atlanta’s recent play on the defensive end of the court: team execution and communication. The Hawks were visibly better in both areas in Orlando on Monday and the results reflected that uptick.
This play late in the second quarter looks simple. The Magic are looking to get the offensively versatile Nikola Vucevic established on the left block.
The play design calls for Terrence Ross to help on the play by setting a cross screen on Vucevic’s defender, John Collins.
If Vucevic is able to receive the ball where he wants it on this possession, he will be difficult to defend one-on-one. Ideally to defend this play, Collins will need to beat his man to the spot where the ball is intended to be entered.
The screen from Ross is effective in that Orlando’s wing works hard to make sure he does not allow Collins a direct path to the opposite baseline. As a result, Atlanta’s power forward will need some help on this play.
De’Andre Hunter recognizes this and works to occupy Vucevic, even if briefly, as to allow his teammate time to recover to his assignment after being delayed by the pick.
On the surface, it appears as if Hunter could have done more to help on the play and, honestly, he probably could have. The rookie forward simply extends an arm to reduce the initial passing lane, but there a few things to keep in mind before criticizing Hunter for not being more forceful in his help.
If he is more physical and the result is that Vucevic ends up out of bounds below the baseline, Hunter is very likely to be called for a foul. In this situation, Orlando was already in the bonus, meaning any foul would generate free throws.
Additionally, a wrinkle the Magic love to run off of this play is “elevator” action in which Ross, upon his defender being distracted, races toward the top of the key after getting a screen for an open three-point attempt. So, Hunter has a lot to keep in mind.
Collins gets just enough help to allow him to jump the eventual pass for the steal and a rare Orlando turnover.
As the game nears the midpoint of the third period, the Hawks get a key block from Kevin Huerter for a defensive stop on the play above. With that said, there is a lot going on herein addition to the highlight play to end the possession.
Atlanta’s defensive scheme typically prioritizes a “no middle” principle. They want to force action and dribble penetration away from the middle of the floor and toward the baseline. Additionally, if help is going to be needed at the rim, the Hawks want that to come from the weak side of the play as opposed to from the perimeter.
Hunter overplays the top side as to deny Evan Fournier a path back to Jonathan Issac and a potential ball screen (no middle).
Huerter, aware of the technique that Hunter will play, is prepared to present at the rim as a help defender. Just an important, all other Atlanta defenders have a foot dropped toward the paint ready to rally to help on the play if needed.
Brandon Goodwin drops to account for Huerter’s man, Wesley Iwundu. He’s not worried about Markelle Fultz as a perimeter shooter, nor should he be.
There is still growth and improvement needed for Hunter as a defender. While he can look like he is allowing ball handlers to just dribble around him at times, the No. 4 pick is often, in reality, steering his man in the direction for which the defensive scheme calls.
Also, notice the rebounding position of Atlanta’s defenders at the point the block occurs. This has not been demonstrated consistently during their recent stretch of rough defensive play.
On this play, we see another example of Atlanta’s commitment to rally as a five-man unit to defend the paint.
Very early in this season, perhaps the most noticeable difference in the team’s defensive play — when compared to the 2018-19 season — was the urgency with which they defended the paint. As the 2019-20 season has progressed, for some reason, that has largely disappeared... until Monday evening.
As Fultz works to attack with dribble penetration, there are four Atlanta defenders between him and the rim.
As Alex Len commits to helping deny the path to the rim, notice his excellent communication with DeAndre’ Bembry to ensure Vucevic is accounted for as a shooter at the top of the key. This is an outstanding example of the handing off of a defensive responsibility between the two, especially when considering that Len’s limited ability to function defensively on the perimeter makes this type of communication key for the center to have some value in terms of scheme versatility and fit.
The ball is worked out to Iwundu, who looks to attack middle with a dribble of his own. Hunter’s technique is quite good here again, with his left hand near the hip of Iwundu, prepared to impact any potential change of direction, and his right hand high and active.
As Len tracks Fournier to the perimeter, Bembry accounts for Vucevic as a potential rebounder.
Iwundu knocks down the mid-range shot attempt, but this is a look the Atlanta defense is looking to force.
Here, we see the Hawks defending a sideline out of bounds (SLOB) play by Orlando. Hunter jumps into the passing lane to deny an entry to Vucevic (no middle), then urgently tracks Fournier to the near corner.
Goodwin has to defend DJ Augustin on the left block. Given that the Two-Way guard is unable to keep his man away from the front of the rim, he needs help from the weak side.
Collins crashes down toward the rim off of his man (Issac) as a result. Augustin feeds the ball to Issac, but Collins gets back to his primary assignment and contests the shot without fouling.
Later in the fourth quarter, Orlando is looking to cut the Atlanta lead. Fultz attacks the heart of the Hawks’ defense early in this shot clock.
Fultz’s best skill, at least at this point in his career, is attacking an opposing defense before it can get set. He is effective enough here that Atlanta has to use both its center and power forward to defend the rim. They are successful in doing so, but now they are scrambling as a defense to get matched up.
Huerter closes out excellently on Fournier and then is able to get a strip when the Magic guard attacks the close out.
The key to ending this possession for the Hawks, though, is the awareness of Hunter that he needs to account for Vucevic as a shooter on the perimeter, After the strip, the ball finds him, but Hunter is not in place to collect the basketball if he is not making the right play in the first place.
There is no doubt that roster improvement will be needed in order for the Hawks to become a fundamentally better defense. Still, that does not mean that their communication, team effort and execution can’t be consistently better than it has been thus far this season. In fact, these factors are key to the team being able to pick up wins more consistently as the calendar turns to 2020.