CLEVELAND — Diagnosing just what has gone wrong for the Atlanta Hawks is not easy.
Maybe they peaked too early, going 33-2 between Thanksgiving and Jan. 31. Maybe they lack a go-to guy to get them a shot when they really need one. Maybe they’ve been undone by untimely injuries. And maybe they just aren’t ready for this stage.
Whatever it is, the Hawks need to figure things out quickly. They’ve arrived in Cleveland for Game 3 of the conference finals (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) in an 0-2 hole, facing a team that is 24-2 at home since mid-January.
They were tied 2-2 with the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets and trailed 2-1 to the John Wall-less Washington Wizards, but this is obviously the most desperate situation the Hawks have been in. And never have they had fewer answers for what’s been going wrong.
The Hawks have had issues on both ends of the floor. But despite LeBron James‘ brilliance and some hot shooting, Atlanta has held the Cavs to almost five points per 100 possessions below a regular season mark that ranked fourth in offensive efficiency. It’s on offense where Atlanta has struggled most, scoring just 95 points per 100 possessions through the first two games.
In the regular season, 79.4 percent of the Hawks’ jump shots were uncontested, a rate which led the league by a pretty wide margin (New Orleans ranked second at 75.9 percent), according to SportVU. And their effective field goal percentage on those uncontested jumpers was 52.9 percent, a mark which ranked third (behind only the Warriors and Clippers).
The Hawks have yet to match those two numbers in any of their three playoff series. And they’ve hit new lows in the conference finals.
The Cavs deserve some credit. They were a pretty awful defensive team early in the season, and even after showing improvement with the additions of Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, they got chewed up by the Atlanta offense in their March 6 meeting. Cleveland finished 20th in defensive efficiency for the season.
Since the league started counting turnovers in 1977, no team has reached The Finals after ranking that low. But the Cavs been much improved defensively in the playoffs. In this series, they’ve denied the Hawks’ primary options, and have backed that up with multiple efforts and sharper rotations.
And while the Hawks are still getting a decent amount of open looks, it’s not hard to see that their offense isn’t nearly as sharp as it was in December and January. Open looks aren’t necessarily in-rhythm looks.
The bottom of the above table tells us that their success is less about the number of open looks they get and more about what they do with them. If you’re making a case that this is a make-or-miss league, you can start with the Hawks’ effective field goal percentage on uncontested jumpers in wins (52.1 percent) vs. losses (37.8 percent) in these playoffs.
Now, the Hawks have to play without their best shooter. In the regular season, Kyle Korver had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 74.8 percent on uncontested jumpers. And even if he was contested, he was the Hawks’ best option. He shot better on contested 3-pointers (43.4 percent) than any of his teammates shot on uncontested threes.
Korver has seen fewer open looks (per 36 minutes) in the playoffs, and he’s shot worse on them. But his presence on the floor and the attention he gets from the defense is still a huge key to what the Hawks are doing offensively. They’ve scored 102.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the postseason, and just 95.8 with him on the bench. In this series, Korver is 7-for-15 from outside the paint, while his teammates are 13-for-64 (20.3 percent).
There is no easy answer with Korver out, not that there was one if he was perfectly healthy. What was the Hawks’ strength in the regular season has failed them when it matters most.