Rather than do a standard preview of Saturday's game, I wanted to focus on seven elements I find fascinating.
1). Shelvin Mack: Template for a Backup Point Guard - There is nothing spectacular about Shelvin Mack. He is not a great player, and he may not even be that good. But he is exactly what the Grizzlies should be looking for in a backup point guard. He shoots the three at competent level, doesn't turn the ball over, and has the size to defend some shooting guards. In short, he puts a little of everything on the table while taking nothing completely off the table. When I think of what the Grizzlies should aim for in a backup point guard who, at most, will play the 19 minutes a night that Mack plays, Shelvin Mack is the guy I think of.
2). Korver Transition Three Point Shot - The Hawks offense is initiated immediately when they get the ball, often by the player that grabs the rebound or forces the turnover. The Hawks don't care who leads the break (it is not uncommon for Demare Carroll or even Paul Millsap to do so), because all five guys know the goal is to generate either a layup or a three point attempt.
The deadliest weapon in the Hawks arsenal is a Kyle Korver transition 3, usually from the elbow.
In both of the below plays, Korver grabs the rebound, and passes to Jeff Teague. Teague threatens the defense - in different ways - just enough to create breathing room for Korver to have room on the wing.
In their prior meeting with the Grizzlies, Courtney Lee did a magnificent job shadowing Korver on the break, and all but removed this weapon from the Hawks arsenal. Our own Andrew Ford did a wonderful breakdown of that game here.
3). Ed Davis Diminishing Minutes - Ed Davis has played 17 mins, 13 mins, 6 mins, 6 mins, and 0 mins, and his minutes are not likely to trend upwards on Saturday night. Davis is many things, but two things he is not is "intuitive" and "capable of guarding the three point line." Davis can overwhelm players like Gustavo Ayon, but Ayon starts and it is not likely that Davis's minutes would intersect with his. The rest of Atlanta's bigs would render Davis a liability. He will not track Pero Antic or Mike Scott around the three point line. He will be outsmarted by the ageless and crafty Elton Brand. More on this in a moment.
4). The Apple of My Eye - This game features my favorite non-Grizzly player in the NBA: Paul Millsap. An All-Star for the first time this year, Millsap is both crafty and skilled, smart but sneakily athletic.
But why say more? If a picture says a thousand words, then a top ten video says a million:
5). The Coaching Matchup - Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was my preseason pick for Coach of the Year. While he is not likely to win over Phoenix's Jeff Hornacek, Budenholzer has clearly planted himself as one of the best coaches in the league.
The Hawks rarely take bad shots, and their end of game management is nothing short of spectacular. They turn six point losses into one possession games, and they morph one possession losses into narrow victories. Check out this awesome play they drew up for Al Horford:
And this play is a doozy (doozie? One doesn't know these things). Check out the movement, and how many options the Bobcats defend perfectly, before the Hawks cycle to roughly their 74th option, a Pero Antic one-legged three point attempt... that goes in.
On Wednesday night, Joerger fell victim to Rick Carlisle's game of chess (nearly everyone does). Carlisle erected a wall around the paint on defense, encouraging the Grizzlies to kick out to wide open three point shooters like James Johnson and Nick Calathes. In the third quarter, a back and forth affair gradually swelled to a six point Dallas lead, and Joerger felt like he had to make a change. He inserted Jon Leuer in the hopes that a few Leuer jumpers would loosen the Dallas defense. Even if Jon Leuer had made those shots, Dallas is not likely to change their defensive scheme to account for Jon Leuer. Meanwhile, the insertion of Jon Leuer did nothing to stop the Mavs offense carving up a Grizzlies defense that was seemingly always a step slow.
In short, Joerger played the game by Carlisle's rules.
The Hawks' offense presents a similar challenge. Budenholzer has them playing a fundamentally democratic offense. The ball rarely sticks in one place for long; instead it whips around the perimeter, hunting for an inch of space. They may be the best passing team this side of the San Antonio Spurs. They spread the court, frequently fielding lineups with shooting at all five positions.
So how do the Grizzlies counter this? They don't. They have to hope that Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph can whip Hawks bigs who are unequipped to handle them. Without Mike Conley, there is no Plan B. If Joerger does want to matchup small, he should only do so for stretches, and I would encourage him to look at...
6). James Johnson at Power Forward - We haven't seen enough of this, and certainly didn't see enough against the Mavericks. Johnson was the best matchup the Grizzlies had on Dirk Nowitzki and may be the best matchup on Mike Scott on Saturday.
Because Johnson has played so well in the absence of Tony Allen, people wonder whether he is a replacement for Tony Allen. But maybe the player Dr. JJ marginalizes is actually Ed Davis. Johnson is the more dynamic and intuitive player. Even at his most productive, I have thought that Koufos is the backup big Grizzlies should keep. Perhaps the emergence of Johnson, and his ability to play a hybrid power forward role tips the scales in the Grizzlies Front Office.
7). Homecourt Advantage? - Though nobody in Atlanta seems to care, the Hawks are a joy to watch. Lacking a "marketable star," and a team with "real championship aspirations," the Hawks frequently play in front of sparse crowds. In fact, only the lowly Milwaukee Buck and Philadelphia 76ers have drawn smaller crowds this year. I suppose the Hawks do a home field advantage, as long as you consider sleeping in your own bed an advantage.
I'm not here to dissect why Atlanta struggles to support an NBA franchise that has been fairly successful. I lived in Memphis, and went to Grizzlies games when it was the furthest thing from cool. As a recent transplant to the Atlanta area, I have flashbacks to those days with one notable exception: the Hawks are good.
What follows is not a prediction. It is more of a hope. If the Hawks can secure the three seed, a second round playoff matchup against the Heat is all but written in stone. And that is a matchup the Hawks can win.
Yes. They can win. It probably won't happen, but it could. The Hawks elite passing and shooting turns the Heat's trap and scramble defense from a strength into a liability. Budenholzer was on the San Antonio bench when the Spurs nearly pulled off that very feat in the Finals last year. There's a gentleman named Lebron James who will pose a considerable problem to the Hawks, but crazy things happen every year.
Remember when it happened with the Grizzlies? They beat the Spurs in round one of the playoffs and suddenly it's cool to be a Grizzlies fan. Would that type of moment - or even a near miss - have the galvanizing effect that the Grizzlies upset of the Spurs had? Could it one day become cool to go to Hawks games? I'd like to live in that world.
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