Previewing tonight’s game with Chris Barnewall and Bo Churney of HawksHoop.

The Atlanta Hawks are fascinating to me.

By all accounts, this team should have fallen out of the playoff picture. The Hawks won 44 games last season on the backs of Josh Smith and Al Horford, who have both been absent from this year’s team. Josh Smith left in free-agency, and say what you will about his shot-happy ways in Detroit, he still played like a top-10 power forward in Atlanta. They lost Al Horford for the year early in the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. This team was not supposed to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

And yet, here they are, on March 18th, sitting 4 games up on the Knicks for the eight seed in the East. Yes, the Eastern Conference is weak, and the Knicks are a massive disappointment, but what excuse don’t these Hawks have? No Smith, no Horford, Paul Millsap missed time, Pero Antic missed time, a new head coach, a new set of players, Dennis Schroeder failed to live up to pre-season hype. The list goes on and on.

As Chris and Bo notes below, much of the credit has goes to head coach Mike Budenholzer, who has miraculously spun a league-average team (per Off/Def Rating) out of rag-tag band of misfits. Who thought Mike Scott, DeMarre Carrol, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon could be counted on as key contributors to a playoff team? The only credible weapon left on the Hawks is the pick-and-roll combination of Teague and Millsap. Those two alone should not be able to anchor the league’s 15th best offense. Credit to Budenholzer, as well as the ever-expanding Gregg Popovich coaching tree. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

Anyway, as I alluded to earlier, I caught up with Chris Barnewall and Bo Churney of the ever-excellent blog HawksHoop. These two fine gentlemen were kind enough to answer some of my questions. Be sure to follow them on Twitter (handles linked above) for your daily dose of #LouTrillVille and #KORV127R (RIP).

1. I don’t understand the Hawks. Al Horford goes down early in the season, yet they’re still league average in terms of off/def-rating, and they’ve managed to hold onto a playoff spot. How is that possible? Is it the weakened Eastern Conference? Is it head coach Mike Budenholzer’s puppetry?

Bo: A large part of that is a credit to the efficiency of Mike Budenholzer’s offense and the great two-way play of Paul Millsap. Even when the team was losing, you could tell that the players were fighting hard out on the court. In fact, the Hawks would probably still be over .500 if Millsap and Pero Antic hadn’t missed time as well. Otherwise, huge credit to guys like Kyle Korver, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, and Mike Scott for stepping up their games when injuries forced them into a more prominent role in the Hawks’ offense.

Chris: It’s definitely because of Mike Budenholzer’s coaching. While Horford’s defensive impact was huge, the scheme isn’t heavily reliant on the center being a Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler like rim protector, which benefits the team when Horford has to leave the floor. Horford being out for the season in my opinion took a bigger hit to the offense. Jeff Teague hasn’t looked anywhere near as good without his favorite pick and roll partner and Horford’s ability to create his own shot is vastly missed.

So when looking at what Horford did for the team, you can see how crucial he was to the Hawks. Of course, any time you lose a top 3 center that’s a huge blow. Budenholzer has done one of the best jobs in the NBA keeping this team afloat and getting players you never expected (Mike Scott, Pero Antic, Elton Brand) to step up and perform well beyond expectations.

2. On a scale of 1-10, how weird is it that I share the exact same name, only in reverse, with combo guard Lou Williams? Also, on that same scale, how disappointing has he been this season? What happened to #LouTrillVille?

Bo: For your name, I’d say it’s a 6; it would be a 10 if your first name was actually “Williams”. And for the disappointing scale, I’d put that at a 5. A few people might have this higher, but coming back from ACL reconstruction is difficult and takes a long time to fully recover from. Even now, 14 months after Williams suffered the injury, you can still see a huge difference in the muscle definition in his legs. I think he’ll be back to full #LouTrillVille next season after getting a full offseason to do what he needs to do to get his strength back to normal.

Chris: I saw this email and thought I was about to be star struck. Then I saw it was some Raptors blogger. Instant disappointment. Oh wait you meant how disappointing Williams has been!

Williams has been coming back from an injury last season, and he has missed about 20 or so games this season. So while he’s been disappointing, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of it has been out of his control. I expect a bounce back next season.

3. What’s the plan of attack for the Hawks? From afar, their offense looks to be centered around the Teague-Millsap pick-and-roll, with shooters lining the perimeter. What’s the key to stopping the Hawks?

Bo: Teague and Millsap are the heart of the Hawks’ offense and stopping it purely revolves around getting in the way of Millsap. Teague has seemed oddly hesitant at shooting the ball this year and it can cripple the team’s offense if the opposing defense forces him to try and score. Now, if Teague comes out aggressive and actually tries to score, then it’s a different thing, but if he’s being passive, then forcing the ball to be in his hands as much as possible is a good strategy.

Chris: When they had Horford it was based around the Horford-Teague pick and roll with Millsap setting off ball screens for shooters like Korver. Korver would run off the screen, Teague would go around the screen set by Korver. Horford would roll or float and then Millsap would do the opposite. If a lane opened up then Carroll would move off the cut if he saw an open lane. Lots of movement, really fun to watch. With Horford being out they like to run a lot more pick and roll with less floating.

The best way to stop the Hawks is to cut off the interior. Force Jeff Teague to shoot jump shots and stay on the shooters scattered around the perimeters. Make Teague beat you, don’t let the barrage of 3 point shooting beat you. The Hawks love to shoot 3′s and are always looking to do so.

4. Explain to the casual fan why they should join the Pero Antic fanclub. Feel free to link to pictures of his tattoos.

Bo: I present Pero pump-faking, eurostepping, and finger-rolling all in one play. I mean… his pump-fake is so great, how could you not love this guy?

Chris:Watch this video. If you don’t like imagine dragons. He’s a big Macedonian man that can shoot 3′s, and has a rockin’ beard. What’s not to love?

As Chris and Bo detailed, the Hawks offense is centered around the Teague-Millsap pick-and-roll. Teague is lightning quick, and he’s a capable passer, and Millsap is a highly-versatile big who can score inside and out. Millsap (really, Trillsap) can spot up from deep, catch-and-shoot from the midrange, but he’s deadliest when rolling to the rim.

To further complicate matters, the Hawks like to surround the perimeter with three-point shooters to space the floor. Everyone knows Korver can shoot, and the Raptors should do whatever they can to NEVER HELP OFF KORVER. Beyond Korver, there are the jumpshooting big-men in Pero Antic and Mike Scott. Atlanta likes to space out their opponents, and rely on a motion-based offense to generate looks for their shooters. The Raptors need to be diligent on defense, and stick close to their outside shooters. The goal should be to neutralize the perimeter, and to take their chances with against the pick-and-roll.

Player Match-ups

Point Guard — On one hand, Lowry passed the concussion test. On the other hand, Lowry also said he’d only sit out if “he were dead”. Put both hands together, and you have the basis for some suspicion. I’ll be watching this game closely to see if Lowry looks off for any reason, but if both he, and the Raptors training staff, think he’s healthy, then who am I to say otherwise? Lowry trumps Teague on every level.

Advantage: Raptors

Shooting Guard — DeMar DeRozan is in a mini-shooting slump. He has yet to shoot 50% or better in a game since February 23rd. Hopefully, DeMar tries to get himself back into a groove by parading to the free-throw line, and playing diligent defense along the perimeter, which is no easy task when you’re trying to check Kyle Korver. Budenholzer is smart, and he’ll most certainly capitalize on DeRozan’s lackadaisical defense. However, Korver is no great defender in his own right, so I’m going to hand this contest to DeRozan, but by the slightest of margins.

Advantage: Raptors

Small Forward — DeMarre Carrol has been a pleasant surprise for this Hawks team. He fits the Trevor Ariza mould of a “do-it-all” small forward. He can shoot threes, he’s a smart cutter, and he’s also a gritty defender. Look for the Hawks to cross-match Carrol onto DeRozan. Luckily, the Raptors have a 3-and-D wing of their own in Terrence Ross, and he’s shooting very well of late. Let’s call this one a draw.

Advantage: Even

Frontcourt — Millsap is going to be a lot to handle, but Pero Antic is the wild-card here. Antic is a big who can stretch the floor, which portends trouble for Jonas Valanciunas. Last Saturday, the Hawks starting front-court dropped 40 on the Nuggets, suggesting that they’re in-sync. Ideally, the Raptors front-court can even up the matchup via rebounding, but Amir Johnson has been lacking of late, and Jonas is a wild-card.

Advantage: Hawks

Bench — I’m finding it weird that the Raptors — who have 8 more wins than the Hawks — only lead at two positions, so I’m letting that bias sink into this match-up. I know the bench was deplorable on Sunday vs the Suns, as they were out-scored by approximately 2343903-11 (again, approximate), but Vasquez is on a roll of late (the Suns game notwithstanding), and I like Salmons coming off some rest. The Hawks bench is decent — my arch-nemesis Lou Williams can get hot, Schroeder is roadrunner-quick, and Mike Scott is decent — but they’re not necessarily good enough to warrant an advantage over the shortened Raptors bench.

Advantage: Even

Game Prediction

Given that the Hawks are on the second night of a back-to-back, I’m very inclined to hand this one to the Raptors. However, Patterson’s injury is a major worry, and DeRozan’s shooting slump is also troublesome. Ultimately, I believe the Raptors will win by playing solid defense, but it won’t be as easy as it looks on paper. Vegas likes the Raptors as anywhere from 2-3 point favorites, which seems a tad low. I like the Raptors to win by 5. Don’t sleep on this Hawks team.

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