On Tap: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  February 15, 2006

Record: 15-34 (15-34 Pythagorean), 13th seed in the East (ahead of the Knicks and Bobcats)
Record last 10 games: 4-6 (including a win over Detroit)
Offensive Rating: 106.5 (16th in league)
Defensive Rating: 111.8 (27th in league)

The Lakers coming in: They played defense against Utah and they got the win. Oh, sure, they didn’t make it easy on themselves (although part of that falls on Phil Jackson for some early and interesting lineup experimentation), but they got the win.

While I tend to focus on the tangible here, tonight’s game for the Lakers is about professionalism and focus. They play a lower-tier team on the last night before the long All-Star break, it’s the kind of game the Lakers could look past. And they are not good enough to look past anyone. Nor can they afford to with the tight playoff chase.

About the Hawks: Last off-season the Hawks brought in Joe Johnson to be there best player. The good news is he is their best player. That’s also the bad news.

Johnson leads the Hawks (among regular players) with a +/- (per 48 minutes) of +2.4 — making him the only regular Hawk player with a raw +/- in the positive. He leads the team with a PER of 18 and has been playing well of late, shooting 54.6% (eFG%) in the last 10 games. But Johnson’s numbers are off from his breakout season in Phoenix, for example last year he shot an insane 47.8% from three-point range, this season that number is 35.5%.

The Hawks have some other athletic and talented young players. Al Harrington leads the team scoring 20.1 per 40 minutes, Josh Childress has a true shooting percentage of 61%. They are even getting a decent offensive season out of Tyronn Lue.

But Lue is not much of a defender (despite Laker fans memories of a few good games in the Finals) and point guards are shredding Atlanta. It’s not all on Lue — Johnson has never been a good defender and so far really none of the Hawks have.

Easy Laker Buckets: While we’re talking defense, Atlanta’s Josh Smith is third in the league with 13 goaltending calls (on defense) this season. Just so you know if you see him knocking the ball off the cylinder.

Draw the charge: Brian Cook has become very good at drawing the charge and he is second on the Lakers with 15 so far this year (Sasha has 16). He could pick a few more tonight with Zaza Pachulia on the other team — he is fourth in the league in the number of charging fouls he has gotten. Pachulia actually gets called for a charge on 5.7% of his possessions. Just something to look for.

(By the way, if you follow the above link you’ll see Kobe third in the league in the number of charging calls he’s earned — but the important thing to note is it is only 2.1% of his possessions, which is a reasonable percentage considering how much he has the ball and how much he drives to the basket.)

Apropos of nothing: If you’ve never seen the video of Vince Carter dunking over Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics, you need to see this. Thanks to Henry at True Hoop not only for the posting, but also for the reminder at the bottom of how long the Knicks GMs have been making horrific mistakes.

Key’s to a Laker win: This is certainly a winnable game — but ask the Pistons about looking past the Hawks.

The weakest spots defensively this season for the Hawks have been the point and the three — or Smush/Odom (depending on how the Hawks match up) and Kobe. They should have big nights.

That said, the key again is playing good defense. The Hawks offense is average by NBA standards, but they can outscore the Lakers if the home team is not focused tonight. Kobe has been gambling more on defense lately, jumping into passing lanes and going for steals, and that could pay off tonight as the Hawks don’t have the passers and veterans that could exploit that.