In my bold predictions article before the season, I said that the Hawks would take massive strides in the team defense department. That prediction came true, as Atlanta ranked 11th in defensive rating and 15th in points allowed per game during the regular season. That is a massive leap from finishing last in 2019-2020.
For the most part, the Hawks were still missing guys like Onyeka Okongwu, Cam Reddish, Kris Dunn, Bogdan Bogdanović, and De’Andre Hunter. Regardless, Nate McMillan‘s coaching is why the Hawks are where they are now, and I think his scheme and philosophy have been the biggest reason for this turnaround. He has this team believing that they are a good defensive team, and as it turns out, they have been one of the best in the entire postseason.
Chase Irle wrote an article before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals talking about how well Trae Young had performed on defense thus far. While he still isn’t Gary Payton out there, the narrative that Trae’s defense is some of the worst in the NBA is way overblown. He is tied for the fourth-most steals in these playoffs with 16. Trae does benefit from not having to guard the opposing team’s best player, but he held his own against some talented Bucks, including Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, this isn’t all about Trae. Last night wasn’t his best moment, but Clint Capela has been fantastic at grabbing boards and defending the rim. John Collins and Onyeka Okongwu have been good defending bigger wings, and Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanović, and others have done a good job of helping on the perimeter. It has been a total team effort, and it’s a big reason why the Hawks are 6-2 in road games during these playoffs.
Out of teams remaining in the playoffs, the Hawks have the third-best defensive rating behind the Suns and Bucks. FiveThirtyEight dove into how well Atlanta’s defense played against New York and Philly:
It’s an unenviable task, and one that the Knicks and Sixers — the fourth- and second-best regular-season defenses — each failed to varying degrees. Just as important to the Hawks ending up where they are now, though, has been their playoff defense. Atlanta held New York and Philadelphia to a combined 107.7 points per 100 possessions during the first two rounds, a defensive rating that would have ranked in the league’s top five during the regular season.
The NBA is an offensive game, and although Atlanta’s defense has taken them this far, they still lack arguably three of their best defenders in Hunter, Reddish, and Dunn. The Hawks have overcome their losses with coaching and a togetherness mentality, but hopefully, they can keep up the pace, keep up the scoring, and keep up the winning.