By Sean Kennedy
First, the Hawks traded away one of their franchise centerpieces just walk away in free agency and with a lot of parts, on short-term, affordable contracts, it wasn’t clear whether Atlanta was ready to break things down to tank for the upcoming draft. Then it turned out that with Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and new signing Paul Millsap in tow, Atlanta was the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. However, about a month ago the team received the terrible blow that they would be without star big man Horford who suffered a torn pectoral in what turned out to be a season-ending injury. Still though, the Hawks keep fighting, having gone 8-8 since the Al Horford injury which makes you a surefire playoff team in the East. This Hawks team is a proud group that like President Thomas Whitmore, refuses to go quietly into the night.
The Hawks come in well-rested after their game against the Pistons was postponed Wednesday because the city of Atlanta had no preparations in place for a snowstorm and motorists were stranded on highways for an entire day at a time. They’ll also be a little healthier as Jeff Teague has missed two games but practiced yesterday and will be heading to Philadelphia and it looks like he’ll be back in action. Teague has struggled a bit with his shot and turnovers this season as the Hawks officially handed the keys to the offense over to him after the Josh Smith departure. Still, they’re obviously a better team with him in there and Teague scored a then-career-high 33 points and 10 assists in these two teams’ first meeting this season, a Hawks victory. Philadelphia was without Michael Carter-Williams for that game so hopefully he can do a better job defensively on the Atlanta point guard.
The main reason for the Hawks’ success this season, though, is the play of first-time all-star Paul Millsap. The former Utah forward has arrived in Atlanta and been given the chance to show off his versatile game with an even larger role within the team’s offense. Millsap averages 18 points and 8 rebounds on the season (20 and 8 since the Horford injury), and averages at least one three-pointer, steal, and block per game. Millsap is the ultimate glue guy but does everything a little better than the players who receive those designations around the league.
Since Horford went down, Atlanta has turned the ball over at the 4th-worst rate in the league, which is certainly something the Sixers will look to take advantage of and I’m sure MCW will be hounding Teague looking for those steals. However, the Hawks have also forced the highest rate of opposing giveaways in the league over those past 16 game, as their gambling style gives the opposition plenty of good looks but also leads to easy points on the other end. They also feature a bevy of three-point shooters, led by former Sixer Kyle Korver. Korver has made the headlines this season for setting the record for most consecutive games making a three, and is once again unconscious from downtown, hitting almost three per game at a 46% clip. The Hawks feature other options as well as another old friend, Lou Williams, DeMarre Carroll, Cartier Martin, and Millsap are all league-avarage or better from behind the arc.
In addition to Horford being out, Atlanta will also be without backup center, Pero Antic, who is missing a couple weeks with a stress fracture in his ankle. In his stead, Atlanta will be rolling out yet another former Sixer, the old school Chevy Elton Brand, as well as Mike Scott, and Gustavo Ayon alongside Millsap on the frontline. If there’s one area the Sixers could do some damage, it would be by attacking the boards hard against that depleted Hawks unit. However, I think ultimately the bevy of outside assassins and the overall play of Millsap will spell a loss for Philadelphia.