The Atlanta Hawks handed the Memphis Grizzlies the team’s second loss in their last 22 home games on Saturday night by outplaying the hosts in every aspect of the game.
It was an effort that showed what the Hawks are capable of when they put their minds to being efficient (44% shooting). Atlanta outhustled the Grizzlies to nearly every loose ball, made all the right passes and had the off the type of ball movement you would expect from a serious contender with 20 assists against team that clogs the passing lanes as well any team in the league.
Memphis is one of the best rebounding teams as well (8th in the NBA) thanks to their front court partnership of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the Hawks crashed the boards harder in this one, winning the rebound battle 44-40. That effort included 14 offensive boards, a key factor in them outscoring the Grizzlies 42-38 in the paint.
Josh Smith was on fire in this one, finishing with 24 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and a blocked shot. Larry Drew made a key decision to start a bigger lineup, going with Zaza Pachulia at center allowing Al Horford to play power forward and Smith to move out to the small forward position where he faced up with Rudy Gay. It was this decision that made a major impact on the Hawks’ defense and led to Gay shooting 28% on the night with 17 points and 9 rebounds.
Memphis and Atlanta rank second and third in the NBA respectively in the steals department which was reflected in the defensive effort of both sides with each forcing the other to commit 16 turnovers. The difference in the game, however, was Atlanta’s ruthless ability to chase down loose balls and score on broken plays.
The season began with pundits and critics doubting Atlanta’s ability to be anything more than a six seed in the playoffs depending on what happened with Smith and a potential trade, but games like Saturday’s show that they may be more of a threat than expected. The Hawks find themselves a half game back of the defending champion Miami Heat in the Southeast Division and are currently on a three game winning streak as Drew hashes out his lineup.
A key player in all this is Louis Williams, the Hawks sixth man who came off the bench to provide 21 points. Bench scoring plays a big part in a team’s success throughout the regular season, but it becomes crucial in the playoffs where minutes without stars on the floor can keep a lower seed in a game or allow the higher seed a chance to maintain or extend their lead. The Hawks, however, do not have a particularly productive bench despite having offensive minded players like Anthony Morrow and Kyle Korver providing minutes for their second line.
Williams was a solid acquisition and is averaging 14 points in 24 minutes per game. He’s a guy that can be used in multiple roles, but if he’s going to give the Hawks a real chance at success, his scoring production will be the key as it is his efforts that will carry the bench.
For the Grizzlies, this game raises an important question. When they face the likes of a team that can match their size in the front court, do they have the back court weapons to compete? Mike Conley and Tony Allen combined for 16 points, 5 rebounds and three assists in this game as they faced a better Hawks back court.
A similar outcome came in a loss last week against San Antonio who outscored them on the break 22-7. Atlanta is one of the best teams running the floor in the league and beat Memphis 15-5 in that department.
Despite their hot start, a small crack has appeared in the armor of the Grizzlies. If a team has size and can run the floor the way Atlanta did last night or San Antonio last week, the game will be a struggle for Memphis. Their four losses have come to teams with strong or, at the very least, capable point guards and powerful front courts: Clippers, Spurs, Nuggets and Hawks.
Mike Conley has to step it up as he is averaging 14 points and 6 assists per game. As a point guard in this league, you can’t depend on your front court every night. Some days, you just have to be the guy that does it all. It appears that if Memphis is put in a position to rely on Conley, they become significantly weaker than the team that rolled over the Heat, Knicks, Lakers and Oklahoma City, all teams they were able to rely on their front court to beat.