The Bucks may have survived the Western Conference, but can they survive the Southeast Division?
That's the big question as the Bucks wrap up their December schedule, with a home-and-home against the red-hot Hawks coming three days after Milwaukee suffered a disappointing 108-101 home defeat at the hands of the Hornets. While the Bucks went into Christmas with a players-only meeting to discuss their letdown against Charlotte, Atlanta has somewhat quietly been the East's best team over the past month, winning 14 of their past 15 games and five in a row to move within a half game of Toronto (22-7) for the top spot in the East.
They're not beating up on creampuffs, either. Their current streak has come against a murderer's row of title contenders -- home wins over the Bulls and Clippers and road wins over the Cavaliers, Mavericks and Rockets. In other words, the battered Bucks have their work cut out for them over the next 48 hours, especially with a fresh rash of injuries to their starting frontcourt.
Bucks injuries. Who will be available for the Bucks tonight? Good question. Milwaukee's official injury report lists John Henson as probable, which could mean we see the third year big man for the first time in a month. But that appears something of a necessity as well, with Larry Sanders (yet another illness) and Ersan Ilyasova (concussion) both out. Zaza Pachulia will presumably start against his former team in Sanders' absence, while Johnny O'Bryant at the four is only a guess at this point. Horford and Millsap are both slightly undersized for their positions to begin with, so I'd expect to see plenty of small-ball looks from Jason Kidd no matter who starts.
Kidd alluded to the possibility of changing up the Bucks' starting five after the loss to the Hornets, so even without the injuries we may have seen changes to the Bucks' starters. Worth noting: O.J. Mayo's struggles have continued since he returned to the starting lineup, as he continues to post the worst shooting numbers of his career. I liked his insertion into the starting five when the decision was first made -- teams respect his shot even when it's not falling, and he's a better passer than Khris Middleton -- but it's tough to say he's earning his spot right now.
Teague rises (and returns). Making the Hawks' hot streak more impressive? Three of those wins came without Jeff Teague, the one-time almost-a-Buck who came off the bench in Tuesday's win over the Clippers and is expected to return to the starting lineup tonight. Like Brandon Knight, Teague's raw numbers are almost identical to last season (16.5 ppg, 7.0 apg, 2.9 turnovers), he's been far more efficient. His efficiency marks are currently at career-highs across the board (20.8 PER, 58.6% true shooting, .175 WS/48), giving him an outside chance of sneaking into the all-star game if Kyrie Irving, John Wall or Kyle Lowry suffer any kind of injury.
The Hawks got a major shot in the arm in Teague's absence from second-year guard Dennis Schröder (16.4 PER, 54.0% TS), who averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.5 apg while starting the Hawks' wins over the Cavs, Rockets, Mavs and Clippers. Not that the Hawks have any obvious weaknesses in their starting five -- Kyle Korver never misses (53.7% from three! 74.5% true shooting!), Paul Millsap continues to do all sorts of Paul Millsap things (16.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.3 apg) and Al Horford is beginning to look like his old self of late as well. Though his rebounding has fallen off from his earlier days (12.4% rebound rate), Horford remains a lethal mid-range shooter (50% on long twos, 47% 10-16 feet) and does a little bit of everything else for Mike Budenholzer, which is a big reason why the Hawks are so difficult to defend. To that point: I haven't even mentioned utility knife wingman DeMarre Carroll, who led the Hawks with 25 points against the Clips.
Four Factors. The Hawks' success isn't a one-sided story: They rank seventh in both offensive and defensive efficiency, hinting at the sort of all-around team that could hang with any team in the East come April and May.
Offensively the Hawks rank fourth in eFG% and have been lethal both inside and out. Atlanta is top ten in both three point attempts and makes, with Kyle Korver's insane 53.7% accuracy from three powering them to second in the league in overall percentage (38.2%). But they're not just a team that bombs from deep; while they don't get to the line a ton, they also rank fourth in two-point field goal percentage, an interesting stat considering they're just 24th in fast break points per game (10.5) and 22nd in points in the paint (40.5).
Defensively they haven't had any major weak spots. They're tenth in eFG% allowed, ninth in turnovers forced and have conceded the third-fewest free throws per shot, with a slightly sub-par defensive rebound rate (19th) their only below average ranking among the four factors. No team concedes fewer fast break points per game (9.8 ppg), which should make for an interesting plot point against a Bucks team that ranks among the league leaders in that category (15.3).
|2014/2015 NBA Season|
|December 26, 2014|
|Philips Arena | Atlanta, GA|
|FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ|
|Jeff Teague||PG||Brandon Knight|
|Kyle Korver||SG||Kendall Marshall|
|DeMarre Carroll||SF||Giannis Antetokounmpo|
|Paul Millsap||PF||Johnny O'Bryant|
|Al Horford||C||Zaza Pachulia|
|2014/15 Advanced Stats|
|93.7 (13th)||Pace||94.0 (11th)|
|109.3 (7th)||ORtg||104.4 (22nd)|
|103.1 (7th)||DRtg||106.1 (14th)|