The ’14/’15 NBA season was the start of a historic run by the Golden State Warriors. They beat the Cavs in six, winning their first in a line of three championship rings, as Andre Iguodala became the Finals MVP. Controversially so, if I might add.
It was a good Finals series, but not nearly exciting as it would’ve been if the Cavs had their stars on the court, as they were playing without their second and third best players in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Love suffered a shoulder injury in the first round vs. the Celtics, and Kyrie injured his knee in the ECF vs. the Hawks.
We have to give credit to LeBron for being able to prolonge the Cavs season with their truncated roster. Taking the Dubs to six was an accomplishment in and of itself. Even getting there over a 60 win Hawks team in the previous round.
Let’s talk about those Hawks. A team that won most games during the regular season should be worthy of our attention. It didn’t end the way their fans had hoped it would, or even the way some expected. I’m not even describing their Eastern Conference Finals exit as a failure. It’s more about the fact they got swept by a team without their second and third best player. Still, their regular-season run doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.
The Hawks finished the season as the number one seed in the East. What they did during January of 2015 was historic. They went on a 19-game winning streak, not losing a single game in the month. The entire starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford were named NBA’s Player of the Month for January, becoming the first group of five to do so in the history of the league. All of them but Carroll were named All-Stars, as the Hawks were the team with most All-Star participants that year.
Atlanta had the second-best home record of 35-6, behind Warriors’ 39 wins at the Oakland Arena. They had the sixth-best offense in the league, with the ORtg of 108.9, and they did it extremely efficiently, with a third-best effective Field Goal percentage at .527. They ran a balanced, team-oriented offensive system, modeled on the San Antonio Spurs, with Mike Budenholzer orchestrating the whole thing.
Budenholzer was an assistant coach with the Spurs for 16 years, and their imprint on his coaching style was obvious. Atlanta didn’t have a standout individual on their roster, as six guys were scoring in double digits, with Pauls Millsap leading the team with 16.7 PPG. None of their starters played heavy minutes, and they were doing their best to utilize their bench unit.
The Hawks played through their 4-5 punch of Millsap and Horford, emphasizing on the in-and-out game and three-point shooting. They shot seventh most threes in the whole league and had the second-best success rate in converting those. Their system was all about moving the ball, shooting a lot of threes, and playing hard on the other end of the floor.
Atlanta also had the sixth-best defense in the NBA, allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions. Their defensive versatility allowed them to switch it all, with Al Horford being the defensive anchor and ultimate positionless defender. He gave coach Bud a luxury of running different defensive sets, matching up well with both small-ball lineups, as well as playing against dominant bigs.
Dennis Schröder led the Hawks bench unit. A 21-year point guard provided a solid spark off the bench, giving them 10/2/4 in 20 minutes of action. As much the Hawks didn’t rely solely on their starting lineup, they also didn’t put all the eggs in the basket called the bench. It was all about the balance for the Hawks.
However, the lack of a standout individual performer is what cost them in the post-season. Let’s face it, having the best player on the court in a playoff series is a huge advantage, and they didn’t have that luxury, especially in the ECF vs. the Cavs.
Sure, it wasn’t a problem in their first two series when they bounced the Nets and the Wizards, both in six games. However, the first time they faced a decisively better individual in LeBron, it ended in a catastrophe. They got through the first two rounds by being a better team. They lost a third to a much better player.
The Cavs swept them, and to be honest, it wasn’t even close. Game 4 was the ugliest, as the Cavs blew them out by 30. LeBron tortured the Hawks, averaging a near triple-double over a four-game series.
Jeff Teague took advantage of Kyrie’s absence, as he led the Hawks in scoring with 21. However, the duo of Millsap and Horford didn’t live up to their regular-season performance. Millsap averaged 13.8 on a horrific percentage of .349. Horford did shoot the ball efficiently, but only averaged 11 points per game. They were the duo the Hawks relied on the most, and they simply weren’t able to deliver.
It was the end of the organization’s historically great season, an anticlimactic one, to say the least. When looking at their regular-season, it’s clear why people expected more out of their post-season run. But it seems they simply weren’t built for the playoffs.
Hardly anyone will remember the 14-15 Hawks. Most will focus solely on their ECF exit. That’s how the NBA world works. And that maybe what they deserve because at the end of the day they were a great regular-season team which simply underachieved in the playoffs, whatever the reason for it may be.