Projecting Atlanta Hawks' Best and Worst Eastern Conference Playoff Matchups

Jared Johnson@@jaredtjohnson21Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2015

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 06:  Dennis Schroder #17 of the Atlanta Hawks drives against Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers at Philips Arena on March 6, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's early March, and the 49-13 Atlanta Hawks have already clinched a playoff berth. According to the team's Twitter account, Atlanta punched its postseason ticket last Tuesday after a 104-96 comeback win against the Houston Rockets.

Now that the Hawks will officially be playing longer than 82 games, it's time to start thinking about potential playoff matchups.

The Hawks are virtually a lock for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. With a 10.5-game lead over their competition, ESPN's John Hollinger's Playoff Odds puts the Hawks' odds at achieving the East's top record at 99.9 percent. That distinction will give them home-court advantage in any series against an intraconference foe

Which teams should the Hawks be crossing their fingers to play? And which squads should they hope to avoid? Let's look at how Atlanta might match up against its possible opponents in both the first round of the playoffs and in later rounds.

First-Round Potential Matchups

The race for the East's final playoff spot is tight and tough to predict. Just three games separate the Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets, who stand four seeds apart at No. 7 and No. 11. From their assumed No. 1 seed, the Hawks will likely draw either the Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics or Nets to start the postseason.

No. 2 Best Matchup: Charlotte Hornets

Admittedly, we haven't seen the 28-33 Hornets match up with the Hawks in awhile, as the teams last met more than three months ago. Charlotte edged out Atlanta on Nov. 7, thanks to a Lance Stephenson buzzer-beating three-pointer in double overtime, while the Hawks dominated the Hornets 105-75 on Nov. 29.

But it does say something that Atlanta could blow Charlotte out that badly when the Hawks' record was only 9-6.

The Hornets are a team that struggles to put up lots of points, partly due to a lack of spacing. They only hit 5.8 three-pointers per game, compared to the Hawks' 9.9 per contest.

Assuming both teams reach their averages from beyond the arc in a hypothetical game, Charlotte would have to outscore Atlanta by 13 points from two-point range and the free-throw line. Considering the Hawks defense can pack the paint because of the Hornets' outside-shooting deficiencies, that won't be easy.

Kemba Walker should be back for the playoffs, but Charlotte still doesn't have enough offensive firepower to threaten the Hawks' stifling defense.

No. 1 Best Matchup: Brooklyn Nets

Facing the 25-36 Nets in the opening round of the playoffs would be quite the Catch-22 for Atlanta. The Hawks get to swap their 2015 first-round pick with Brooklyn's, as outlined by Pro Sports Transactions, and would obviously prefer if their acquired selection were in the lottery.

On the other hand, drawing the Nets in the opening round of the playoffs would provide the Hawks with a relatively painless series.

Brooklyn's strength lies in its veterans. Its four 2014-15 minutes leaders (Joe Johnson, Jarrett Jack, Deron Williams and Alan Anderson) are all north of 30 years old, and the Nets' edge in experience could make this potential series more interesting than it should be.

But the Hawks are too much better than the Nets to actually lose four out of seven contests. In fact, Atlanta has won both meetings between the teams this season by double digits.

The Nets have the NBA's 23rd-best point differential (minus-3.4 points per game) and have some weaknesses that play into the Hawks' hands.

With an isolation-heavy offense, Brooklyn is tied at No. 22 in assist ratio (16.1, per ESPN) and shoots just 32.4 percent from three. The Nets' offense will fail to capitalize on a Hawks defense that allows the most three-point attempts per game and the seventh-most assists per contest.

No. 2 Worst Matchup: Boston Celtics

The Hawks and 25-36 Celtics have played three games already this season—Atlanta won the first two contests 109-105 and 105-91, respectively, while Evan Turner's floater gave Boston an 89-88 triumph on Feb. 11.

On paper, the Celtics' roster doesn't look even close to playoff-caliber. Marcus Smart, Turner, Jae Crowder, Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller has been head coach Brad Steven's lineup of choice as of late. There are some quality role players in that group, but there was no one who strikes fear in opponents' hearts.

But what the Celtics lack in star talent, they make up for in effort and teamwork. Almost in a poor-man's Hawks way, they share the ball on offense and work together on defense. They rank No. 6 in assist ratio (18.0, per ESPN) and have put together a respectable No. 15 ranking in defensive efficiency.

Boston's recently acquired Isaiah Thomas could also be an X-factor in pushing the Hawks to their limit. The 5'9" dynamo has averaged a ridiculous 28.1 points per 36 minutes in his eight games with the Celtics so far.

No. 1 Worst Matchup: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers? Again? Really?

Indiana has been the Hawks' first-round opponent for the past two seasons. In 2013, the third-seeded Pacers took out the Hawks in six games, and top-seeded Indiana needed seven contests to put away eighth-seeded Atlanta last year.

Yes, the first-seeded Hawks are a much better team this season than they were in the previous two, but it wouldn't be wise to discount the 26-34 Pacers.

Indiana has won 11 of its last 14, beating five teams above .500 in the stretch. Mind you, this is without the injured Paul George and the departed Lance Stephenson, arguably the team's two best players from last year.

The Pacers are hoping George returns this season. According to head coach Frank Vogel (via CBSSports.com's Jason Butt), the 24-year-old small forward is "practicing full-out." And just to jog your memory, this is the type of thing George can do when healthy.

Considering the Pacers' hot second half so far (in contrast to last year's decline) and George's potential return, the Hawks would definitely prefer a first-round opponent that isn't Indiana.

Later-Round Potential Matchups

Although the Hawks haven't gotten any semblance of competition for the No. 1 seed, there are plenty of teams that will be aiming to defy Atlanta's higher standing in the later postseason rounds. The Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks are all potential opponents the Hawks could see after Round 1. 

No. 2 Best Matchup: Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, the 40-25 Cavaliers have LeBron James. Yes, they have Kyrie Irving. Yes, they have Kevin Love.

But the Hawks can take 'em in a playoff series.

Atlanta took the season series 3-1, with Friday's 106-97 win at Philips Arena being the closest to full strength both teams have been in any of the contests. The Hawks aren't quite there yet with Thabo Sefolosha's calf injury, and the Cavs are still missing out on Shawn Marion's services due to a strained hip.

In the aforementioned tilt, Atlanta took advantage of Cleveland's susceptibility to good ball movement. The Cavs rank dead last in the NBA with 24.1 assists allowed per game, and the Hawks had 27 Friday to Cleveland's 18. Notice how many of the highlights for the Hawks involve crisp passing compared to the Cavs' plays.

On the season, Cleveland's top scorers (James, Irving and Love) have 56.0 percent of their team's points. In contrast, Millsap, Teague and Horford have put in just 45.4 percent of the Hawks' points.

The Cavs certainly won't be an easy team to beat, as their squad's combined talent is just too much to ignore. But Cleveland's tendency to turn to a three-man attack could be what does it in against the more balanced, ball movement-heavy Hawks.

No. 1 Best Matchup: Washington Wizards

The 35-28 Wizards are partly here in the "best matchup" category because the Hawks have won all three this season.

They're also here because they're ice-cold at the moment.

Since a 22-8 start, Washington has gone 13-20, finding little consistent offensive production outside of John Wall. Bradley Beal has had a disappointing, injury-filled season, Paul Pierce is just a decent starter at this point in his career and Marcin Gortat and Nene haven't quite lived up their play from last year.

Let's check the per-game numbers from their three meetings so far.

Hawks vs. Wizards: 2014-15 (Per-Game Stats)
PointsReboundsAssists/TurnoverWins
Hawks110.343.72.343
Wizards92.342.31.270
Basketball-Reference.com

As you can see, Atlanta has thoroughly outplayed Washington this season, and it's not due to domination on the glass. The Hawks have been a lot more careful with the ball, with a far superior assist-to-turnover ratio.

Although the Wizards probably won't win their first-round series, the Hawks will gladly play Washington in the Eastern Conference Semifinals or Finals.

No. 2 Worst Matchup: Chicago Bulls (if healthy)

There is a health caveat here with the 39-25 Bulls, because they aren't the same with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson all sidelined. For Chicago fans, there is good news, however: All three are slated to be back for the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference's injury report.

If all three recover on time, the Bulls could be scary.

In the meantime, Chicago is expanding the roles of young players such as Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell, in hopes that both will provide productive minutes for the team in the playoffs.

The Bulls have the potential to provide legitimate matchup problems for the Hawks, as well. Atlanta does lead the season series 2-0, but neither win was by double digits and Chicago center Joakim Noah was absent for both games.

With Noah in there with Pau Gasol, plus Taj Gibson off the bench, the Bulls and their fifth-ranked rebound differential, per ESPN, will make it difficult for the 27th-ranked Hawks to keep up with them on the boards if their jump shots aren't falling.

No. 1 Worst Matchup: Toronto Raptors

Ah yes, the 38-25 Raptors, the only team with more than one win against the Hawks this season. And they have three, compared to just one for Atlanta.

Toronto isn't physically overwhelming like Chicago, but they just have so many quality players who can come at you, with a rotation that easily goes nine deep. In fact, the Raptors' ninth man (James Johnson) is probably better than many teams' sixth man.

James Johnson is one of the Raptors' many talented reserves.
James Johnson is one of the Raptors' many talented reserves.Ron Turenne/Getty Images

I mean, 8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks in 21.1 minutes per game on 60.9 percent shooting for the fourth man off the bench? That's pretty good.

In the four-game season series, the Raptors' bench has scored 41.3 points per game to 31.3 for the Hawks' bench. Leading the way for Toronto's reserves is former Hawks player Louis Williams, who now stars as the Raptors' microwave off the bench, with 15.3 points per contest.

The Hawks are much better defensively than the Raptors (No. 3 and 22 in points allowed per 100 possessions, respectively, per ESPN), but if their bench can't match Toronto's, we could have an upset on our hands.

Conclusion

Assuming they are healthy, the Hawks deserve to be considered the favorite in every single matchup against an Eastern Conference opponent.

Atlanta has been too much better than any other East team throughout the season, plus it will have home-court advantage. Considering the Hawks are 29-4 at Philips Arena so far this year, a road win at the "Highlight Factory" will be a tall task for any squad.

But there are some teams that are far scarier to Atlanta than others.

The Celtics and Pacers in the first round and the Bulls and Raptors in the later rounds are all matchups that have the potential to be difficult for the Hawks. If you're an Atlanta fan, hope for a road to the NBA Finals that avoids these teams.

Note: All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com and updated through March 8 unless otherwise indicated.

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