The Indiana Pacers were humming along, winners of seven of the 12 games since the all-star break, before running into the buzzsaw that as is the Atlanta Hawks. As Paul George told reporters after the game, “They turned the switch. They took it to another level.”
The Pacers were held to a season-low 75 points, and the game marked the 17th time this season Atlanta has held an opponent to less than 40 percent shooting. San Antonio, for context — the league leader in defensive rating, although Atlanta is closing in on that spot — has done the same 15 times. More impressively, though, Atlanta has held five teams to less than 35 percent shooting this season, while San Antonio has held teams to that threshold ow lower twice.
Suddenly, Mike Budenholzer’s outfit looks like a championship-caliber franchise, peaking a month later than it did a season ago. Atlanta leads the league in defensive rating (93 points allowed per 100 possessions), opponent three-point percentage (27.9 percent), and opponent field goal percentage (39.9) since the all-star break.
Each of the past three Eastern Conference champions finished in the top half of the league in post-all-star break defensive rating, and two of the three ranked inside the top 11 in opponent field goal percentage. Atlanta would be the first team to lead the league post-break in both opponent field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage since Boston accomplished the feat in 2007-08, the year the Celtics went on to win the title. Four years earlier, the Detroit Pistons accomplished the feat and went on to win the title, too.
The heat map below shows Atlanta’s opponents since the all-star break, many of whom are having discernible difficulty finding efficient areas from which to shoot.
A portion of Atlanta’s defensive progressions can be attributed to the team’s innate ability to defend the pick-and-roll, an offensive cornerstone in the modern-day NBA. Horford and Paul Millsap are elite defensive players, capable of switching onto quicker wings or guards and holding their own against them. Atlanta’s defense has allowed 833 points, the third fewest of any team, on pick-and-rolls set for an opposing ball handler.
There’s also no hangover when the starters sit for Budenholzer: Atlanta’s post-break defensive rating is 93.6 with the starters on the floor, and 92 when the second-unit takes to the court. Both marks lead the league.
Of the team’s 15 remaining regular season games, six are against teams with losing records. Atlanta has a very real shot at generating home-court advantage and bettering its seeding come playoff time. While the team’s historic run last season was propelled by an explosive offense, it’s been a stingy defense carrying the Hawks to the regular season finish line and allowing the franchise’s championship aspirations to soar.