Very rarely does a proven NBA head coach decide to accept a new job offer midseason.
Back in February, the Hawks were seeking a new leader after parting ways with Nate McMillan, whose message and schemes were growing stale and ineffective.
Quin Snyder, less than a year after walking away from the Jazz after a moderately successful run, took the job just after the All-Star break and is in the early stages of molding a talented but recently underachieving roster into a contender.
Part of that maturation occurred Tuesday night when the Hawks stunned the rather indifferent Heat in the play-in game to earn the right to play the Celtics in the first round.
The Hawks displayed their intriguing strengths but also their troubling weaknesses in that 116-105 win, and they will provide a challenge to second-seeded Boston if they are focused and execute.
Snyder’s eventual play is for the Hawks to become a better 3-point shooting team, which has been their issue for years. Atlanta is 21st in the NBA in 3-point percentage and 28th in attempts. In a league where the best teams thrive on long-range shooting, the Hawks simply don’t despite the prowess of Trae Young.
But the Hawks are no pushovers, especially inside. They are No. 1 in the NBA in 2-point field goals and seventh in the NBA in points in the paint. With the two-center tandem of Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu, the Hawks are top 10 in second-chance points and essentially beat the Heat because of a 26-6 advantage from offensive rebounds.
Atlanta is still trying to find an identity under Snyder, but its best chance to push this series to six or seven games is through physicality and creating more shot opportunities with offensive boards.
“We’ve got some guys where they like to [rebound],” Snyder said. “It’s something that is important to our team. When you have strengths, and have guys who feel like they can do that.”
But in reality the Hawks are a team in transition. McMillan led the club to their stunning run to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago but was never able to build on that. Clashes with Young as well as the inability to generate any offensive traction cost him his job.
Snyder said he’s trying to encourage his players, including mid-range specialist Dejounte Murray, to shoot more 3-pointers. But the roster is almost certain to go through a summer transformation and Young, a high-scoring guard, is gaining the reputation as being difficult to coach. He shot just 33.5 percent from beyond the arc this season and his on-court decision-making has been questioned.
Young played facilitator and leading scorer in the win over Miami, a role that he will have to flourish in for the Hawks to have a chance to extend this series.
“Quin brings a different speed and he’s so smart as far as getting guys shots and making it easier on the offensive end,” Young said. “He’s just so detailed what he brings to our team, it makes it easier for us to do our jobs and not necessarily think too much. He’s done a great job. We’re not perfect in where we want to be and where we will be but he’s done a great job with that.”
Murray has burned the Celtics in the past with his ability to post up and shoot from the midrange. He was supposed to pair with Young for a formidable backcourt but defense remained an issue under McMillan. The Hawks are in the bottom 10 in points allowed and opponent field goal percentage.
“I’m not here to compare coach Nate and coach Snyder,” Murray said. “They both played a part in us making the playoffs this year. [Snyder] came in with a plan that he’s far from executing. He’s barely been here a couple of months but he’s been great, not to just a couple of guys but to the whole organization, players, coaches, staff in general.
“His will to want to win, just everything is detailed and you could see the competitiveness. He’s hungry. He wants for himself but also for his players. He wants it for us bad and that’s a guy you want to run through a brick wall for.”
After eight seasons in Utah with six playoff appearances but no conference finals appearances, Snyder resigned. He accepted the Hawks job in February, taking on an underachieving organization on the fly. The process of turning Atlanta into a contender is in its infancy.
“For me, it’s consistent with what I’ve tried to say about our group. I just want to coach,” he said. “That’s what I’m getting to do right now. That’s what I love doing. This has been a group, they’ve supported me and I’ve tried to support them and they’ve listened and tried to execute. When you get that type of effort and commitment, you can’t ask for a lot more than that.”
It’s hard to determine whether the Hawks feel they have enough to unseat the Celtics because they are still seeking an identity and style. A good core of that Eastern Conference finals team remains but they have never been able to regain that prowess necessarily to be a real contender.
The Celtics have had that camaraderie for years.
“We know what we’re up against,” Snyder said. “They’re a dynamic team. One of the two best teams in the league. They have been good all season and it’s going to be hard and the best way to do that is to prepare.”