Thabo Sefolosha Key To Rise Of Hawks Defense

Feb 1, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha (25) dribbles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the third quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha (25) dribbles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the third quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

Thabo Sefolosha is keying the defense of the streaking Atlanta Hawks, who have won 9 out of their last 10 games.

The Atlanta Hawks are red-hot right now and clinched their ninth consecutive playoff berth with the Washington Wizards’ loss on Tuesday. Atlanta’s recent success can be directly attributed to the rise of their defense; and perhaps the biggest reason for the defensive uptick this season is Thabo Sefolosha.

Yes, Thabo Sefolosha: the Hawks reserve wing known less for his offense and more for his defensive acumen. Sefolosha may in fact be Atlanta’s most important player — especially as the playoffs approach.

To put into perspective how important Sefolosha is to the Atlanta Hawks, last season the team went 43-9 with him on the court. Without Sefolosha, the Hawks went 17-13.

One year ago, Sefolosha was lost to the season after injuring his leg in an altercation with the NYPD. Though he was vindicated of any wrongdoing in the incident, Sefolosha had a difficult road to recovery; and it was uncertain if he would return to the Hawks as the same player he was a year ago.

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Though one could argue that the Hawks late season demise last year and struggles in the playoffs were simply due to regressing to the mean, it also does show the importance of Sefolosha’s defense to Mike Budenholzer’s team.

With the departure of DeMarre Carroll to the Toronto Raptors during the offseason, there was concern among pundits and the Hawks faithful that Atlanta would lose a defensive advantage on the wing. Though the loss of Carroll did hurt the Hawks in the beginning of the year, recently they look just fine without him.

The biggest reason for that is Sefolosha, who not only fully recovered from his leg injury last April, but is actually playing better this year. According to writer KL Chouinard, Sefolosha is limiting opposing players to 30.3 percent shooting form beyond 15 feet from the basket while usually drawing the most difficult defensive assignment on the team.

In my mind, that clearly demonstrates that Sefolosha has fully recovered from his broken leg, and gives the Hawks the defensive edge off the bench they lacked last postseason. His ability to defend multiple positions helps the Hawks immensely: whether it is guarding someone like DeMar DeRozan or LeBron James.

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Though Kent Bazemore starts for the Hawks, more often than not it is Sefolosha who finishes games for Atlanta. A major reason why Atlanta’s defense is second in the NBA in efficiency this season is because of both players, who have filled the defensive void left by Carroll.

Even though Sefolosha’s calling card is defense, his offensive game has improved as well. In the month of March, Sefolosha is shooting 53.1 percent from the field, including 48.1 percent from beyond the arc.

When Carroll was with the Hawks, his ability to sink three-point shots and cut to the basket were offensive keys for the Hawks. In the same way that Carroll operated on offense a year ago, Sefolosha is doing the same by making open shots and getting behind defenses to cut to the basket.

Though his 6.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game are nothing spectacular, it is truly difficult to quantify the importance of Sefolosha to the Atlanta Hawks by simply looking at a box score. I truly believe that if he (and the rest of Atlanta) was healthy in the playoffs last year, things may have turned out differently in the Eastern Conference Finals.

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Regardless of what happened a year ago, Sefolosha’s defense is helping to pace the Hawks to a return to the Eastern Conference Finals; and is an important part of how Budenholzer’s club operates.