Tim Hardaway Jr: The key to Atlanta's playoff success

The Hawks need the streaky Tim Hardaway Jr to stand up in the playoffs, as Paul Millsap works his way back into top shape.

Paul Millsap is clearly Atlanta's best player, but as he works back from knee issue, Mike Budenholzer has found a sneakily good lineup that can keep the Hawks competitive. 

Tim Hardaway Jr is the key to nearly all the top Atlanta lineups. Of the top 11 most used five-man combinations, Hardaway features in seven of those (+117 in 627 minutes). Those four line ups without him have gone for +4.2 in 753 minutes. However, one those four lineups without him, one featured Kyle Korver who is no longer with the team; so those other three lineups have combined for -12 in 706 minutes. 

The starting lineup has been a bit below league average (-4.3 in 424 minutes). They're a bit too predictable and the Dennis Schroder/ Dwight Howard pick and roll combo hasn't been as explosive as Budenholzer hoped. That probably comes down to Schroder's jump shooting (38% this season) - teams are happy to just duck under Howard's screens. 

The Hawks might be best to try and employ Hardaway in the pick and roll instead. He's not a great creator, but he shoots over 41% on pull up jumpers and he's also quite elusive and hard to guard on after time out plays coming off screens. 

Marcus Smart does a solid job recovering to try and contest from behind, but Hardaway's release is so quick. It's an ugly bank but you'll take the points. 

Hardaway Jr just has an unbelievable amount of confidence from behind the arc despite only being 35% from there for his career. He hasn't really changed the way he has played since his rookie season with the Knicks, but he's just gotten better as a slasher this year and he's eliminated one or two of those awful looks per game. He's playing smarter and Budenholzer seems to trust him.

The Hawks struggle to space the floor, as any team with Howard, Schroder and Millsap would. Schroder and Millsap can shoot threes, but it's clear from the lineup splits that the Hawks become a much more free flowing and potent offense once Hardaway comes in. 

One lineup that the Hawks should continue trialing is Millsap and Ilyasova at the five and four, Thabo Sefolosha at small forward, Hardaway as the two-guard and Schroder as the point guard. In a 40-minute sample size, that group has scored 27 more points than their opponents while surprisingly having 24 more free throws. Taking Howard out makes the opposing center have to play further out against Millsap and making it much harder to provide help on the weak side. The Hawks probably don't have quite enough excellent three point shooters to scare opponents, but this small ball line up is respectable enough to at least be an option in crunch time when hack-a-Dwight becomes an issue. 

The Hawks actually declined Hardaway's qualifying option for next season, so he becomes a restricted free agent. Perhaps they just needed extra money to pay Millsap, or perhaps they wanted to give Kent Bazemore a chance to live up to his contract, but Hardaway may be more important to the Hawks than they realize.

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