In first start, Luke Babbitt boosts Hawks

(AP Photo)

Luke Babbitt started his first game for the Hawks on Sunday against the Cavs and the offense came to life. The Hawks got off to a good start for the first time in a long time and finished with their best offensive rating (109.4 points per 100 possessions) since the season opener.

“We had good rhythm on offense,” Babbitt said. “I think it was one of our better offensive games so hopefully we can build off of it.”

Babbitt had a lot to do with the improved offensive flow. You can say it was just one game, that the Cavs were disinterested defensively and that Babbitt’s defensive issues offset some of his offensive production. And you’d be right about all of that.

But the Hawks needed to get off to a better start after habitually falling in early holes, and Babbitt helped them do that while starting in place of Mike Muscala (ankle). He scored eight points on five shots in the 37-point first quarter, including a pair of 3-pointers. Babbitt also made a key 3-pointer with five minutes to go.

“His shooting, him making 3’s out of the gate opened the floor up for us,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We were getting good looks (and) not just for him. I think he attracts defenders and creates space. It was good.”

Again, it’s just one game. But there is a larger body of evidence that suggests a lineup with Babbitt as the small-ball four gets an offensive boost while also playing good defense.

As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Heat made a drastic improvement in offensive efficiency over the last half of the 2016-17 season: 9.1 points per 100 possessions better over the final 41 games. Babbitt started 37 of those games (16.1 minutes average) and shot 46.4 percent on 3-pointers during that stretch. (The Heat improved their defensive rating in the second half of the season, too.)

The Heat were 1.6 points per 100 possessions better with Babbitt on the court for 1,065 minutes last season. The Hawks have been 9.5 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Babbitt on the court for 176 minutes with a net rating of 0.9.

It will be interesting to see if Budenholzer sticks with Babbitt as the starter when Mike Muscala returns from his injury (and before Ersan Ilyasova returns from his). Save for that stint with the Heat last season, Babbitt has never been a full-time starter. And one caveat to his strong play with the Heat is that the schedule softened over the final half of the season.

Also, Babbitt’s offensive value has pretty much been strictly as a spot-up, 3-point shooter during his career. He has one of the worst shooting percentage on 2’s among rotation players since he entered the league.

But when the  Hawks desperately needed an offensive boost to start the game at Cleveland, Babbitt provided it.

“We are telling him every time in practice and in games, ‘Shoot the ball,’” Dennis Schroder said. “He did it (Sunday). He was aggressive. It helps us, too, and especially me going to the basket. They don’t want to help off him.”

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