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Hawks learning to play without Al Horford

Al Horford

Al Horford

ATLANTA — Al Horford is gone — and he took the Hawks’ high pick-and-roll game with him.

The Hawks have struggled in the eight games without Horford to replace what had been a staple of the offense. The search continues to create offense, especially late in games, since the center was lost for the season with a torn right pectoral muscle.

Much of the burden has fallen on Jeff Teague. He worked four-plus seasons to develop chemistry with Horford, whom he called his “partner in crime,” on the offensive set. After setting a pick for Teague, Horford would pop out for a 15-footer or roll to the basket for an inside shot.

With Horford gone, the Hawks turned to Pero Antic and Elton Brand at the center position. Antic has shown an ability to shoot the 3-pointer, and Brand plays closer to the basket.

“I’m trying to get a little more into transition (now) because I knew in the fourth quarter I was going more to the pick-and-roll, either I was going to get a layup or Al was going to get a shot,” Teague said. “It was difficult to guard. We are still trying to figure things out. I’m just now getting used to playing with Pero and Elton. I really didn’t get a lot of time with them before.”

The Hawks were 3-4 entering Friday’s late game against Houston since the loss of Horford. Teague was 1-of-16 from 3-point range in the past five games entering Friday night’s contest and had committed 26 turnovers and 45 assists.

Several times recently Teague drove to the basket and was stuck in the air with no play. The dump off to Horford is gone. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said the absence of Horford is not solely to blame for Teague’s increased turnovers.

“I noticed (turnovers) when Al was still here, too,” Budenholzer said. “Sometimes it seems like two plus two equals four, but he had some of the same turnovers. He probably had them last year. But there is no denying they had a reach connection and a real comfort level.”

The Hawks are scoring fewer points since the loss of Horford, 97 per game down from 103. It is clear, especially with Antic starting the past four games, that the Hawks are using the 3-point shot much more frequently.

In the 29 games with Horford, 28.7 of the Hawks’ field-goal attempts were 3-pointers. In the seven games without him, the percentage of 3-pointers has jumped to 37.1 percent.

“Your talent level comes down, in general,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of the Hawks’ loss of Horford and the high pick-and-roll game. “You are less dynamic, (not having) a guy who can impact the game in so many ways like Al Horford can. It changes you. You have to be innovative in how you cover for it. … They are more unique now offensively. They are shooting more 3’s. It presents a different challenge.”

Antic has more 3-pointers made (12, on 22 attempts) in his four starts than Horford had attempts (11) all season.

Replacing the pick-and-roll game is not as simple as using Paul Millsap in his stead. Millsap, as the power forward, usually is guarded by a smaller, more athletic player. The matchup away from the basket against a bigger player was one of the advantages of having an under-sized Horford at center.

“We can work it with Paul, but most of the time the (power forward) who is guarding him is more athletic,” Teague said. “They don’t play the pick-and-roll the way they played Al. They hedge it. I throw it back to him, and it causes Paul to have to drive the basket and make a tough shot.”

The lack of the high pick-and-roll game has affected the floor spacing, according to Kyle Korver. The Hawks have had to learn to play without Horford quickly, with the first seven games occurring in 13 days.

“We have to figure some stuff out,” Korver said. “At the end of the game, that was some of the go-to stuff. We have to find new ways to close games.

“Jeff and Al had played together more than anybody on this team. They had really good chemistry obviously. We have to find new ways of doing it. We were doing it on the fly and against good defenses. It’s tough to do.”