The Hawks dropped the season opener at home to the Rockets 109-102. James Harden set a career-high in points with 45, including 18 in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory. Jeremy Lin added 21 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. The Hawks jumped out to a quick 12-6 lead and Devin Harris had nine points in the first six minutes, but the Rockets size began to take over as Houston out-rebounded the Hawks 20 to 8 in the first quarter, with nine offensive boards.The Hawks defense forced the Rockets into difficult first shots and Houston shot 0-for-9 from three in the first quarter, but Atlanta's inability to limit the Rockets to one shot per trip allowed Houston to shoot 46.4% in the quarter. Harden had eight in the first, but it was Marcus Morris that led the team with 10 off the bench knocking down open looks when Hawks big men collapsed into the lane to stop Harden and Lin.
As for the Hawks offense, they started off hot hitting six of their first 10 shots, but fell in love with the jumper and missed nine of their next 12 shots and finished the quarter at 40.9% (9-22) and just 20% from three (1-5). The Hawks got stagnant on offense and began to hoist jump shots and only go two offensive rebounds. Larry Drew was not pleased with the way the Hawks stopped moving the ball and settled for shots late in the first and early in the second quarter.
"No doubt about it [we fell in love with jumpers]. I thought we got kinda seduced into taking the perimeter shot. You know, it's kind of an adrenaline thing. They came off and were open and hit some shots early and then they stopped falling for us. What we can't do is fall in love with them. We want to play up tempo and want to play fast, not in a hurry, but we have to be mindful and smarter with our shot selection."
Josh Smith also discussed shot selection, but thought that there was maybe more that could've been done from a play-calling standpoint.
"[We need to] just keep it inside-out, you know, run some post-up plays some to keep them honest. The jump shots will come; we have a lot of outstanding shooters from three on this team, so just kind of mix it up."
The second quarter started as the first quarter ended with the Rockets beating the Hawks on pick-and-rolls, pounding the glass, and forcing the Hawks into one-and-done possessions. As the quarter wore on the Hawks began to get back into the game and a DeShawn Stevenson three as time expired in the half cut the lead to nine.
The Hawks came to life offensively in the third quarter scoring 30 points and forcing seven Rockets' turnovers (all steals) behind a pair of Stevenson threes and eight points, four assists, and two steals from Jeff Teague. The Hawks scored nine points off those turnovers as the Hawks were able to get out and run the fast-break like we all heard they would throughout the preseason.
The Hawks climbed back into the game in the fourth quarter and took the lead 88-87 on a Josh Smith lay-in with 7:12 to play. Smith added another dunk to push the lead to three before the Rockets went on a 10-0 run that featured back-to-back and-one plays by James Harden (who converted one of two free throws). Harden went to the line 17 times in the game, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter. The Rockets as a team went 25-29 (86.2%) from the free throw line, while the Hawks went 15-17 (88.2%); a good percentage, but 10 makes shy of the Rockets. Houston added 15 second chance points on their 23 offensive rebounds, led by Omer Asik's 19 boards, nine were offensive (and 0 points).
The rebounds came from unlikely sources as well (Lin had 10 with five offensive, Harden had 7). While the Hawks will struggle against taller, stronger centers like Asik, they cannot allow the opposition to grab so many long rebounds. The Rockets had 26 rebounds by perimeter players (Lin, Harden, Parsons, Douglas, and Delfino), with many coming away from the rim. Those plays come down to hustle and court awareness, something the Hawks lacked at times on the defensive end.
There were long stretches where the Hawks were forced into playing a half-court game and the pace was slowed (mainly the end of the first and beginning of the second). During those stretches, Atlanta seemed overly-anxious to try and artificially create fast-break opportunities and chances to get out and run. These led to turnovers and rather than going after long rebounds, guards were turning up court to run. The Hawks need to find a balance between rebounding and running the break (an issue we saw in the first half against New Orleans in the preseason). While the Hawks continually talk about their new up-tempo system, they seem almost pressured to live up to that hype and run too much. The break will come naturally and they force enough turnovers (21 tonight on 12 steals) that they don't need to over emphasize it. They have enough scorers and showed that, when they move the ball, they have the ability to create plenty of half-court offense and good looks inside and out.
Lou and Al boths spoke about the rebounding issue post-game. "They did a great job offensively, getting a lot of offensive rebounds, staying aggressive on the boards," said Williams. "Tonight, in game one, we just didn't match their intensity. They played better than we did, and they won."
"There were a lot of long rebounds tonight, and their guards and their bigs did a good job of getting in there and getting those. That's something we need to address as a team," said Horford. "We have to make contact and come up with those long rebounds. We can't give them those second shot opportunities."
Harden put a lot of pressure on the Hawks with his pick-and-roll game and seemed to get to the rim at will. There were times in the game where the Hawks still looked a little confused on the defensive end with spacing and rotations, which is something very fixable. The Hawks have enough speed to matchup with pick-and-rolls, but when they do not place themselves in good positions, they can be exploited (i.e. Korver guarding Harden).
Foul trouble hurt the Hawks as well. As mentioned, the Rockets took 12 more free throw attempts than did Atlanta (Harden had 2 more by himself). DeShawns fouled out in the fourth, but struggled with foul trouble all game and Korver got five quick fouls and did not play at all in the fourth quarter. Again, the Hawks need to find a balance between playing aggressive and trying to force turnovers, and when to back off and keep themselves in front of the opposition and out of foul trouble. There were numerous fouls called 30-plus feet away from the basket on guys over-pressing the ball-handler (admittedly, some of the calls were completely absurd and the refereeing was sub-par all game).
Positives that can be taken away from the game are that despite an awful rebounding night, and a night when Harden goes for 45 and the defense looks porous, the Hawks had a lead mid-way through the fourth quarter. They moved the ball well, especially in the second half and had 23 assists. The rebounding numbers improved (especially when Zaza was in the game to handle/frustrate Asik physically) in the second half, they shot the ball well from the field (47.7%) and from the foul line (88.2%), and six players hit double figures in points. On a night where Korver could only play 14:45 due to foul trouble and missed a few open looks, and Josh Smith went 9-for-21 (I know he shoots the ball poorly some nights, but he's usually around 48%) they still had the ability to make a run and take a lead. The next step is learning as a team how to finish games and sustain that run throughout the fourth.
While there were many negatives and as Drew opened his press conference stating, "We have some things that we really need to focus on and really work on...particularly on the boards;" the Hawks never gave up (an undesirable trait that was long associated with the franchise) and it seems as though many of the problems are fixable. While we won't grow any taller, Drew may have figured some rotational issues out (like playing Zaza more minutes against big centers) and the Hawks can definitely improve their long-rebounding effort. So fans, don't push the eject button after one game. Remember it's a new group and they will have growing pains, but this group, even in a loss, seems more together and cohesive than the last few teams. So if anyone can pull together and get on the same page on the court (they've started doing so off the court) it's this group.