After a triumphant road trip the Atlanta Hawks finally fell flat losing at home to the Memphis Grizzlies 96-77 Thursday night at Philips Arena. From the sound of things before the game, Larry Drew tried to warn his team that a letdown was possible following a long road trip.
"When you come off a road trip like that the tendency is to have a letdown," Drew said. "I was afraid today would happen. We weren't sharp tonight. I'm not going to blame it on the road trip. Everybody else has to do it. They go off on long road trips and come back and play. We can't use that as an excuse. The start of the first quarter that team just manhandled us. They played with physicality and we were a step slow in everything we did."
Atlanta started this game much like they did on the road trip by building an early 13-6 lead on a Joe Johnson three from the corner with 7:54 remaining in the first. Turnovers by Atlanta began to take their toll at this point and Memphis tied the game at 15-15 on a Rudy Gay free throw with 3:28 remaining. Zaza Pachulia also left the game at that point after picking up his second personal foul. Drew opted to go with Jason Collins off the bench to replace Pachulia and to match up with the Grizzlies Marc Gasol.
Atlanta was trailing 20-17 at the 1:17 mark when Collins was injured during a scrum for the basketball that resulted in a sprained elbow for the Hawks big man. He left the game, went immediately to the locker room and did not return. Vladimir Radmanovic came into the game at that point and Ivan Johnson slid over to the center position. Atlanta closed the quarter trailing 21-19.
Atlanta's reserves started the second quarter quickly and re-took the lead. Two Ivan Johnson free throws would give Atlanta a 31-27 advantage with 7:38 remaining in the half. Atlanta's last lead came at the 5:04 mark of the second quarter when a Marvin Williams tip in made the score 36-35. Memphis slowly started to pull away late in the half out scoring Atlanta 18-9 and taking a 53-43 lead into the intermission.
Things came unraveled for the Hawks in the third quarter who missed their first seven shots of the half and saw the Grizzlies turn a 10 point halftime advantage into a 17 point lead with 8:09 to go. The run would eventually grow to 24-8 in favor of Memphis and an eventual 30 point lead which prompted an early round of garbage time for the home team.
Early on it looked like Atlanta made a concerted effort to get Josh Smith going by putting him in the post against Marreese Speights. Josh had a nice start to this game finishing at the rim and ended up leading the team in scoring with 11 points in just under 19 minutes of action. Joe Johnson added 10 points and Ivan Johnson came off the bench to score 10 and grab nine rebounds.
Rudy Gay led Memphis with 21 points while O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen each added 18. Mike Conley chipped in 15 while Marc Gasol added 11 points and 10 boards. Dante Cunningham didn't start but quickly replaced Speights in the lineup and was a particular thorn in Atlanta's side finishing with eight points and 12 rebounds.
A couple of things jumps off the page when you look at the box score. Atlanta shot a very respectable 44 percent and recorded 23 assists on 33 made baskets. The problem started with turnovers and Atlanta piled up eight of their 15 in the first half. The Grizzlies took advantage turning those 15 turnovers into 19 points for the visitors.
Memphis pounded away at the Hawks in the paint to the tune of a 58-38 advantage. They were also all over the boards coming away with a 49-36 advantage that included 15 of the offensive variety.
Those last two lines indicate how big of an advantage the Grizzlies had over the Hawks inside while Atlanta was down two of its three centers that are currently on the roster because of injury. Even without Collins and Al Horford available, Hawks coach Larry Drew saddled Zaza Pachulia to the bench with the two-foul rule in the first half. Pachulia played the first 8:32 of the game then went to the bench after picking up his second foul and didn't return until the third quarter.
I am on record in the past as saying that I believe I understand Drew's thinking on saddling a player with two fouls although I don't necessarily agree with it. Atlanta last led 36-35 at around the five minute mark at the first half. They went with Josh Smith at center for the remainder of the quarter. Looking at the box score I only see one offensive rebound allowed by the Hawks during that stretch but the Grizzlies pounded away inside on drives to the basket and with Josh Smith tied up with Marc Gasol, Atlanta had no one to deter them at the rim.
In this instance Drew gambled and lost on the two-foul rule due to a 9-0 run for the Grizzlies between the 3:50 mark and the 1:02 mark when Atlanta finally scored again. In theory if he makes it to halftime with the score close and Pachulia only has two fouls then that is a plus and it shortens the time the team has to spend small in the second half. Most coaches would remove a player with two fouls late in the half anyway to prevent them from picking up their third personal with just a few minutes on the court. The result however was that Memphis hit their run late in the second quarter and it carried over into the third.
Would Pachulia have made a difference late in the half? Maybe or maybe not. Memphis only had a 22-18 rebounding advantage at the break and they did much more of their damage in the third quarter.
Atlanta continues its home stand on Saturday when the Philadelphia 76ers come to town in what is a key Eastern Conference matchup for the Hawks.