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Hawks Vs. Nuggets: Crunchtime Execution Lacking In 118-117 Overtime Loss

March 11, 2012; Sacramento, CA, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew stands on the court against the Sacramento Kings at the end of the first quarter at the Power Balance Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE
March 11, 2012; Sacramento, CA, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew stands on the court against the Sacramento Kings at the end of the first quarter at the Power Balance Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE

Before I go all sour grapes let me first point out that Atlanta's 118-117 loss Tuesday night to the Denver Nuggets was the most entertaining game I have watched this season. I felt like the free-wheeling 80s were back with all of the up and down play, dunks and blocked shots that this game had to offer. It was fun right up until the end where the Hawks lost the game.

The sour grapes I am talking about lie in Atlanta's execution down the stretch or lack there of although I will point out ironically that the one play they executed to perfection was the final play where Zaza Pachulia missed the game-winning lay up attempt off of an inbounds play from under the basket. Lets take a closer look at the final moments of regulation.

Atlanta led 102-98 with 2:35 remaining in the game and the Hawks gave the ball to Joe Johnson who proceeded to jab step his defender four to five times before floating a bad pass in the direction of Josh Smith. Ty Lawson got the steal and it eventually led to an Al Harrington lay in cutting the lead to 102-100. Atlanta's next possession was another Johnson iso resulting in a missed 21 foot jump shot and the Nuggets tied the game with an Aaron Afflalo layup.

I don't necessarily have a problem with Johnson having the ball in his hands at crunch time but in this situation it wasn't needed. Josh Smith had it going and both Johnson and Kirk Hinrich were feeding off of Josh whenever Denver's defense was forced to react. Smith was making solid decisions with the ball and Johnson was torching them playing off the ball.

I have been a strong proponent of putting Johnson in the post more especially against smaller guards but going against Aaron Afflalo who is a great defender and did a outstanding job on Johnson Tuesday, is not a favorable matchup.

After those two failed possessions and another miss by Jannero Pargo, Larry Drew once again went back to Smith in the post against Nene. Josh used his quickness to unleash a crafty spin move and a lay in that put Atlanta back up 104-102. The Hawks caught a break when Ty Lawson missed a chance at the rim to tie the game and Josh Smith secured the rebound, flipped it to Joe Johnson who was then fouled by Nene.

Denver wasn't over the limit so it resulted in a ball out of bounds situation for the Hawks. Marvin Williams checked back into the game after suffering a hip injury earlier to throw the ball in. Credit Denver for not making things easy as Marvin's inbound pass went into Pargo who then had the ball slapped out of bounds off of his knee by Denver's Aaron Afflalo.

That gave Denver the ball back with nine seconds remaining which led to an absolute impossible falling away three-pointer by Danilo Gallinari over the outstretched arm of Josh Smith to put the Nuggets up 105-104. The Hawks however had one more chance with just 3.9 seconds remaining. Denver again cranked up the pressure on the inbounds pass which eventually went in to Kirk Hinrich who slipped, recovered and was fouled on a shot attempt by Corey Brewer with just 1.1 seconds remaining. Hinrich tied the game with the first shot but missed the second to force overtime.

So to recap, basically all the Hawks had to do was secure an inbounds pass or make two free throws in the games final seconds and they would have won the game in regulation. That is without mentioning the three failed possessions in a row late in the quarter.

The overtime period was much of the same as the Hawks would build an advantage just to see Denver answer back. Joe Johnson put Atlanta up 113-109 with a three pointer with just 2:21 remaining. Josh Smith fouled out of the game on the next possession and once again the Hawks' offensive execution went downhill.

Johnson scored the Hawks last basket with 1:32 remaining to put Atlanta up 117-112. The Nuggets whittled that down to 117-116 with just 59 seconds to go after a Ty Lawson layup. The Hawks were whistled for a shot clock violation on their next possession and two Nene free throws gave the Nuggets the lead with just 22 seconds remaining.

Johnson bulled his way to the basket against Afflalo and missed a runner with 4.5 seconds remaining but the ball caromed out of bounds off of Denver giving the Hawks possession under the basket. Zaza Pachulia got loose inside but missed the attempt from point blank range as time expired.

It is easy to second guess after the fact but the Hawks didn't get a good look at the basket in two of their last three possessions up until Pachulia's miss. Atlanta put the ball in the hands of Johnson who was forced to go against Denver's best defender in Afflalo which resulted in two extremely tough shots. Denver chose not to double Johnson on either play but getting it out of his hands with the Nuggets' defense so clearly focused on him would have probably been the better play.

In the grand scheme of things, it is just one game out of 66 but it had that playoff feel to it where every possession mattered late and Atlanta simply wasn't up to the task when it came to executing.

Johnson was exceptional for most of the game scoring 34 points on 13-26 shooting including 6-10 from deep. He did finish with five turnovers and was much better early than late. Josh Smith turned in another tremendous performance finishing with 33 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Kirk Hinrich made his second straight start and had his best game of the season scoring 22 points on 7-8 shooting. Marvin Williams added 10 points off the bench and looked to be much more aggressive coming off the bench for the second game in a row before suffering an injury late in the second half.

Nene led the Nuggets with 22 points and Ty Lawson added 21. Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington finished with 19 points each.

Atlanta will wrap up their six-game road trip Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.

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