You never know what might happen in the NBA. Teams bound for the lottery punch above their weight and knock out a championship contender every so often. The grind of the long schedule and the constant pressure to win gets to teams and opens the door for worse teams to jump up and grab a win.
Friday was not one of those nights for the Atlanta Hawks, who were thoroughly stomped by the Houston Rockets in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicates (and the final score was a 15-point victory for the road team). Houston led by as much as 30 before garbage time, which started at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and the Hawks made a small run to make the result look slightly better.
Through the competitive portion of the game, if there even was a competitive portion of the game, the Hawks were outscored by 21 points from beyond the three-point line, which doubled as the exact chasm in the two teams’ scores through three quarters. Houston shot 15-for-37 from three through three quarters and Atlanta made just eight of their 26 attempts in the same time frame. Kent Bazemore was especially brutal from long range, missing all five of his three-point shots. Quite a few of those were off the dribble in pick-and-roll as the Rockets rightly laid off him to let him shoot from outside.
While Bazemore was ineffective making Houston pay for the space they gave him on the three-point line, he was much better at almost everything else offensively. Outside of the development of rookie John Collins and sophomore Taurean Prince, Bazemore’s much improved handle and passing has been a massive bright spot for the Hawks in what has been a season devoid of light thus far. He put together another solid game as a primary ball handler at times for Atlanta and although it doesn’t show up on his box score line (18 points on 14 shots, two assists, three turnovers), Bazemore was effective getting into the teeth of the defense and either finishing through contact or finding teammates.
In the above clip, Bazemore brought the ball up in semi-transition and attacked before the defense was set, splitting the trap in the pick-and-roll to finish at the rim. Bazemore used a tight right-to-left crossover to get back to his stronger hand and get to the middle of the floor and left Houston’s Ryan Anderson in the dust. He very rarely splits defenders like this but it’s always pretty when he’s able to do so.
He’s also flashed a nice ability to make passes to his rolling big men in traffic, whether it comes after a drive or a quick pass over the top of the defense.
In the first clip, Bazemore took the screen and attacked the dropping big man, opening a lane for Collins to roll with him to the rim. Nene makes a great play to knock the ball out of Collins’ hands, but Bazemore’s vision and willingness to dump the ball back to Collins is encouraging. In the second clip, he recognizes that Anderson is too far up and Collins is going to end up behind him, so he floats the ball through four arms and gets it to Collins for the finish.
A brief aside on Collins: he plays with a ton of energy and has some skills in the post, but he’s going to have to become a better screener if he’s going to be a starting-level center in the league. It’s apparent that Budenholzer and the organization think of Collins as a center and heavily involve him in the screen-and-roll game, but he seems to shy away from contact when setting the screen, instead opting to get a head start toward the rim. It’s only been a few games and perhaps he’ll improve in this area as he ages and gets stronger, but it’s worth monitoring this year.
Bazemore’s secondary creation has been a massive boon to a Hawks offense that is completely starved for pick-and-roll operators. Dennis Schröder is the best of the bunch but that’s not saying much—Schröder isn’t the most willing passer when he finds a lane to the basket. Bazemore’s ability to find his big man rolling to the rim gives the Atlanta offense another dimension.
Speaking of creators, Isaiah Taylor has been a breath of fresh air on the second unit. Malcolm Delaney missed Friday’s game with an ankle injury, but he may come back to find himself as the third point guard behind Taylor. Delaney is certainly a better defender than Taylor and knows the offense a lot better than his younger counterpart, but Taylor is a more dynamic individual offensive option that brings a spark to the bench unit. Delaney’s defense and institutional knowledge is a feather in his cap but doesn’t serve the Hawks as well against opposing benches, where high-level defense just isn’t as important. Taylor can get into the lane whenever he pleases, finishes well enough through contact, and can make tough passes better than Delaney. It also must be noted that the Hawks aren’t tied to Delaney past the end of this season, though they will have his restricted rights, and Taylor can be under contract at the minimum for this season and next before hitting his restricted free agency. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Budenholzer go to Taylor as the full-time backup even when Delaney does come back fully healthy, though he has been playing at least three point guards in each game in which three have been available.
Defensively, the Hawks were just completely overmatched by the Rockets’ three-point barrage. Atlanta’s base defensive scheme protects the paint and gives up a lot of threes—against Houston, that choice is magnified. The Rockets have completely eschewed the mid-range game to focus on getting to the rim and shooting threes. More than 50 percent of Houston’s shots have come from beyond the arc this season, more than 15 percentage points higher than second-place Dallas, and Atlanta gives up the second-most three-pointers as a percentage of opponents’ total shots, so it wasn’t a surprise to see Houston bombing from deep.
Atlanta fell to 1-8 after the loss to Houston and things aren’t looking up in the near future. Matchups with Cleveland and Boston loom on Sunday and Monday and another back-to-back is on the cards next weekend. Things could get ugly in the standings for the Hawks, but it must be reinforced that this season won’t be defined by wins and losses. Every game is a chance for the young guys to show something knew or even for veterans like Bazemore to work on new skills that will help them in the future.