It didn’t happen quite from the jump, but by the end of the first half, it was clear the Lakers had a different energy level from the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night in Los Angeles. The visitors ran out to a 10-2 lead, but it was the only enjoyable part of the game for head coach Mike Budenholzer’s team, which got blitzed off the floor throughout the competitive portion of the first game of a Staples Center back-to-back that concludes on Monday against the Clippers.
The story of this game happened in transition, where the Lakers bombed up and down the court. Los Angeles finished with 44 points on 34 transition possessions in the contest, significantly better in both efficiency and frequency than their season averages. The Lakers run in transition more often than any other team in the league, averaging 23.2 transition opportunities per game, but giving up 34 such possessions was inexcusable for the Hawks. The damage was done in the second quarter, mostly against the Hawks’ backups: John Collins and Malcolm Delaney finished with -20 and -24 plus-minuses, respectively, as both of them were on the floor during the Lakers’ decisive run in the early part of the second period.
Collins’ matchup against an equally-athletic Lakers’ team brought forth the weaknesses in his hunt for offensive rebounds—when he’s not able to pull them down, the Hawks can suffer in transition. Against most teams, this isn’t an issue, but Collins’ nuclear athleticism wasn’t an advantage against Los Angeles, who sent Larry Nance and his teammates to the defensive glass and quickly got out in transition as Collins was still getting back. Watch below how all five Lakers were in the paint for the defensive rebound against Collins and broke immediately upon securing the ball:
Lonzo Ball rotates over to take away Collins’ roll to the rim; against the vast majority of point guards, Collins would simply rise over him and grab the offensive rebound, but the Lakers are chock full of guys who rebound very well for their positions, including Ball. Collins goes for the rebound off the Belinelli miss, but Ball is right there to tip it to a teammate, igniting the break for the hosts. Belinelli is already behind the play as a result of missing the layup, but Collins finds himself trailing as well, leading to an odd-man break for the Lakers and an open three for Ball on the left wing.
Collins has already shown an aptitude for harnessing his immense athleticism and energy into positive for the Hawks, but reining himself in when he finds himself in situations like the above will do him a lot of good, not just in the immediate future, but as his career progresses and that athleticism starts to wane. Having that athleticism is obviously inherently valuable, but knowing when to deploy it and when it’s better to get back quickly on defense to prevent a transition opportunity for the Hawks’ opponent will be something he’ll pick up as his game matures.
Dennis Schröder seemed to be the only Hawk up for the challenge of running with the young Lakers. His effort has been a consistent theme over the last few weeks, a marked change from the first two months of the year. Budenholzer pointed out before the game that Schröder’s effort had improved and what that meant for the team: “I think he’s really picked up his effort defensively. I think his competitiveness on that end of the court’s been better. I think it’s critical for us if we want to continue to grow and get better. There’s a lot on him offensively, but for him to be the kind of player he wants to be and we want him to be, [he’s] got to bring it on both ends.” Schröder finished with 27 points on 10-for-23 shooting along with five assists and just two turnovers, but the most telling statistic of the night was his neutral plus-minus in a game the Hawks lost by 29 points. He didn’t have any of the traditional defensive box score statistics but gave the effort Budenholzer mentioned before the game that’s been a more consistent part of his game over the past few weeks.
While it wasn’t apparent in this game, Budenholzer continues to be pleased with the team’s progress on both ends: “I think the unselfishness of Dennis and the whole group the last couple weeks has been pretty good too. Our record may not reflect it, but I think the way we’re playing the last couple weeks is significantly better and he’s a huge part of that on both ends of the court.” His statement rings true—the Hawks are ranked 15th in offense and 28th in defense over the last month, both better marks than their season-long averages. The offense in particular has ticked up over the last month, a trend that should continue with the return of starting center Dewayne Dedmon, who went through pre-game warmups at Staples Center but still remains a few days away from a full recovery from the left tibia stress reaction that’s kept him out since late November. Dedmon has been a big miss for the Hawks on both ends of the floor as they’ve struggled for big-man depth with a few key injuries in the first half of the season.
In other injury-related news, Mike Muscala continues to find himself on the outskirts of the rotation. For the second consecutive game, he only found the court during garbage time at the end of the game after recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined him for two months. Both Miles Plumlee and Collins seem to be firmly ahead of Muscala in the rotation and Budenholzer even went to Tyler Cavanaugh at center in the first half before dusting off Muscala at the end of the game. For the moment, Muscala and Luke Babbitt have drawn the short end of the stick in Budenholzer’s rotation.
The Hawks are back in action on Monday night in the same building, when they’ll take on the Los Angeles Clippers. Perhaps this game will go better for Atlanta, though it’s hard to imagine it could go much worse than their performance on Sunday against the Lakers.