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Hawks fall short after second half comeback

There are still positives to take away from a crushing late defeat.

Atlanta Hawks v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

After a blowout loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, the Atlanta Hawks looked as though they were in for more of the same at halftime against the Clippers in the second game of their Staples Center back-to-back. The Hawks were relatively listless defensively once again in the first half on Monday night, having given up 58 points through two quarters. The second half wasn’t a complete turnaround, but the defense stepped up enough to bring them back from down 11 to leading by as many as six. The lead evaporated in the final minutes as the Hawks embraced their Georgia Sports DNA, but this was certainly a step forward compared to the first game in Los Angeles on Sunday. The effort on both ends from Atlanta completely eclipsed the loss against the Lakers and while they were unable to pull out the win, the Hawks played very well and can carry that performance forward into the second half of the season.

Malcolm Delaney had a wonderful all-around game in this one, despite the 4-for-11 shooting from the field. Adding seven rebounds and six assists to his nine points gave him a +14 plus-minus, joint-best on the team, in 26 minutes of action. He was so impressive, especially in the second half, that head coach Mike Budenholzer opted to go with Delaney instead of Dennis Schröder to close the game. Delaney has certainly had a rollercoaster year but remains a talented player fighting for his NBA life, as he will become a free agent this summer. He started the year as the sole backup point guard but quickly lost that role to newcomer Isaiah Taylor, only to be reborn in a combo guard role that is much better suited to his particular skills. Delaney played as a combo guard throughout his European career and is far more comfortable in that role, though tonight’s outburst came mostly back at the point guard position, as Taylor was the only active Hawk to see no action in the game.

Delaney had a number of quality of assists, but none were prettier or more important than the cross-court one-hander to Kent Bazemore to set up a corner three:

Delaney is an intriguing player who has all the skills to be a solid guard in the league but lacks the game-to-game consistency required at this level. Games like this one show his versatile skills as a playmaker and defender, but those games need to come more often for him to truly make it as an NBA player.

Monday’s game saw the return of Dewayne Dedmon, who hadn’t played since the end of November with a tibia stress reaction in his left leg. Dedmon didn’t start and played 20 minutes as Budenholzer eased him back into the rotation, but he was just about as effective in those minutes as he was at the beginning of the season. He protected the rim well, got out in transition for an alley-oop, and generally kept things together defensively nicely.

Another center who found himself back in the rotation was Mike Muscala, who hadn’t played in the competitive portion of a game since returning from an ankle injury suffered in early November. Against both Portland and the Lakers, Muscala featured heavily in garbage time at the end of the fourth quarter, but he picked up 11 minutes in the second half against the Clippers and even closed the game when things got tight at the end.

Muscala was the fifth center Budenholzer played on the night, which will make for some interesting lineup decisions going forward now that everybody is healthy. Early in the season, Miles Plumlee was out with his own injury and Tyler Cavanaugh hadn’t quite become a key member of the team yet, so a three-man center rotation of Dedmon, Muscala, and rookie John Collins made sense. After the injuries to Dedmon and Muscala along with the emergence of Plumlee and Cavanaugh as regular members of the rotation, the team really has some decisions to make about the future of the center rotation.

All five of these guys play their best at the center position, but with five of them on the roster and only one true power forward in Ersan Ilyasova, Budenholzer has often mixed and matched this group together to try to find a combination that works. Collins and Dedmon played together in the first half before the former was stapled to the bench for the entire second half and Muscala and Cavanaugh opened the fourth quarter together; however, these combinations are not going to produce sustainably in the future, so the Hawks will have to figure out which of these guys are worth keeping in the rotation, which are worth keeping as options in case of injury, and which can provide some value on the trade market. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski indicated in a report Monday morning that the Hawks intend to be sellers at the trade deadline this year, and while none of their five centers were specifically mentioned, it would not surprise anyone to see at least one of them shipped out.

The particulars of this game weren’t pretty for the starting guards for the Hawks, as Bazemore and Dennis Schröder combined to shoot 11-for-33 and were at least partially responsible for the 34 points scored by the Clippers’ Lou Williams. Williams, who played for Atlanta for two years earlier this decade, is particularly strong going toward his left and pulling up for a jumper, but the Hawks were unable to execute a plan to stop him on multiple occasions throughout the game.

Williams, as he has been all season for Los Angeles, was the driving force for the hosts, in no small part due to plays in the two above clips, in which he was able to hurt the Hawks from his favorite spots on the floor.

At the end of the game, Budenholzer employed the controversial Hack-A strategy against DeAndre Jordan, a career 43.9 percent free-throw shooter, in order to ice Atlanta’s late lead away. Jordan came through for the Clippers at the line, hitting five of his six attempts during this intentional foul stretch that lasted about a minute, completely backfiring on the Hawks, who saw their five-point lead disappear in a cascade of MVP chants from the Staples Center crowd for Jordan.

After the game, Budenholzer was complimentary of Jordan but saw some positives in the way the Hawks fought back in the second half: “I’d like for our guys to have some success and experience a reward at the end of the day, but I think the way that we played in the second half, we can build off of that.” The transition defense in the first half was poor, as it was in the game against the Lakers, but Budenholzer also indicated that the defense was on a different level in the second half: “I think we managed to get our transition defense in a better place in the second half and making them play in the half court. If you do that, you’re at least going to give yourself a chance.” Taurean Prince also spoke after the game about the difference between the two halves: “Energy, moving the ball, and stopping their transition offense. We were changing our defense into offense pretty quickly in the third quarter and that’s what gave us the spark.” The Hawks will be able to build upon their performance in the second half and the roster becomes fully healthy for the first time all season.

After four straight losses to open their road trip, the Hawks will be in Denver on Wednesday to take on the Nuggets before coming home for an extended stay at Philips Arena: after Wednesday’s game, they’ll go on the road just once for the rest of January, a quick trip up the road to Charlotte on the 26th. The road hasn’t been kind to the Hawks this year as they dropped to 3-19 away from home with Monday’s loss to the Clippers.