For the second straight game to open Atlanta’s 2018-19 season, the Hawks failed to show up defensively in almost every major way en route to a blowout defeat at the hands of their opponents. This time, it was the Memphis Grizzlies, who had just been blown out themselves two days prior, who laid the Hawks’ defense to bare, revealing and taking advantage of all of Atlanta’s holes on that end of the floor. The final score of 131-117 just about encapsulates the defensive effort from the Hawks.
There were positives for Atlanta, but once again those positives were entirely focused on one end of the floor. The offense is clicking as Trae Young develops in his primary playmaker role. He’s by no means a perfect player, but the combination of shooting and passing have already shined in the early days of his career.
Young finished with 20 points and nine assists on the night and was largely much more effective against Memphis than he was in his debut against New York on Wednesday. After the game, Young said, “I’m just trying to make reads and trying to be a true point guard, just trying to find everybody and make sure they’re in their right spots and getting them in their rhythm. Things like that. I think that’s just my main job is to make sure everybody gets a good feel.”
Young’s pass-first mentality perhaps betrays his national reputation based on the highlights he generated at Oklahoma last season, but there aren’t enough superlatives available to describe his passing. While he’s still polishing his handle, finishing, and, yes, even his shooting, he walked into the league one of the ten best passers on the planet and has shown as much through two games of his NBA career.
Taurean Prince was one of the other bright spots for the visiting team. The offensive leap he took late in the 2017-18 season seems to be more permanent than many of us (myself included) believed it would be. He’s a bonafide three-point shooter, with the ability to spot-up and shoot off movement, as he showed on the very first play of the game:
However, the Hawks aren’t going to have a chance to win games consistently, or at all, frankly, with the defense they’re currently playing. This team was never going to be elite on that end of the floor, but the results of the first two games of the season have surprised even the most pessimistic among us.
Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce made his name as the defensive coordinator in Philadelphia before taking his current post and while he’s staying the course with the team’s message about competing and getting better every day, the team’s failures defensively have to be eating at him.
After the game, Pierce didn’t even wait for reporters to ask the obvious question, saying, “Our biggest concern right now is on the defensive end. That’s individual pride and that’s collective effort from start to finish. We didn’t start with the intensity that we wanted to start with defensively. The guys know and they feel it and they understand, we just gotta apply it.”
Memphis jumped out to an early 27-10 lead in the first quarter and while the Hawks eventually fought back to break even in the second quarter, things quickly got out of control in favor of the home team on the way to a margin that doesn’t describe how much better the Grizzlies were on Friday night.
After giving up 77 points in the first half, the Hawks came out with a different defensive scheme in the third quarter, which helped to stem the tide for the Grizzlies’ offensive attack. In general, Atlanta likes to lay their big men back in the paint in pick-and-roll defense, to take advantage of their size and make sure they’re not too far out of position.
For lumbering big men like Alex Len and Miles Plumlee, this is a sensible approach, but once it was clear that Memphis had wholly broken down that system, it was time for a change. In the second half, the Hawks blitzed ball handlers in an attempt to cause turnovers and get out in transition, where they could begin to eat into the Grizzlies’ advantage on the scoreboard. It didn’t end up bringing them back in the game, but as a data point, it was nice to see that Pierce was willing to make wholesale halftime adjustments to the team’s defensive scheme in an attempt to change the tide of a game.
When asked about the trapping scheme, Pierce said, “[It was] just trying to find a little more competitive spirit, see if we can speed them up or take them out of what they were doing. I’m trying to wind these guys up defensively as much as we can. We know we’ve gotta be solid, we know we’ve gotta take pride, then we also gotta try and do the little things to turn teams over and put a little pressure on them. That’s all that was. We were down, we wanted to not just go back and forth scoring baskets, we wanted to see if we could create some turnovers and get some easy ones as well.”
Things will get better when John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon return from injury, but for the moment, things are very stark for the Hawks on the defensive end. They’ll have to defend better if they want to win a game between now and when those guys return; for now, the only chance they have to win is by scoring at an incandescent level, because that’s exactly what their opponents are doing.