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Hawks fight back but lose late in Los Angeles

As good a performance as the Hawks have had in a loss all season.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Los Angeles Lakers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The same old story befell the Atlanta Hawks once again on Sunday night in Los Angeles — they played a strong first half and held a one-point lead going into the break, only for everything to fall apart in the third quarter. This time, however, things didn’t balloon out of control and become a 25-point loss; Lloyd Pierce’s men went right back at the Lakers, turning a 15-point deficit into a four-point lead that they’d eventually give away in a 107-106 loss.

The final moments were filled with controversy, from Tyson Chandler’s uncalled kicked ball to the Hawks’ pleas for a goaltending decision on the game’s final shot, but the final result will fade from memory long before the performance from the players does. Atlanta has had endless trouble with six-to-eight-minute stretches that end up being the margin of games, but on Sunday they didn’t let it sink their chances.

Pierce was complimentary of his players after the game, telling reporters, “I think we were down 15 at one point. For them to come back, show a little fight, a little resiliency.” For reasons that should be obvious, the Hawks’ first-year head coach was unhappy with the fact that the game ended up on the wrong side of his team’s ledger, but there was nothing wrong with the performance itself and if the team can string together more performances like this one, they’ll be just fine in terms of wins and losses this season.

As has been the case all season, for both good and bad, the lead story for the Hawks was rookie point guard Trae Young, who dominated the fourth quarter with 11 points and five assists as the Hawks mounted their comeback. Young had everything working in the period, from his signature one-handed passes from the wing to the opposite corner, to his Steve Nash-like dribbles under the rim to draw defenders and find the open, to a trio of unholy three-pointers that reminded the world just how dangerous he can be on the offensive end of the floor:

Young had the ball in his hands on nearly every possession early on in the fourth quarter, eviscerating the Lakers’ dropping big men. As soon as Los Angeles pushed their bigs further up the floor to trap Young, Atlanta went away from having him as the primary playmaker every time down, but he was still heavily involved as the Hawks’ biggest threat.

Speaking of threats, Taurean Prince had his best offensive game of the season, playing off Young’s gravity and passing ability to rack up 23 points on just 13 shots. He shot 4-for-5 from inside the arc and 5-for-8 beyond it while also inhaling seven rebounds.

Five turnovers and a few questionable defensive plays did mar Prince’s overall performance, but those who believe in his ability to be a starting-caliber wing on the Hawks’ next championship contender will be encouraged by what they saw from him tonight. There have been plenty of questions surrounding Prince’s shot selection, but his outing on Sunday night displayed his shooting at its best.

DeAndre’ Bembry’s game was almost the opposite of Prince’s — his game was no flash but a whole lot of substance. As much as Young was the offensive engine for the Hawks throughout much of this game, Bembry was the spark plug that got everything going. Nobody will be writing home about his box score stats (nine points on six shots, five rebounds, and two assists in 16 minutes of play), but he had a particularly positive impact on the Hawks with his infectious energy and hustle.

Vince Carter scored just four points and grabbed just one rebound in Sunday’s contest, but he even outshined Young in the final two minutes of the game. He was able to crank it up for another dunk that gave the Hawks a one-point lead late, then stonewalled LeBron James on back-to-back possessions, forcing a shot-clock violation on the second:

Pierce nearly ran out of superlatives for Carter in his post-game comments: “Vince is every bit of half man, half amazing. Whoever coined that years ago was right on. Who knew he’s be playing at 41 years old? Who knew he’d still be dunking? Who knew he’d be able to still impact games at 41 years old?...To see him out there, we’re always appreciative of his efforts on the floor.” He’s had his ups and downs throughout the 2018-19 season, but Carter came up huge on both ends of the floor in the final moments of the Hawks’ close loss.

The final play of the game will get plenty of talk on sports radio but frankly isn’t particularly interesting from the Hawks’ perspective. There’s nothing tactically different Pierce could have or should have done on the last possession — Young got a great look at the rim and Chandler made a fantastic play to deflect the ball out of the air and preserve the Lakers’ win.

Whether it was a goaltend or not (and I don’t think it was) only matters on the team’s win/loss record, which at this point in their development as a franchise just doesn’t matter that much. There will be plenty of games in which they play far worse than they did against Los Angeles and win but there will be few in which they play better and lose.

One of the biggest teachable moments for Atlanta will have occurred about a minute and a half earlier, when Kent Bazemore was called for a technical foul and gifting the Lakers the one point they’d later use to win the game. The outburst was Bazemore’s fourth technical foul of the season, one behind Andre Drummond for the league “lead,” and came at the most inopportune time one could imagine for his team.

The 107-106 defeat was the first game in an extended stretch of difficult games for a team that may not be favored in Las Vegas in an individual contest for nearly a month. From here, Atlanta will move on to Golden State, Denver, and Indiana before returning home in what shapes up to be a particularly difficult road trip for a Hawks team that falls to 3-10 on the season.