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Reserves continue to outplay starters as Hawks lose big to Celtics

The losing streak hits double digits.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It was another familiar rough start for the Atlanta Hawks entering play against the Celtics on Friday evening. The effort, in part, and the execution was lacking on the defensive end of the court from the tip. Boston put up 45 points in the opening frame and the Hawks would never get back within single digits of the visiting team in an eventual 114-96 loss. The losing streak now sits at 10 games.

The Hawks did make a few runs across the game that would make the outcome, at moments, seem a bit more in doubt. When they were shaving points off the Celtics’ lead, it consistently happened with lineups including Jeremy Lin, DeAndre’ Bembry, Alex Len, John Collins, Justin Anderson and/or Kevin Huerter was on the floor. Collins and Dewayne Dedmon were the only starters that were able to contribute meaningful production.

That breakdown sort of says it all. This contest was probably one in which the starters struggled the most. And at times it looked like the primary difference was simply effort. But an area of struggle for an NBA team is not often as simple as that. It must also be said that they’ve not had the luxury of starting the same lineup in consecutive games very many times this season.

Trae Young, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince have been, by far, the most consistently available members of the starting lineup and while they started this game once again, they struggled to be effective in this game. Bazemore left during the second quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. His status for Atlanta’s contest with Charlotte on Sunday remains in doubt.

“We’ll figure it out,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce during post-game comments. “We’ve mixed up the line up with John and Dewayne, you know, jumping those two guys in and giving them a little more time to figure it out. Whether it’s starting or whether they are out there together throughout the course of the game and try to infuse a body here or two. Jeremy was the first up off of the bench with Trae tonight. And I thought it was a decent stretch, it was only two minutes, but I thought it was a decent stretch, but it’s different. And so we will keep trying to find different solutions to the line ups, whether it’s subbing in early, or subbing more guys at once, and just mixing up the group or seeing if that group can get going internally.”

Collins led all Atlanta starters with 16 points on just ten shooting possessions. He also collected seven rebounds and played with his familiar energy and activity.

“It’s another tough one at home. You hate to lose games at home,” said Collins. “They came out and shot the ball well. I didn’t think we really executed on either end of the floor too well. A team like that, that’s deep and has guys that can go in the rotation, it’s always going to be tough to win the game.”

“I think every game we’ve increased (his minutes on the floor) him a couple of minutes,” Pierce said of Collins. “There are really no restrictions on him now - just got to monitor him a little and make sure we’re not putting him in a bad spot. Again, his energy, his effort - we don’t run a lot of plays for him. We just put him in the action and use his talents and athleticism to get easy opportunities; some of them drop-offs, some off of lobs, and just his activity around the basket for offensive rebounds. To play 30 minutes in his fourth and fifth game, to kind of have his legs underneath him, and to get his rhythm going, we’ll see more, and we’ll see a better version of John as his season progresses.”

Dedmon was active and had seven points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot. But Young had just five points and two assists. He was 2-of-7 from the field. His shooting woes from beyond the three point line continued; he was 0-for-5 in the contest.

Prince generated just two points in the game, both from the free throw line. He was 0-for-7 from the floor including missing on all four of his three points attempts. He was limited to just eight minutes of play in the first half due to foul trouble.

“Taurean battled foul trouble in the first quarter, which kind of got him out of the loop right from the jump,” Pierce said of his third-year starting small forward. “You know, that group — to start the third, to start the first, we’re down, we’re in the hole — I got to throw something out there. The rhythm of the fouls kept him out and just not making some of the open shots that he had, never really got into rhythm offensively.”

It’s become a consistent theme for a number of games now that Jeremy Lin has been the team’s most effective performer. He amassed 19 points, ten assists and three steals in the game and was a definite spark during each stretch Atlanta would start to eat into the lead of the Celtics.

Bembry stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, seven rebounds, four blocks, four assists and two steals. He continues to be a regular part of a reserve lineup, often giving the team their best stretch of play with his relentless energy.

“Competitive group to finish the game. Still, seeking and searching to find a group that we can get started in terms of our energy, our effort, playing together,” Pierce commented about the solid play of his reserves. “I thought Dre’ and Jeremy - they’ve been on a tear (the) last couple of games - just consistent energy on both sides of the floor. Dre’ missed a couple of three’s early—but finally got one. You just see a burden and a relief coming off. He’s playing the right way and he’s being rewarded with minutes, and I think he’s being rewarded with spirit with how hard he’s competing. Those two guys are the examples in our locker room right now as we are searching and seeking and trying to find something positive. Those are the two the guys that I’m looking at.”

Returning from a one game absence due to injury, Alex Len played his first game as a reserve and put together one of his strongest performances of the season. He had 17 points on 11 shooting possessions and flashed to the rim with energy at times to create some of the better passing in the halfcourt offense for the Hawks.

Justin Anderson played in just his third game of this NBA season. His energy and activity stood out on both ends of the court. He had 12 points, two rebounds, and a steal in his 17 minutes.

“I feel good. It’s an unbelievable opportunity to just be back out there,” he said. “When I came off the surgery table six or seven months ago, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just stayed faithful to the grind and the process and worked my butt off to be back. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I play hard.”

For the Celtics, Kyrie Irving set the tone early on both ends of the court. He had 13 points, four rebounds, and three assists.

Aaron Baynes, playing in more of a normal starting type of role due to the absence of former Atlanta All-Star center Al Horford, led Boston in scoring with 16 points. He also amassed nine rebounds and four assists.

Jayson Tatum added 14 points, four rebounds and three assists.

Irving and Baynes execute a simple dribble handoff on a possession early in the game. The lack of effort to challenge his ability to get space and generate a shot would be a bit of a foreboding for how most of the game would go. This is simply too easy.

This is the exact same action just a couple of possessions later and the effort is no better.

Because Bazemore gets more separated from Tatum here, Dedmon has the responsibility to create some traffic to allow Bazemore to recover. But Young has to work harder to force the ball from Irving.

On this offensive possession, Young and Collins demonstrate the chemistry they have developed. It’s an accurate lob and Collins gets the easy flush.

Notice at the end of the play that Irving is chirping at Jaylen Brown about his failure to help from his position by “tagging the roller.”

When defensive lapses occurred early in the game for the Hawks, you did not see any communication among players targeted at cleaning up the execution.

Young tries to get on track offensively with a runner in the middle of the first quarter. He is very effective at getting his defender on his back as to create a pocket in which to operate.

Again, after the play Irving chirps at a teammate. This time Baynes has neither offered protection at the rim nor covered his assignment, Len, in the corner. And it does not go without getting called out.

Lin is able to hit a step back jumper playing along with some of the teammates who managed significantly better execution in this game.

It may seem like a minor detail but notice how Huerter moves up above the three-point break as Lin dribbles to the spot he wants. The movement by Huerter allows Lin to function with no concern that there might be a defender behind him that might help toward him from his blind spot.

On this play we see another example of nice execution from one of the better lineups the Hawks deployed.

At this point the Celtics had started to overplay Collins as a threat at the rim, so Collins directs traffic and sends both Anderson and Len to the right baseline rather than having one set up in each corner.

The Boston defenders react strongly to the threat of the Collins screen and Bembry gets downhill in a hurry and finishes with a highlight dunk.

Anderson and Len don’t quite work out where each should be in their spacing. They have hardly played together this season but you can at least see they are communicating together to try to figure it out.

This is the first possession in the second half. Brown gets to the baseline with little resistance and finishes with the dunk. Recall that Prince sat much of the first half in foul trouble, which seems to have been a factor in his execution on this play.

If he allows Brown to get to the baseline, it’s his responsibility to use the baseline as an extra defender and cut off the path of the dribbler.

If he wants help from Dedmon, it is Prince’s responsibility to eventual steer him back toward the direction of the front of the restricted area. He does neither.

This was basically the end of the line for the starters in the third quarter. Boston creates a turnover and a transition opportunity. There is just no sense of urgency on the part of the Hawks, apart from Huerter, to attempt to recover and contest the run out attempt.

This play offers a stark contrast to the level of effort and activity. Bembry anticipates the entry pass to Tatum and uses his length to get the steal. He then pushes hard in transition which creates an opportunity for Len to visit the free throw line.

This possession offers a look at the activity of Anderson. He detects the Celtics being confused even if briefly about how they are supposed to get matched up. He slips to the rim and an alert Bembry hits him with a pass early in the shot clock.

We see another example of Anderson’s activity on this play. He creates the passing lane for Lin. He notices Brown is going to gamble for the steal and come up empty. He also seems to be aware that Daniel Theis is playing with 5 fouls at this point and dribbles right and the rim and converts the score to get the hawks back within 14 points.

That’s as close as they would get it.

The optimistic view is that the presence of Anderson and the strong play of Lin and Bembry will create some healthy pressure on the starters to play with more purpose and sense of urgency. It may not take long to see if that’s the case.

Up Next

The Hawks will host the Charlotte Hornets at State Farm Arena on Sunday at 6 pm ET. A nine-point loss in Charlotte on Nov. 6 was the game that first set Atlanta on the trajectory of their current 10-game losing streak.