The margin of victory for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the Atlanta Hawks was not unexpected. The Thunder are a markedly better team in enough facets of basketball to be clearly the heavy favorites in their lone home game against the Hawks this year. A 15-point win is just about par for the course for a very good team playing against one of the league’s worst. However, as it is throughout a Hawks season that’s going to see a lot more nights like Friday, it’s the way these games play out that matters far more than the end result.
Atlanta’s 124-109 loss brought with it a number of positives and negatives. They were completely outclassed in the Thunder’s second quarter avalanche, but largely played even with their opponents through the other three quarters. Oklahoma City thrives on the offensive glass and Steven Adams pulled down three offensive boards in the first two minutes of the first quarter, but then the Hawks held the Thunder in check, allowing just four offensive rebounds in the final 46 minutes. Dewayne Dedmon, beginning with giving up those rebounds to Adams, had a poor outing, but Atlanta’s depth shined through, as Alex Len came off the bench to give the Hawks some good minutes throughout the game.
Rookie point guard Trae Young had a rough regular season homecoming, but rookie shooting guard Kevin Huerter played a solid all-around game in his 25 minutes of action. Steady stalwart Kent Bazemore struggled off the bench (though he did end up with four steals), but his former running mate on the wing, Taurean Prince, showed some flashes of an improved all-around offensive game. A game that never got closer than ten points in the second half sounds like another resounding loss for a team that will have their fair share of those this season, but there are always going to be players worth praising and criticizing from any individual contest.
Two things matter more than anything else when a team goes up against Oklahoma City: keep them off the offensive glass as much as possible and don’t feed their transition game by turning the ball over. The Hawks were magnificent on the glass, dropping just seven offensive rebounds all game. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder’s 19.5 percent offensive rebound rate was their worst performance of the year, and it showed throughout, as the Hawks sent all five guys to the glass and put a particular focus on boxing out Adams.
Dedmon struggled throughout the game with this assignment, which contributed heavily to his 17 minutes played, but Len came off the bench and did his job in this department, finishing with a game-high nine box outs, per NBA.com’s tracking statistics. Atlanta has been a constant among the worst teams in the league in defensive rebounding – you have to go back to Mike Budenholzer’s first season for the last time the Hawks were an above average defensive rebounding team – but they were able to hold up in a big way against the club that is on pace to be the best offensive rebounding team in the league for a fourth consecutive year.
Turnovers, on the other hand, continued to plague the Hawks in the contest and fueled a lot of the Thunder’s decisive second-quarter run. Five of Atlanta’s 21 turnovers occurred in a roughly five-minute stretch in the second quarter, with four of those being live-ball turnovers Oklahoma City could run the other way for transition baskets. Turnovers have been a constant pain throughout the season for the Hawks and this performance will do nothing to assuage any concerns about how devastatingly poor the team’s offensive output can be when they’re handing the ball to the other team on nearly one out of every five possessions.
There aren’t more than one or two teams in the entire league who take better shots than the Hawks – they shoot a ton at the rim and more than anybody from the corners, the two most efficient shots in basketball – but they can’t get out of their own way with regards to turnovers, which severely drags down their overall efficiency. There’s a certain turnover rate that has to be expected when the team is hunting these particular shots, as opposing defenses understand just as well as the Hawks do which shots are good and bad and will skew their defensive rotations and positioning to take these shots away, but that doesn’t excuse their putrid performance in this area all season long.
Prince generates more negativity among the Peachtree Hoops staff than just about any other player on the Hawks and, as a unit, we certainly seem to be lower on him than the rest of the NBA community at large. Given his physical tools and the expectations for his play, he’s had a disappointing year; his sometimes selfish offensive game and lack of real effort and contribution on the defensive end have made him into a bit of punching bag.
However, we can also give him credit where and when it’s due. Prince had a strong all-around game in this one, but in particular, it was his aggressiveness getting to the rim and finishing through contact that was most impressive. Since discovering his love for the jump shot, he’s attacked less and less over the course of his three-year career – his frequency of shots at the rim has halved since his rookie year – but there was no sign of trepidation on his drives against the Thunder.
The biggest knock on Prince physically is his vertical explosiveness, which hinders his ability to finish at the rim against elite competition. There were no signs of a lack of explosiveness on Friday night, especially when he jumped out of the gym to block this layup attempt from Russell Westbrook:
Performances like this from Prince make you wonder why these are so few and far between, but it is at least nice to see that he’s still capable of getting to the rim consistently and impacting the game on both ends of the floor.
Young continued his season-long trend of simply being unable to put the ball in the basket from beyond the three-point line, but he was able to notch eight assists against just two turnovers and even pitched in on the rebounding effort a bit. At this point, a good Young game offensively involves him using the threat of his three-point shot to get in the lane and finish or find a teammate, but he didn’t quite have the touch from inside on Friday night.
Defensively, things were as much of a mess as they usually are with Young, but there was one (very) small area of positivity – at least he and the coaching staff aren’t shying him away from the biggest matchups. When Russell Westbrook was the lone point guard on the floor, there was Young, doing his very best to battle with his bigger and better counterpart. The Thunder threw out Abdel Nader at the shooting guard spot for a few minutes, but instead of move Young off the ball to conserve his energy and put a more capable defender on Westbrook, Young kept up with his matchup. Whether this was Young telling the coaches he wanted to take Westbrook or the coaching staff instilling in him the belief that he can one day progress to being more than a massive negative on that end of the floor, it was at least good to see him out there trying as much as he was.
There’s rarely anything that’s purely black and white in the NBA, a notion that still holds true for this Hawks team even as they make their way through a particularly difficult season. Those looking for positives will find them in almost every game, as there are always individuals who play well or show something you didn’t quite know they had in them. Those looking for negatives will have a much easier time finding them, but that doesn’t mean the entire club is nothing but negatives and should be relegated to the G League for daring to trot out this roster every night.