The Atlanta Hawks entered a Sunday afternoon road game facing a Brooklyn team looking to extend a four-game winning streak powered by a high-performing offense. The Nets are one of only five teams in the NBA that convert more than 12 three-point attempts per game, and that production has elevated them to performing as a top-10 offense this season.
The home team relied on their growing confidence to put up 42 points in the first quarter while outscoring the Hawks 21-0 from the three point line in the first 12 minutes. Atlanta would flip the script in the second quarter, hanging 43 points on Brooklyn to get to within a six-point margin entering the half, but they were not able to keep pace in the second half in an eventual 144-127 loss. It was a season-high output for Brooklyn (and just three points shy of tying a franchise record). It was the second time this season the Hawks allowed 144 points or more.
Slow starts continue to create an uphill struggle for Atlanta. In the NBA, when a team puts itself in the position of having to chase an opponent from behind it can cause them to exert all the energy they have to get back into the game a leave little, if any, gas with which to work as to try to finish strong. And that seems to have been the story for the Hawks on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s the first six minutes and it’s the third quarter, that’s the issue,” said Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce after the game. “Again, it’s the urgency to come out and to take a little pride in what we are doing to start games. We put ourselves in a hole, come back and get it back to six points at half time. Our defense, all night, it was suspect.”
The Nets had eight players scoring in double digits and five players score 15 points or more. They were led by fourth-year point guard D’Angelo Russell, who had scored just 29 points in his last three games combined. But he would put up 32 in this game, connecting on 13 of his 19 field goal attempts and hitting on 5 of his 9 three point attempts. He also had seven assists and six rebounds.
The Hawks were once again led by power forward John Collins. He had 29 points on 22 shooting possessions and secured 8 rebounds. Dewayne Dedmon hit on all five of his attempts from beyond the three-point line and set a career-best mark with 24 points. He also had 12 rebounds and three assists.
Trae Young had one of his more steady offensive performances of recent. He had as many assists (10) as he had field goal attempts. He scored just 13 points, but was a strong offensive creator in Atlanta’s huge second quarter output.
“He can get ten assists pretty much every night,” Pierce said about his rookie point guard. “He had ten again tonight. I thought he had a great floor game, especially in the second quarter. We ran a horns set and got pretty much whatever we wanted. And that’s how we got back in the game.”
“But the education will always be to make the simple play,” added Pierce. “What’s the right play? Sometimes it’s shooting, a lot of times it’s the other guys. Teams scheme on his pick and rolls. So a lot of times it’s about getting off of the basketball and finding where that outlet is, where that right read is. He did a great job of that tonight.”
“Our offense wasn’t the issue,” said Pierce of his team’s performance in the game. “You look at the stats tonight and everybody played well. We shot 55 percent from the field. We shot 48 percent from three. It was probably a season high 38 assists, 66 points in the paint. That’s not the issue.”
“We got whatever we wanted offensively,” he added. “We’ll use that and we’ll try and grow from it. But we’ve got to address the defensive side.”
Brooklyn put up 30 points or more in every quarter. One of the bigger issues for Atlanta defensively in the contest was their inability to defend without fouling. The Nets took advantage of being in the bonus early and often in each quarter to generate 30 points at the free throw line.
Still, their coach wants to see them play with more physicality from the opening minutes. The Nets were the aggressor in the game, and, as is often the case, was rewarded with more opportunities at the charity stripe.
“Very much,” Pierce responded when asked whether his team needed to be more physical. “For them they had eight offensive rebounds in the first half. We did a good job in the second half of keeping it to two. That’s the end of the possession, we’ve got to be better at the beginning of the possession, in the containment, in the type of shots they’re getting.”
“We have to be better containing the basketball, making the extra efforts, putting them late into the shot clock and getting those type of shots,” he further explained.
The game flow was quite a bit different than has often been the case for the Hawks of recent. It hasn’t been unusual to see the bench have more offensive success than the starting unit. In this game, though, the reserves managed just 34 points as compared to the 56 points the Nets got from their second unit.
No individual bench player on the Hawks struggled significantly. It was more that the Hawks were having consistent success playing through Dedmon and Collins that Pierce decided to have one on the court at almost all times after the first quarter.
Dedmon’s production has been a bit down of recent. He had scored in double figures just once in his last 11 games. That could be explained by a fairly significant adjustment he has had to deal with in the last few weeks with the return of Collins to the lineup.
While Collins was out with an injury, Dedmon was often the Hawks’ big man involved in the primary offensive action. He’s been playing off the ball more frequently since the two of them have been starting each game for a while now. In this game, the two big men took turns helping generate offensive production.
Collins has now scored 20 points or more in five of the last six games. And in this game, he demonstrated an improved ability to create his own shot.
Daniel Hamilton was in the rotation in this game for the first time this season. Tyler Dorsey did not play apart from garbage time in the final minutes. Nets reserve veteran guard Shabazz Napier has fallen from Brooklyn’s rotation of recent as well. As a result, Brooklyn manned their back court for the competitive portion of the game with players at least 6’5 in height. These matchups make it problematic to play Young and Dorsey together.
Pierce had to make a similar adjustment in the Hawks recent loss to Dallas. He waited until Luke Doncic went to the bench to enter Dorsey into that contest and used Justin Anderson in the rotation to help defend the Mavericks’ bigger lineup.
Hamilton got the call in this game and it appears the game plan was to use his length to help defend Spencer Dinwiddie for stretches. He held up decently; the defensive issues were definitely a result of how the team was executing collectively.
But Pierce is still looking for each of his players to elevate their level of play on the defensive end of the court.
“In order for your team defense to be better your individual defense has to improve,” the head coach said in reflecting on the game. “And each guy has got to take their own part. Do your job is kind of key in any sport. Do your job. What’s your assignment? Do your job. Are you a weak side defender that needs to come in? Are you an on-ball defender that needs to contain? Each individual needs to make an effort to improve and do their job a little bit better. And the team defense will get better as a result.”
Collins was aggressive offensively from the opening minutes of the game. On this play, he is able to work toward the rim and finish comfortably over Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
He also put pressure on the rim when guards were attacking with dribble penetration. Kent Bazemore hit him with a lob on this possession that the Nets are unable to defend.
Meanwhile, the Nets were pushing the pace and creating issues for the Hawks in getting matched up like they want to on defense. On this play, Dedmon tries to chase Russell off of the three point line early in the shot clock but was unable to do.
This play reflects how disorganized Atlanta was on defense for the entire first quarter. Three defenders run at Joe Harris which results in a wide-open three-point look that Russell is able to convert.
Collins worked hard to help generate offensive production even when he did not have the ball in his hands. On this play, he seals a couple of Brooklyn defenders while Vince Carter attacks the rim with a dunk.
Brooklyn’s first quarter production was not just about futility on the part of the Hawks’ defense. They made plenty of shots with a hand in their face as Dinwiddie does on this possession.
Dedmon started cooking offensively in the second quarter. On this play Hamilton creates an open look for him from the top of the key after collapsing the Nets defense with dribble penetration. The Hawks’ coaching staff values drive and kick three point attempts such as this.
On the next possession, Hamilton is rewarded with an open three-point look of his own after Young attracts multiple defenders with dribble penetration. Hamilton converts the attempt as the Hawks start to close the gap.
Halfway through the second quarter is when the Hawks deployed the Horns action Pierce referenced in his post-game comments. The bigs start at the free throw line with their backs to the basket as Young dribble toward them. One bigs sets a screen for Young (Dedmon on this play) and once spaces at the three point line (Carter).
The result here is an uncontested dunk for Dedmon.
Brooklyn tries to defend this play a little differently with Jarrett Allen trying to stop Young’s penetration outside of the paint and Dinwiddie trying to get into the passing lane. But Atlanta is able get another easy dunk for Dedmon again.
A third form of an attempt to defend the play by the Nets is seen on this play where they try to play it straight up. Ed Davis tries to stay attached to Collins. But Young is still able to work the ball to Collins who converts the shot at the rim as Davis loses his footing.
The diminutive Young continues to demonstrate an impressive ability to get to the rim with his dribble and finish with solid consistency as he does on this play.
Brooklyn made an adjustment at the half and started switching the Hawks’ offensive action. But on this play Atlanta is able to work the ball to Collins on the low block who converts a shot over Russell.
However, this play is representative of what transpired across most of the second half. Russell and Dinwiddie were able to get to basically wherever they wanted in the offensive half court. On this play, Russell works his way to the nail and connects on a floater.
Perhaps the strangest part of the impressive offensive production on the part of Brooklyn is that they put up 144 points without being credited a single fast break point. That said, there are some inconsistencies with how fast break points are scored in the NBA’s official box score, because this particular play was not included in Brooklyn’s fast break points:
The Brooklyn Nets were credited with precisely zero fast break points in their win over Atlanta today.— Jeff Siegel (@jgsiegel) December 17, 2018
This play happened and was somehow not counted toward "fast break points" in the box score. pic.twitter.com/LYmONBqgTN
The Hawks’ transition defense was not necessarily great. They were trying to get all five players back consistently. But the Nets generated a lot of comfortable looks in the half court.
The Hawks now head back home where they will host the Wizards on Tuesday night at State Farm Arena. Washington has not been playing to their own expectations so far this season and will enter the contest with a record of just 12-18 and with the fourth worst defense in the league. The Wizards will be coming off of maybe their best game of the season, however, after disposing of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. John Wall had 40 points and 14 assists in the game. Coach Pierce and staff will have to give thought, once more, as how to prepare to defend a big, physical back court.