Squaring off with an uphill battle in the absence of standout big man John Collins, Lloyd Pierce and the Atlanta Hawks faced intriguing decisions prior to Sunday’s game against the Detroit Pistons. With an already short-handed roster, Pierce entered the afternoon with only five available big men and the definition of “big men” would need to be stretched to include both Vince Carter and Justin Anderson.
That confluence of events led the first-year head coach to deploy a unit featuring both of his available centers, Alex Len and Dewayne Dedmon, as the Hawks were up against with one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA. That decision wasn’t met with universal approval (at least based on the public reaction after the news was shared) but Pierce saw an opportunity to capitalize on the match-up in an interesting way and the decision paid off over the course of a third consecutive victory.
“With John out, we’re going to start Dewayne and Alex together, so we’ll go big tonight,” Pierce said before tip-off. “We’ll see if we can control the paint in a different manner, in a different way. Keep rebounding on the court. See if we can space them out with either of the bigs, and still have presence for Trae and Kevin in pick and rolls. We’ll miss John, but we’ll figure it out.”
Though the pairing of Len and Dedmon saw the floor for only 11 minutes together, the results were positive, as both players performed well and the rotation fell beautifully into place. In contrast to Atlanta’s well-earned reputation for first quarter struggles, the visiting team succeeded in the first 12 minutes, overcoming eight unsightly turnovers with red-hot shooting. The Hawks converted 60 percent of their shots, including 4 of 7 from three, in the first period, and the tone was set in terms of their quality work on the glass, out-rebounding the Pistons by a 13-6 margin.
Vince Carter set the pace offensively with nine points, including a pair of threes, in the first quarter and his 14 first-half points (on 5 of 6 shooting) were crucial for Atlanta. While it was clear that Carter would play a significant role with the absence of Collins, Omari Spellman and Taurean Prince, he reflected on his individual performance with a feeling of status quo.
“Nothing changed,” Carter said when prompted about his preparation. “It really didn’t. The ball was moving. The ball was finding the open guy. Coach (Pierce) said ‘When you’re open, shoot the ball. Make it happen for us.’ And that was my focus. Nothing really changed. Just be me. Shoot the ball when I’m open and a couple will go down. I think my mentality was just to be aggressive when the opportunity is there.”
Carter wasn’t the only one that stepped up but, in truth, Atlanta’s ability to win this game in a road environment stemmed from the way he performed in the first half.
“John goes out and, you always say ‘next man up’ and you need guys to step up, but you have to step up and not do too much,” Carter said of the message prior to the game. “Stay within who you are and what is asked of you. I think it’s more so effort. We played a team that rebounds the ball as good as anybody out there, and we were able to out-rebound them tonight. That was a big help for us.”
The second quarter, much like the first, tilted in Atlanta’s favor and a great deal of the damage was done with a 12-0 run that extended the Hawks’ lead to 17 points at 53-36. Detroit threatened to slash the deficit, scoring five straight points after a timeout, but in an another instance of excellent effort, Kent Bazemore prevented a bucket with a signature chase-down block and the Hawks responded with a closing kick.
At the break, Atlanta posted 51 percent shooting with 42 percent from three, and also generated 17 free throw attempts as an example of the aggressive nature of their play. Though the team’s turnover issues continued, the rebounding edge earned by Atlanta was key, and the duo of Bazemore and Dedmon provided some of the much-needed dirty work on both ends of the floor.
The second half was not as kind to the Hawks, as the Pistons quickly strung together a 7-0 run to climb within nine. To their credit, the visitors responded after a timeout, buoyed by the work of Alex Len, who produced two tip-ins sandwiched around a lay-up from Trae Young to push the advantage back to 15 in short order.
Len, who noted (in tongue-in-cheek fashion) that he “thought it was a terrible game” for himself, was key to everything the Hawks did on both ends. The veteran center set a season-high with nearly 35 minutes played and, by the final buzzer, Len contributed 15 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. His efficiency, which inspired his previous comments, wasn’t ideal at 7 of 18 from the floor but Len, perhaps more than any other player, emerged in a broader role and his contributions can’t be overlooked.
“I think our defense kept us in the game,” Len said. “We just stuck with it, kept battling, Blake (Griffin) had a lot of missed shots, Andre (Drummond) had a lot of missed shots. We were making them miss and rebounding the ball, and getting open opportunities on the other end.”
Though the Hawks led by 15 points with 5:07 remaining in the third quarter, the lead was not at all safe and the Pistons would make the run that many believed was coming for most of the evening. Dedmon committed his fifth foul just 13 seconds into the fourth quarter and, moments later, Pistons guard Langston Galloway began a personal spurt that resulted in the margin being slashed to just eight with 8:55 to go.
From there, Galloway continued his onslaught to set up what became a perilous crunch time for both teams, as there was bucket-trading and a lead that never again swelled to double figures for the Hawks. In the end, Atlanta managed to make enough plays to emerge victorious, though they were greatly aided by a pair of (wide) open three-point misses from Reggie Jackson and two errant free throws from Blake Griffin in the final minutes.
By the time Bazemore strolled to the line for free throws to ice the game with 4.1 seconds remaining, any notion of a comfortable win had evaporated. Still, the Hawks managed to make the plays necessary to preserve victory and ball security was at the forefront.
After committing 12 turnovers in the first half, Atlanta had only four after halftime and that helped to overcome poor shooting (31 percent from the floor, 1-for-11 from three) in the final 24 minutes.
“We’ve had a couple games when we’ve been up late and had a comfortable lead late,” Carter said. “We’ve seen some leads fall. There are growing pains, but this is something new for us. It’s one thing when you talk about the game being on the line, but now we’ve experienced it and understand how important it is, particularly our turnovers, and just getting good shots. Sometimes, you aren’t going to make the shots but just not turning the ball over, defending and only giving our opponents one shot with our rebounding. We did that tonight.”
“I think we’ve grown up and we’re understanding what works for us,” Carter continued. “The coaches have done a good job with somewhat simplifying our calls, more so than our plays, and just getting everybody on the same page. I think that’s been the biggest thing for us is everybody being on the same page. Just giving the effort. Everybody’s giving the effort and just doing their job.”
On a night when the roster was stretched in a noteworthy manner, the Hawks did not need a star-level individual effort to escape with a win. Len’s production was tremendous, Carter’s first-half binge was memorable and there were fantastic stretches of play from Bazemore, Young and Jeremy Lin along the way.
With that said, this was a team victory in the truest sense of the phrase, as the undermanned group went on the road and overpowered a team (both on the glass and with general force) that it wasn’t supposed to overpower. The Pistons certainly did not play at a high level and, with this loss, Detroit has now dropped 9 of 11 games to fall below the .500 mark. That tidbit was of little consequence to the Hawks, though, who seemed to cherish their third straight victory (and second straight on the road), especially before a holiday break that undoubtedly feels better after a positive result.
“It was a great road win going into the break,” Lloyd Pierce said. “Great momentum for our guys, playing with a lot of confidence and playing together.”