The Atlanta Hawks entered a Wednesday night match-up with the Indiana Pacers hoping to extend a three-game winning streak, but they surely knew it would not be easy. Indiana had the best defensive rating in the league entering play the day after Christmas and the Pacers were looking to extend a (two-game) winning streak of their own. The visitors had won 10 of their last 12 games and, if not for two incorrect non-calls (per the NBA L2M report) at the buzzer in back to back losses to the Cavaliers and Raptors last week, they likely would have been looking to protect a 12-game win streak.
Despite the impressive defensive resume the Pacers brought into the game, the Hawks had one of their best offensive performances of the season. The team surpassed 120 points for just the fifth time this year. In the end, though, it was not enough to secure the victory. Despite Atlanta leading for much of the contest, the Hawks were outscored by 11 points the second half in an eventual 129-121 loss to the visiting Pacers.
The primary factor in the outcome of the game was that the Hawks were not able to match the bench production of the Pacers. While the Hawks had five players score in double digits, Indiana had three players on their bench alone do the same. The Indiana reserves put up 54 points while hitting on 20 of 32 field goal attempts (62.5%) including connecting on 6 of 9 attempts from the 3-point line.
It was not an accidental nor unexpected path to victory for Indiana who plays two of their four better players, in Domantas Sabonis and Tyreke Evans, off of the bench.
Evans was likely en route to winning the NBA’s best six man award last season until the Grizzlies, the team he played with last year, shut down starting point guard Mike Conley for the season due to injury. Evans would end up starting too many games to be eligible for the award.
Sabonis might be as deserving of any player in the league for the same award if voting were held today. He’s currently 7th in scoring and 1st in rebounding among reserves in the league. And among others likely vying for the award he plays for the team that holds the best record of the group.
While Thaddeus Young led the pacers in scoring with 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting, Sabonis was a game best +24 in box net rating. He had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists and was a major factor in scrambling the Hawks’ rotation at the power forward and center positions. John Collins’ playing time was impacted his being consistently in foul trouble, partly as a result of the challenge of trying to keep Sabonis off of the offensive glass.
Evans also had 19 points (on just 11 shooting possessions) and added 5 assists. He connected on all 4 of his 3-point attempts. Corey Joseph added 14 points, 6 assists and 3 steals in 24 minutes of reserve play. All-star guard Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdonovic each posted 16 points in their starting roles.
For the Hawks, Kent Bazemore had perhaps his best game of the season, tying a career-best mark with 32 points. He connected on 14 of his 25 field goal attempts, including hitting on 4 of 9 attempts from beyond the arc. He was active and aggressive on both ends of the court throughout the game. 13 of his 25 field goal attempts came in the 4th quarter as Atlanta tried to ride his offensive production to a would-be home victory.
“He was aggressive from start to finish,” Lloyd Pierce said regarding the play of Bazemore. “Obviously, when the three is rolling a little bit, they’ve got to close out with more urgency to get him off of the 3-point line. He was able to get downhill. I thought he had more opportunities to get to the free throw line but didn’t get the benefit of the whistle. But, I thought his aggression from start to finish was great.”
“So, we tried to play through him down the stretch in the fourth quarter and he continued to lead us,” he added.
“Coach said after the game that any mistake we made defensively, they took advantage of it,” Bazemore said of the narrow loss. “That’s what good teams do in this league. They’re a playoff team and they’ve been playing well as of late.”
“It’s a good measuring stick for us,” Bazemore further explained. “We came up a little short. Just the small things that get you over the hump. We’re learning. We’re growing.”
John Collins continued to play impressively despite having to work through foul trouble. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds and now has posted a double-double in 9 of his last 10 games. He converted 2 of his 3 attempts from the 3-point line. It was the first game he had multiple 3-point makes since the Hawks’ Dec. 8 win over the Denver Nuggets.
“It was a great effort on our side,” said Collins. “They just really made us pay. We’re going to make mistakes. It’s just the nature of the game. I think they capitalized on most all of those mistakes. That was a real big difference in the game. Credit to them.”
The theme regarding how good teams, Indiana in this case, capitalizes on opponents mistakes was consistent in post game comments from Atlanta coaches and players. It seems the Hawks’ coaching staff held it up to their players after the game as a benchmark of where they will need to get in order to begin winning games at a more frequent clip.
“They’re a really good team, probably one of the best teams that we’ve played all year,” Pierce said of the Pacers. “You know they punish every mistake; we turned the basketball over 20 times and they scored 24 points off of it. I thought our guys played really well and competed from start to finish. I thought we played great basketball, great team basketball, we executed, we scored, we were efficient. But every mistake we made, they capitalized on it, I think that’s a testament of a good team.”
Dewayne Dedmon had 18 points and a season best 15 rebounds. Trae Young had 17 points and 9 assists and continues to play with more efficiency as he has of recent. He was 5 of 11 from the field, 2 of 3 from beyond the arc and 5 of 6 from the free throw line. He also had just 3 turnovers.
Kevin Huerter struggled shooting the ball (1 of 8 on field goal attempts) but found other ways to contribute to his team’s strong offensive performance. He was aggressive attacking close out defenders and tied a season best mark with 5 assists.
Atlanta’s reserves were not distinctively bad in any given area of play. It just stood in stark contrast as to what Indiana was able to get from their bench. In fact, Atlanta’s second unit hit on 10 of 19 field goal attempts. They also converted 6 of their 12 3-point attempts.
As usual, they were lead by veteran point guard Jeremy Lin, who had 12 points, on just 7 shooting possessions. He also had 5 assists.
The Hawks were playing short handed at the power forward and center positions. Centers Miles Plumlee and Alex Len were not available due to injury. Rookie Omari Spellman was playing in his first game since Dec. 3 and, as such, could only handle 2-3 minute stretches.
Alex Poythress played for the first time since mid-November in Sunday’s win in Detroit and was limited similarly to Spellman. Pierce used Justin Anderson to cover some minutes at the power forward position while Collins sat with foul trouble.
“When you get into foul trouble, or you’re trying to buy minutes… we are short-handed without Alex Len, and I’m searching for bodies,” said Pierce about the challenge of covering minutes at those positions in this game. “Alex Poythress is a guy trying to come in and give us 2 or 3 minutes. With his first game back trying to give us a couple of minutes. We just didn’t have that natural substitution pattern that we’ve had the last couple of games. When you are doing that you lose a little bit of your rhythm. You’re trying to find what to run, how to execute, how to get some guys that haven’t played in a while playing together. So, we were searching a little bit when John got in foul trouble and we were trying to buy some time and get some minutes from some other guys.”
The activity on both ends of the court from Bazemore was evident from very early in the contest. Here, he get gets a steal and a run out dunk to help establish an early lead.
Young was able to get into the heart of the Pacers defense from early on in the game. Here he works with Dedmon in the pick and roll to collapse the defense.
Collins was playing confidently on the offensive end. He knocks down a 3-point shot from the left corner after his defender, Thaddeus Young, has to help at the rim.
Dedmon and Collins are showing an improved chemistry playing together with one of them working in the pick and roll action while the other spaces the floor. They appear comfortable sharing time in both roles in the offensive half court.
Young continues to demonstrate an impressive ability to attack the rim early in the shot clock if he catches the opposing team’s rim protector out of position to offer help.
Here, he sees Sabonis stepping beyond the free throw line. He attacks with the dribble and gets the easy finish with the left hand.
Indiana’s Darren Collison shows that he can do the same. This is one of the mistakes Pierce spoke of that Indiana took advantage of throughout the game. The Hawks consistently had issues getting back on defense and getting correctly matched up.
On this possession, Huerter shows he has confidence to contribute to other areas of offensive production although he is struggling to make shots. This is an important development in a young player.
Lin continues to make shots at important spots in games. He converts a tough runner as the final seconds of the first quarter wind down and the Hawks are back within a point.
This possession is an example of over-helping. Huerter tries to help on Sabonis but loses track of Doug McDermott who cuts along the baseline and receives a nice bounce pass that allows him to convert a shot at the rim.
This is better help positioning from Huerter. He is able to get the steal and hit Bazemore who is sprinting up the court alone. The ball is delivered precisely and the Hawks get the easy bucket.
Young delivers a one handed skip pass all of the way to the chest of Collins in the weak side corner. Collins knocks down another 3-point attempt with confidence... one of the more fun plays in the game.
This is another example of the Hawks not getting matched up correctly on the defensive end and the result is an easy score for Myles Turner.
Young, for the first time in a while, connects on a catch and shoot 3-point attempt from near the logo. The key is the quiet feet, the balance and his being square to the basket.
An example of something Coach Pierce talks about frequently, using the defense to create offense. Vince Carter gets the steal and DeAndre’ Bembry delivers the pass to Bazemore in the corner who connects on the 3-point attempt.
In the past few weeks, Bembry is showing improved precision when passing from the paint off of dribble penetration to an open shooter on the perimeter. He hits Carter on this possession who converts the attempt.
Here is another example of it costing the Hawks when they over-help on defense. Huerter makes an impressive effort to close out on Joseph but he is able to knock down the 3-point attempt.
Young knocks down another shot, this one even closer to the logo. Again, he is not dribbling into this attempt. And he is not sprinting into the shot. He is walking into it... an adjustment from when we last saw him shooting from this range.
It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks if this is something he can replicate.
In the end there was too much of this... Evans and Sabonis working together to create offense as the Pacers got separation in the 4th quarter.
The Hawks play next on Friday night in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves. They have a busy schedule ahead and it could be a real challenge if they continue to be shorthanded at the big positions.
They will then host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday evening and then head back out on the road to, again, face the Pacers team to whom they lost on Wednesday evening.
Stay tuned to Peachtree Hoops for updates on injury status and other news relevant to the busy schedule ahead for the Hawks.