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Hawks struggle defensively in falling to undermanned Celtics

The defense continues to be an issue.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks gave up 115 points for the fourth time in the last five games in Boston on Friday night en route to a 119-110 loss. The Celtics put up 41 points in a third quarter performance that would end up being the difference in the game.

Both Taurean Prince, who was informed before game time that he would represent the Hawks (as an injury replacement for Malcolm Brodgon) in the Rising Stars challenge during All-Star weekend, and Terry Rozier, starting for the Celtics in the place of their all-star point guard Kyrie Irving who was ruled out due to a quad injury, led the game with a respective career high 31 points.

The Hawks had a decent offensive showing in this game; they scored 110 or more points for the 17th time this season. But they continued to struggle on the defensive end of the court. They entered the contest 26th in the league in defensive rating and their performance in this game did nothing to make that statistic look any better.

The Celtics outscored the Hawks 11-3 in the final 3:27 of the third quarter to establish a 19-point lead and Atlanta would never pull back within single digits in the contest. The Hawks had led the game by 2 points after first half play. But the game got completely away from them during the third quarter of play.

“The players kind of coached themselves,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said of his team’s first quarter play. “Which is the best, on what they have to do offensively, cutting, driving and screening, being more physical, stronger. They are obviously a very good defensive team. If you don’t do things at a high level and match the physicality and match the effort offensively then you are just not going to be as good.” He added, “I was proud of how they played in that first half, it was very good.”

“Not good, 41 points,” Budenholzer said of the Hawks’ play in the third quarter. “We’ve got to go look at the film and see what we can do better. Individually we’ve got to be better. Collectively we’ve got to be better. And you’ve always got to give your opponent credit. They’re executing, they are making shots, they’re playing well. So I am sure it was a little bit of both. We need to be better and they were very good in the third quarter.”

“On defense they played really well. When you play a team like that you have to be 100% for 48 minutes,” said Hawks’ starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova. “We played in the first half and then in the second half we kind of went through our motions. We have to be ready for the 48 minutes, which is what it takes to beat a team like this.”

All five starters for the Celtics scored in double digits, including rookie forward Jayson Tatum who had 27 points, the best mark in his young career. Former Hawks center Al Horford had 17 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds. Horford entered the game averaging 5.3 assists per game which is good enough to lead the Celtics, even though they have an all-star playing at the point guard position. It’s also good enough to rank him third among all centers in the league behind only Nikola Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins.

Apart from Rozier, Horford and Aaron Baynes, the Celtics played one second year player, Jaylen Brown, and 6 rookies. In addition to missing Irving, the Celtics were without Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Shane Larkin and Gordon Heyward, who was injured in October in season opener.

“He’s good,” Budenholzer said regarding the play of Terry Rozier who in his first two career starts has had a triple-double and a 31 point performance. “A couple of his threes in the first half hurt us. Again I feel like we could have had a little more of a cushion or a lead. He got some mismatches and made a three. And hit one on an under (screen) toward the end of the second quarter. And defensively he gives them a lot. He’s playing well, taking advantage of an opportunity while Irving is hurt.”

The Celtics used different actions to get Rozier into opportunities upon which he could capitalize.

On this play, Rozier works in the pick and roll with Horford. After Schroder gets just a little separated from him he “snakes” the action and found the space to get off a good look in front of the rim.

Rozier works with reserve center Daniel Thies in dribble hand off action (DHO). Malcolm Delaney tries to avoid the screen by going under but Thies swings into his path which creates the space for Rozier to get off an uncontested three point attempt.

Here, Rozier gets switched onto John Collins, who stays in pretty solid shape in the mismatch. But Rozier has the confidence to take and hit the fairly contested three point attempt.

Hawks’ starting point guard Dennis Schroder, who was questionable for this game due to a shoulder injury, had perhaps the best shooting performance he has had over the past couple of weeks. He scored 25 points on 22 shooting possessions. He had just one assist for the fourth time on the season. He also had four turnovers.

Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins continued in this game to offer efficient scoring as the big men off of the Hawks’ bench. Dedmon had 9 points on 4 of 6 shooting from the field including 1 of 3 from beyond the three point line. Collins contributed 8 points while shooting 4 for 5 from the field. All of the rookies’ shot attempts came at or near the rim.

On this play, Malcolm Delaney gets into the action very early in the shot clock. When Coach Budenholzer talks about them pushing the pace on offense, this is what it looks like. Jayson Tatum appears to be briefly unsure of his responsibility. His job on this play is to “tag the roller”. But his hesitation allows Collins to get to the rim for the lob before he can recover as a defender.

In this spot, you can see one of the qualities that makes the Celtics’ defense so good. They scramble to the paint any time an opposing player catches the ball inside and their lineups usually include enough length to let them get back to the perimeter to challenge shots if the ball is moved there.

Dedmon gets a lot of coordinated attention as he catches the ball in the lane even though the Celtics are playing three rookies on this possession. Dedmon stays focused and flushes a bank shot despite the contest by the defense.

The game could be described as having been a bit contentious between coaches/players and officials, which has been a bit of a theme across the league this season. Both head coaches were assessed technical fouls. Hawks guard Kent Bazemore was called for a technical foul, his ninth on the season.

The play of Taurean Prince has been up and down for the better part of January. En route to setting his career high mark in points he converted on 5 of his 9 three point attempts. He also had 8 rebounds, 3 steals and hit all 8 of his attempts from the three point line.

“He had a confidence tonight, had a pop,” Budenholzer said about the play of Prince. “Making threes. And it was really good to see him play the way he did, as aggressive as he was.” He added, “I’m proud of him being named to the rising stars game. It’s great that both he and John are going to be playing in that. I think it’s a bright spot for our group. I’m proud of both of those guys making that.”

On this play, the energy and activity that Prince brought into the game can be seen. He takes the contact on the attempted put back to get the and one.

The effective defense of the Celtics get the Hawks unbalanced on this play (4 player on the strong side, 1 on the weak side). As a result of the recognition and initiation of Marco Belinelli they run an improvised type of “floppy action” for Prince. (They rarely if ever run Prince off of off ball screens in their normal offensive sets.) He runs off of staggered screens from Belinelli and Collins, who shows excellent engagement and awareness for a rookie, and gets a nice three point look from the corner.

This is an impressive play from Prince. A ball handler being able to maintain his dribble in a sort of stop-and-go-and-stop-and-go action while navigating other defenders around him and then being able to maintain his orientation to get a solid shot up is advanced play. It would be encouraging to see more of this down stretch of the remainder of the season.

The Hawks collectively went 31 of 34 from the free throw line. Prior to play on Friday night a team had shot 90% or better on 30 or more free throw attempts 11 times on the season.

The Hawks are next in action on Sunday afternoon in New York where they will take on Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the New York Knicks. Stay tuned