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Hawks fall short against Pacers despite encouraging effort

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An unfavorable result amid positive signs.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In a New Year’s Eve match-up, the Atlanta Hawks faced the Indiana Pacers for the third time this season and the second time in six days. This game was broadly considered an unavoidable “schedule loss” given that the Hawks were playing their third game in four days with travel between each game. To make matters worse, Atlanta was playing without several key rotation players. Dewayne Dedmon, their starting center, did not play due to knee soreness. In addition, Kent Bazemore did not play after leaving Friday’s game with a sprained ankle.

Yet, short-handed and entering a mid-day match up understandably fatigued, the Hawks fought hard for the unlikely win but came up short in the final minutes of play in an eventual 116-108 loss.

“Great effort by both teams,” Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the game. “I thought our guys fought and gave us an opportunity down 14, 15 in the fourth quarter to get it to a two-possession game. And just the wrong time to turn the ball over, four minutes to go they only scored 6 points, but we had 4 turnovers in that four-minute stretch. It was a struggle to execute down the stretch, we didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to get shots when we were shooting the ball pretty well. But it’s hard when you turn the basketball over.”

Indiana entered the game as one of the hottest teams in the league. They had was 12 of their last 14 games and the only losses in that stretch came down to respective final possessions. Despite getting less attention from the national media than some of their Eastern Conference counterparts, they had played to within two games of the top spot.

The Pacers put up 30 or more points in each of the first three quarters, but a better defensive effort from Atlanta in the fourth quarter put the game back in reach. The visitors limited Indiana to just 19 points in the final frame but the Hawks could not make critical shots down the stretch and came up eight points short of what would have been an impressive victory.

John Collins and Kevin Huerter led the Hawks in scoring with 22 points each. It was a career best mark for Huerter. Collins added 16 rebounds and four assists. Huerter connected on 6 of his 9 3-point attempts, and the former Maryland standout now leads all qualified rookies in 3-point percentage.

“Very assertive, very aggressive,” Pierce responded asked about the productivity of the rookie, Huerter. “When the three ball was going down. He shows his athleticism on that dunk down the stretch. We’ve all known about his play-making and facilitating abilities. But, it’s good to see… it’s really good to see.

Huerter seemed to take little, if any, satisfaction from the loss despite his individual productivity. “No, a loss is a loss,” he said after the game. “It feels the same way. Unless it’s a win, it feels the same way.”

He also would not make excuses playing the third game in four days short two veteran players.

“We knew we’d have enough guys to win this game,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve had a lot of injuries, but it’s next man up. Kind of a cliche, but that’s what we are thinking going into the game. We were just trying to go into the game and play hard, try to set the tone defensively. They’re a good defensive team and so if you want to win you have to be good on that end of the court.”

Alex Len started in place of Dedmon and was productive apart from a rough day at the free throw line (3 of 7). He finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and two assists.

Rookie point guard Trae Young continued to shoot the ball well, as he has been doing in recent days. He had 16 points on just 10 shooting possessions while connecting on 4 of his 6 attempts from beyond the 3-point line. He has converted 9 of 15 3-point attempts in his last 4 games.

“Trae had a great stretch,” Pierce commented regarding the play of his point guard. “He got into foul trouble in the second quarter and had to sit most of that quarter. But the three ball was going for him tonight. He’s always great with the passes.”

Daniel Hamilton made the first start of his career due to the absence of Bazemore. He was productive in spots and ended up with 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists.

“His job was to get out and make Oladipo’s life a little difficult,” said Pierce regarding his performance in the first start of his career. “It’s a tough cover, but that Daniel’s blueprint for staying in the NBA… his length, his athleticism, his versatility defensively. A great challenge, a great opportunity; Oladipo’s a great player, so, we wanted to throw him out there and give him an opportunity to do what he does best. And he got going offensively for us in the second half as well. So, it’s good to see in his first NBA start, a very productive start and a very productive opportunity for him to get out there and play.”

Atlanta got very little from their bench. Collectively, the reserves shot just 7 of 31 on field goal attempts and connected on just one of nine attempts from beyond the arc. They produced just 21 points. The Pacers bench put up 40 points on 37 shooting possessions. Domantas Sabonis had to play extended minutes after starting center Myles Turner left the game in the third quarter with a broken nose and, in short, Sabonis was definitely a difference maker. The third-year big man posted 20 points and eight rebounds.

All-star guard Victor Oladipo led the home team with 22 points. He was active and effective on both ends of the court, as usual, and he amassed seven assists, four rebounds and four steals. Oladipo is currently 10th in the league in steals per game.

It was incredibly unfortunate for Indiana to lose the services of Turner, who may have been en route to his best game of the season. He had 20 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four blocks in just 23 minutes of play.

Collins continues to demonstrate the potential to score in multiple ways. On this possession, he steps into and converts a three-point attempt with the assistance of a simple screen from Young.

Young continues to demonstrate an excellent ability to read the floor. Early in the game the Pacers were having their big men “show” hard in defending the pick and roll. On this play when Turner and Darren Collison try to get back to their original match up, Young sees an opportunity to get up an uncontested three-point shot that he knocks down.

The instincts of Huerter as a shooter are impressive. He has an uncanny ability to measure just how far his defender is helping off of him when the ball is on the opposite side of the floor.

On this play, the ball is worked back to him and he steps into a long three-point attempt which finds the bottom of the basket.

After reigning his really deep shots a bit in recent weeks, Young is back to trying to find the right opportunities to take them. Here, he takes advantage of a somewhat rare opportunity in that he is being defended by a player similar in size.

Collison sinks a few feet below the three-point line and Young converts a pull-up attempt off of the dribble.

Point of hilarity: Collins was credited with an assist on this play. Not kidding.

The Pacers are one of the smarter teams in the league. They are very quick to see and attack when opposing teams don’t get matched up as desired or are able to get a switch from them.

On this possession, Turner is being defended by DeAndre’ Bembry, who can usually be trusted to switch 1 through 4 (PG - SG- SF- PF) in almost any match-up. But in this instance, he can’t keep Turner, a true center, from getting by him on the baseline for the dunk.

Huerter consistently demonstrates that he is more than a three-point shooter. On this play, he works in dribble-hand off (DHO) action with Miles Plumlee while his defender, Doug McDermott chases him over the screen. He operates to the middle of the lane and scores on a floater. The rookie’s combination of length, athleticism and ball skill are impressive, particularly for a player selected after the lottery.

This series of events is further evidence as to how smart the Pacers play. If an opponent misses a shot near the rim and argues even briefly with the official Indiana recognizes it and flies up the floor looking for the 5 on 4 advantage.

In this case, Tyler Dorsey took some pretty hard contact on the previously play, argues pretty briefly... one could find more egregious examples almost every night in the league... but the Pacers punish mistakes as seen here.

On this possession, an important aspect of the development from Collins is evident. He knocks down a three-point shot as Thaddeus Young has to help on Plumlee by “tagging the roller.”

When Collins plays alongside Dedmon and, to a lesser degree, Len, he can play in the primary screen action or off of the ball. These players can be largely interchangeable, not in terms of expected productivity, but simply in terms of role: on ball or off ball.

When he plays with a center like Plumlee who can really only score at the rim, he has to be comfortable spacing on the perimeter. This area of development will inform future roster construction in that by the end of this season it should fairly evident whether or not Collins can play with a traditional big center.

Len is improving week after week in the subtle areas of how bigs can help ball handlers. Here, Bembry is working in the DHO with Collins. He attacks the paint from the left side of the floor and converts the lay up. Len helps with a nice little temporary, but just long enough, seal on Sabonis, who is not able to challenge the shot.

This play offers and example of some of the defensive issues the Hawks were having prior to the 4th quarter. Jeremy Lin is helping off of Corey Joseph and is at the restricted area. Huerter should be preparing to rotate toward Joseph as the ball is dribbled into the lane. Instead, he jumps at McDermott which is Bembry’s rotation assignment.

Rookies make mistakes. On this play, Joseph benefits by getting a wide, open look from the short corner. He converts the shot.

This possession offers another glimpse as to why Huerter could be a special shooter in the making. The great shooters don’t need the ball delivered to within the frame of their body to be ready to catch and shoot. And when the ball is delivered outside of their frame they don’t need to “re-gather” the ball before they shoot. They do the gathering within the process of the catch.

Here, Huerter gets a high pass from Lin that requires him to leave the floor to catch the ball above his head. Yet, the moment his feet make contact with the floor he is already initiating his jump shot. This is impressive and encouraging.

The Pacers are not known as a team that seeks to push the pace, but they also don’t miss an opportunity to get an easy basket when one is presented. On this play, Turner is running the floor hard. Len is not far behind but Collison delivers a precise hit-ahead pass that sets up the easy lay up for Turner. Intelligent basketball.

This is a ridiculously good pass by Young on this play. He is operating with Len and Collins in staggered screen action. As Len cuts to the basket, there is a passing lane but there is very little room for error. Seeing it the entire way, Young picks up his dribble and delivers a two-hand bounce pass that he is able to manipulate past Turner AND put enough on the pass to make sure it doesn’t end up at the feet of the seven-foot Len.

Sabonis generated a majority of his scoring rolling toward the rim with and without the ball. He is one of the strongest centers in the league.

Notice what the pacers have down to the Hawks with this action. Sabonis is at the rim and Collins and Vince Carter are at the top of the defensive formation. Indiana completely inverts Atlanta’s defensive formation on this play. The result is an opportunity for a three-point play.

This is one of the costly turnovers late in the game referenced by Coach Pierce. Despite his size and strength Sabonis is able to keep the quick, young point guard directly in front of him on this play. As such, Collison is able to chase him from behind and pokes the ball away. It leads to an easy score in transition for the Pacers.

Young is able to get this runner to fall just inside of 2 minutes remaining in the game to get the Hawks to back to within 6 points. But this is as close as they would get it.

An obviously gassed lineup just didn’t have the legs to connect on three-point attempts in the final minutes of the contest.

Up Next

The Hawks will play their first game in 2019 on Wednesday in the nation’s capital. The Hawks and Wizards have split the season series to this point as the home team has respectively won each game. With that said, Washington will play the rest of their season without the services of superstar point guard John Wall, as it was announced this week that he will have season-ending surgery.

Bazemore will not play and it is not yet known if Dedmon will be available. Check Peachtree Hoops as we enter the new year for news and information including how each team is looking headed toward the mid-week match up in Washington.