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Hawks unable to finish the job in close-fought loss to Blazers

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Atlanta’s offense struggles late after hot start.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks (15-33), heading into the thick of a seven-game, 14-day road stretch, entered Portland looking to start the trip 2-0 after a blowout win in Chicago over the Bulls Wednesday night. The Portland Trail Blazers (31-20) entered the evening with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference.

The Trail Blazers hosted the Hawks without superstar guard Damian Lillard, who had played in all 50 of Portland’s games coming into this matchup but was held out on Saturday night to rest a sore knee. Head coach Terry Stotts ran out a starting lineup of Seth Curry, CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Jusuf Nurkic.

Lloyd Pierce went with a starting unit of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins, and Dewayne Dedmon. Huerter returned to the starting lineup after missing the past two games with a sore neck, relegating Taurean Prince back to his role off the bench. Kent Bazemore continues to miss time with an ankle problem.

Portland was able to take care of business without Lillard, as McCollum notched the first triple-double of his career in what was largely a back-and-forth affair until the stretch run of the fourth quarter. The Hawks put up a good fight in a tough environment, but the home team was able to generate better shots in the most important part of the game. Curry gave the Trail Blazers 22 points on 4-for-8 shooting from three-point range and hit a pair of key threes to cap a late 13-0 run to seal the win.

The story of the game for Atlanta was the play of Young and Collins, who were perhaps the only two players on the team to play above expectations in this game. Young finished with 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting in what was almost assuredly the most efficient performance of his rookie season to date. Collins was his normal self, flying around for rebounds and notching 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

Young started the game with a hesitation move coming off a screen, navigating inside for the easy right-hand layup:

Looks like this came easy for him tonight, as he was able to work with Atlanta big men to carve into Portland’s interior defense. While Young’s outside shooting really hasn’t been there for him thus far this year, especially off the dribble, defenders still give him a lot of respect in those spots, which he was able to use to his advantage to get to the rim in the above clip.

Collins hit his first two three-point-attempts of the game, making him 6-for-6 from three-point range in his past five quarters and change (dating back to his career night Wednesday in Chicago).

If Collins continues to hit the three-point shot around 40 percent, as he has done this season, it will go along way towards him continuing the progression arc he's laid out for himself. Providing legitimate spacing at his size and position can really unlock an entire offense, along with other things, and I think we saw some of that over the past month or so with the Hawks.

He’s provided quite a few highlights with his relentless energy and boundless athleticism, but there are real concerns about where he fits on a contending team long-term. Those concerns mostly surround his defense and shooting ability, but if the shooting he’s shown this season is real, especially from the corners, then those concerns are greatly alleviated.

Young and Collins have developed a strong partnership, with the rookie point guard able to find his high-flying big man in a variety of creative ways:

Despite the Hawks playing decently well on offense (Young and Collins especially), they trailed 40-30 after one due to the Blazers torrid start (10-for-14 from the field) on the offensive end.

McCollum scored 12 points on six first-quarter shot attempts while also tallying four assists in the opening period. His ability to step into the primary playmaker role with Lillard out was the biggest reason why the Hawks were unable to come away with the win in this game.

The Hawks were able to counter with a run of their own in the second quarter, outscoring the home team 26-11 in the first eight minutes of the period. Young and Lin sparked the Atlanta offense, scoring 13 combined points and three assists in the quarter, igniting the group for a solid stretch. Both guards excelled in the pick-and-roll, which has been essential to Atlanta’s recent uptick in offensive output.

Taurean Prince also provided a scoring punch off of the bench, with his three-point shot apparently rounding back into midseason form.

Prince had nine first half points and was 4-for-6 from the floor. Collins led Atlanta in scoring with 14 (5-for-5 from the floor, 2-for-2 from three-point-range) for the half. Young went into the break with 13 points (5-for-7 from the field, 0-for-2 from three-point-range) and four assists.

After halftime, Young was again aggressive in the pick-and-roll game, penetrating inside for scores and assists.

Young’s all-around offensive game has developed nicely this year, particularly his inside game. He finished 8-for-9 against Portland from two-point range, finishing over and around the Trail Blazers’ rim protectors at every opportunity.

He continued his offensive assault in the early part of the fourth quarter, but had to exit the game with a little more than seven minutes left, at which point things fell apart swiftly for Atlanta. After a Vince Carter three cut the Portland lead to one, the Hawks went completely dry for nearly five minutes as the Trail Blazers put together the decisive 13-0 run.

Young being the focal point in a tough situation on the road is a step in the right direction for a rebuilding franchise’s rookie centerpiece. He and Collins have already shown that, even as young players, they are capable of carrying the load and winning NBA games on a given night. Tonight it didn't work out for the entire group, but it certainly wasn't because of those two.

Young’s individual shot chart was just what the team is looking for from him, with all of his shots either coming from beyond the three-point line or in the paint, where he’s developed a strong floater he can flip up over defenders waiting for him in the restricted area.

“We knew coming into this game he was going to have opportunities to get in the paint,” Pierce said. “We were looking for a lot of late drop-offs, a lot of late passes and late kick-outs, but he was able to score on a lot of those early...we just have to take what the defense gives us. He was able to find a good mixture tonight.”

Young spoke to the media after the game, discussing what he saw in the defense and how he was able to work to his spots:

Collins finished with 21 points (8-for-12 on field goals, 2-for-3 from three-point range) and six rebounds for the Hawks. Huerter was 1-for-8 from the floor in 21 minutes in his return to the lineup.

Huerter was a bit out of rhythm for much of the night with his shot after coming back from missing a few games with a sore neck. Coming off the injury, he wasn’t able to play his full minutes load, notching just 21 minutes.

“Just trying to get his legs,” Pierce said of Huerter after the game. “He’s missed two games, he’s been out a week...I thought the shots not falling were just a reflection of the (lack of) rhythm...he got some good looks tonight. They didn’t fall.”

Before missing time with soreness, Huerter had been one of the hottest rookies in the NBA, vaulting himself into the spotlight as another piece in Atlanta’s exciting young core. It will be interesting to see if the rookie can regain that momentum over the next week in some tough environments.

While Huerter started the game, it was Prince who played normal starter’s minutes. Prince led the team with 36 minutes off the bench and flashed a bit more overall floor game than his reputation would suggest — he finished with 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, and two steals. It wasn’t the most efficient night for Prince, but he was able to contribute in other ways.

McCollum finished with 28 points, ten assists and ten rebounds in what turned out to be his first career triple-double. Curry added 22 points in Lillard’s stead. Aminu finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Pierce was complimentary of the Trail Blazers after the loss: “It’s a tough place to play. Anybody who’s played here...it’s a great fan base..when they hit threes, you feel it. And they did late in the game. Really proud of our guys. I think we’re on to something. Really good to see our guys compete, put as close to a 48-minute effort together and just hit a patch where...we couldn’t score for about six or seven possessions.”

The Hawks played well for the majority of the game, scoring 52 points in the paint to Portland’s 42, and also only committed ten turnovers while forcing 18. Perhaps the difference in the game was the free-throw disparity, as the Blazers shot 30 free-throws (27-for-30) while the away team only got to the line 20 times, making 15.

Atlanta will look to get back on track Monday night in Los Angeles in a matchup with the Clippers. The “Super Bowl” road trip is in full force as the Hawks will play three more road games next week before flying cross country to Washington next Monday to finish the two-week, seven-game excursion.