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Improved defense not enough as Hawks fall to Orlando

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Offensive struggles mark Hawks’ second preseason game

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Two nights after dropping their preseason opener, the Atlanta Hawks lost at home to the Orlando Magic by a final score of 97-88 on Wednesday. After yielding 133 points to New Orleans on Monday, Atlanta’s defense produced much better results, but it was not enough to overcome 27 turnovers and 34 percent shooting from the field.

Head coach Lloyd Pierce used a different starting lineup than he used on Monday, replacing De’Andre Hunter and Damian Jones with Cam Reddish and Alex Len. Instead of replicating the 34 first quarter points they scored on Monday, the team struggled to find an offensive rhythm early and never really got on track on that end of the floor.

It is not unusual for coaches to tinker with lineups and rotations in the preseason or even early in the regular season, especially for a team with so many newcomers. Inferences based on a single preseason game should not be overstated but Pierce surely got a good look at which player groups look more comfortable on the floor together, at least at this stage of the basketball year.

After the game, Pierce’s first words were, “Baby steps.” Last season, the Hawks were certainly a rebuilding team but rostered a mix of young players and veterans. The roster this season leans more heavily to inexperienced players with upside, especially when they play without Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Chandler Parsons, as they did on Wednesday night.

Despite the two losses this week, Pierce is keeping a big-picture view.

“We’re not going to put together complete games just yet,” Pierce said. “The positive was our effort on the defensive side. We saw some good things out there.”

The challenges on offense didn’t go unnoticed by Pierce, who said playing that “27 turnovers makes it tough on a 33 percent night.”

From there, though, he spun things to the positive.

“We’ve got to get the fundamentals,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to get back and slow the game down a little bit for a couple of guys, as we’re learning our plays and learning each other. But we’ll get there.”

Facing a veteran Magic team with a veteran core that has been together for a few seasons and is coming a playoff appearance last season was quite the challenge for the young Hawks. In spite of the struggles on offense, there were plenty of positive takeaways on both ends of the floor.

Once again, rookie De’Andre Hunter looked very comfortable as a two-way player. He scored 13 points and added five rebounds and two assists while playing solid defense for a second consecutive game. Defensively, he seems to embracing the challenge of taking a tough wing assignment. His execution is not perfect but he certainly is neither lost nor intimated. His outside shot was not falling but he did have several strong moves and finishes at the rim.

After a tough preseason opener on Monday, rookie Bruno Fernando delivered a better performance versus Orlando. The young center has a long way to go but his energy was much better and he had a few nice moments on the court as well. He scored five points, making both of his field goal attempts and added six rebounds in just 16 minutes of action.

His scores included an impressive follow dunk and a three-point shot. Fernando’s season may be full of learning moments and growing pains, but he should put up his share of highlight reel moments as well.

The second-round pick seemed to settle his nerves going into Wednesday night’s game and even admitted as much after the game.

“Today, I was a lot more comfortable out there, just being able to know the plays, understand the physicality and speed of the game,” Fernando said. “I think I did a much better job with that.”

The other rookie in the Hawks’ young trio, Cam Reddish, struggled with his shot, making just one of seven attempts from the field. However, he did show explosiveness and toughness getting to the basket even if the finishes aren’t coming along just yet.

“Game 2, still figuring it out a little bit,” Reddish said. “Getting more comfortable as it goes on. Just trying to learn, really, from the guys and pick up things throughout. That’s all I can do right now.

Third-year player John Collins is expected to be a premier player again for the Hawks this season but had one of his more forgettable performances as a pro. In 23 minutes, he posted a stat line of two points, four rebounds and seven turnovers.

Orlando features a lineup full of long defenders that are very stingy giving up very little around the basket. Collins’ offensive strengths rely on shooters to space the floor and create opportunities for him to work in the middle of the floor. His teammates provided none of that versus the Magic. As long as the Hawks are still working to find a rhythm on offense and struggle to make shots, offensive opportunities may continue to be more limited and challenging than they were a season ago.

Starting in the place of Kevin Huerter, DeAndre’ Bembry was very active again with seven points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals. Trae Young had a nice game, if you discount the eight turnovers, with 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The turnovers are certainly an eyesore, as the 27 turnovers they committed versus Orlando followed the 29 they posted on Monday versus New Orleans. However, the Hawks are clearly struggling with offensive rhythm, chemistry and spacing. As those things improve, the turnover figures should get better.

Perhaps, the brightest spot was the stark improvement on defense. The porous defense that was on display Monday night was replaced by more effort, energy, with stronger closeouts and rotations throughout the game. Atlanta gave up many fewer open looks on Wednesday night and limited the Magic to 38 percent shooting from the floor. Some of the effort and energy resulted in 34 free throw attempts for the opponent, but the Hawks managed to get to the line 28 times themselves and matched Orlando’s 23 made free throws.

The Hawks opened the game with a beautiful play that freed Reddish up for a wide open jump shot from the free throw line. It was clearly a set play called for the opening possession but the Hawks executed it well and earned a 2-0 lead to open the game.

In spite of the opening bucket by Reddish, the Hawks struggled to find an offensive rhythm early. After taking the 2-0 lead, they made just one of their next 12 field goal attempts while committing five turnovers over the same stretch. The flow on offensive lacked timing, shots went up quickly and the Hawks struggled to break down the Orlando defense resulting in very few open looks or high percentage shots.

The Magic defense had much to do with the Hawks offensive struggles. Orlando defenders looked very sharp using ball pressure while anticipating secondary actions and closing out quickly on Atlanta shooters.

Hunter broke the scoring drought with a strong drive to the basket to pull the Hawks within two at 12-10. His basket started a 5-0 run that gave them their first lead at 13-12 on another score by the rookie out of Virginia.

Later in the quarter, Young found Bembry on a baseline in bounds play for the easy dunk. The Hawks then closed out the opening quarter with another 5-0 run for a 20-18 lead at the end of one.

The Hawks continued that momentum as they opened the second quarter with an 8-3 run that included a quick steal and score and by Bembry. Just one minute later, Fernando followed up a miss with his thunderous put back dunk to give the Hawks a 26-19 lead.

The momentum didn’t last as the Orlando defense reasserted itself forcing the Hawks offense to return to the cold shooting and turnovers that plagued them earlier int the game. The Magic parlayed the defensive success into 22-8 run to lead 43-36 late in the first half.

Before the half ended, the Hawks closed the gap. A three pointer from Vince Carter and five points from Jabari Parker drew the Hawks within two at 46-44. One of Parker’s scores was the result of a trademark pass from Young.

Early in the second half, Bembry found Hunter in the corner for an open three. The make drew the Hawks within two at 49-47, but Orlando followed that with a 14-4 run to pull ahead 63-51.

Unlikely heroes delivered a strong finish to third period for the Hawks. After four straight points by Parker, the Hawks made four three points shots, one from Damian Jones, two from Armoni Brooks and one from Fernando to to pull the Hawks within three at 70-67 at the end of three.

Orlando once again pulled away early in the fourth building a 79-72 lead. But a 6-1 Hawks run, which was capped by a long three by Young, drew the Hawks within two points at 79-77. Steve Clifford quickly called a timeout, seemingly in an effort to stop the Hawks’ momentum. However, it turned out to be nothing more than a truce between Pierce and Clifford as both teams emptied there benches as Orlando went on to win by nine.

Terrence Ross led the Magic with 20 points. Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic added 13 points each.

The Hawks playing their three remaining preseason games on the road beginning Monday night in Miami. They return home on Oct. 26 to open the regular season versus the Orlando team they played Wednesday night.