LOS ANGELES — Well, that was ugly.
A franchise-record regular season margin of defeat tells the story of the Atlanta Hawks’ woeful performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night at Staples Center. When the clock mercifully hit triple zero, the Hawks walked off the court on the wrong end of a 150-101 scoreline. The 49-point defeat was the worst for any NBA team this season as the Clippers ran the Hawks out of the building on both ends of the floor.
It started early and it kept up throughout the game; Los Angeles ran out to a 20-3 lead in the first four minutes of the game and never looked back. Atlanta cut the Clippers’ lead to as few as four points in the second quarter and even went into the half with just 12 points to make up, but a third-quarter blitz from the home team left the Hawks searching for answers on both ends of the court. The lead was 30 by the end of the third quarter and got to as many as 52 before a late Cam Reddish three-pointer cut it to 49 for good.
There’s nearly nothing to analyze from a loss that bad. Any positive contributions were quickly enveloped by the wealth of negativity coming out of the Hawks’ end of Saturday’s proceedings. There were little things that pointed the team in the right direction, but even looking through rose-tinted glasses couldn’t put a positive spin on a loss that bad.
If there was any bright spot for the Hawks, it was Evan Turner’s return to the court after a multi-week absence with an Achilles problem. He played 15 minutes as the primary backup point guard to Trae Young, the role which he was promised when the team acquired him over the summer from the Portland Trail Blazers. In his typical fashion, he connected on a few herky-jerky buckets, held his own on the boards, and put up two steals and a block on a night where basically nothing was working for the Hawks defensively. It’s a compliment to him to say that Atlanta was only outscored by nine points while he was on floor, considering how the Clippers decimated nearly every lineup combination the Hawks put out there; all six players who played at least 20 minutes finished with a plus/minus of minus-20 or worse.
Physically, Turner was happy with how he performed.
“I saw some things I liked,” Turner said postgame. “I liked my push-off, my acceleration was decent tonight.”
Damian Jones had an up-and-down game but continues to provide a spark to the starting unit that Alex Len was not providing earlier in the season. Jones gives the Hawks an athletic presence in the wake of John Collins’ absence, which is a very important part of their offense. An athletic roll man paired with Trae Young’s ability to throw lobs collapses the defense and opens up space for everybody else to operate – the defensive big man is slower to contest Young’s floaters and the tag man on the weak side pinches in another half step to open up Young’s crosscourt pass to a shooter in the corner.
Jones was elevated to the starting lineup ahead of the team’s game against the Denver Nuggets earlier this week and has remained there for three games now, but the change hasn’t affected how he prepares.
“I try to have the same mentality, try to do whatever the team needs,” Jones told Peacthree Hoops after the game. “Be the extra defender or rolling to the rim, just trying to find the areas where I’m needed.”
Jones is well-known for his rim-running ability offensively, which is what has won him the starting job for the last few games and makes him a good pick-and-roll big man to pair with Young, but a center in the modern NBA can only go as far as his defense takes him. The former first-round pick blocked four shots against the Clippers on Saturday night and picked up another steal after notching two against Phoenix on Thursday. He’s not on the same level as Len when it comes to protecting the rim, despite the four blocks against Los Angeles, but he has more versatility. The athleticism has always been there for Jones, dating back to his college days at Vanderbilt before he was drafted to the Golden State Warriors in 2016, but the mental side of the game has held him back to this point in his career. It’s still not all the way there yet, but there are indications that Jones is starting to come around in that department; his instincts for what teams are running and where the gaps are in his team’s defense are starting to improve.
In pick-and-roll, Jones’ is torn between two duties: it’s important for him to contain the ball handler and allow time for his teammate to get through the screen and back in front of his man, but a quick decision is still preferable to the defense. That dichotomy makes things difficult for big men across the league.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game between [the ball handler and the roll man],” Jones told Peachtree Hoops. “I’m trying to make [the ball handler] make a decision.”
Outside of Turner and Jones, the best part about the Clippers game is that it’s over and the team can move on. Trae Young struggled to have his normal impact on the game; Los Angeles threw multiple long defenders at him consistently throughout the game. Rodney McGruder did a lot of the early work and this contest marks the second time this season that Young has struggled with a longer defender at the point of attack after he flubbed his way to 3-for-12 shooting and just three assists against Tomas Satoransky and the Chicago Bulls earlier this month.
Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter each got their shot at Paul George, but neither could do much of anything to contain the all-world forward from getting to his spots (including the free throw line) and putting up an historic performance. Reddish continues to struggle mightily on the other end of the floor; his final box score wasn’t all that pretty and most of the positives came in heavy garbage time in the fourth quarter. Through three quarters, he was 1-for-8 from the field and had missed both of his three-point attempts. The offensive struggles continue to be a massive issue for him in his rookie year, even if there are fewer long-term worries about how he’ll develop on that end of the floor. As for Hunter, his efficiency wasn’t fantastic (5 of 14 from the floor) but there were moments of intrigue, particularly as he attacked the rim to his right.
The Hawks get back to work in the same building on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second game of their Staples Center back-to-back before (finally) flying home to the friendly confines of State Farm Arena.