The Atlanta Hawks’ first significant road trip of the season came to a whimpering conclusion on Sunday night in Los Angeles, where the Lakers put together a dominant performance and walked out 122-101 victors in a game that wasn’t necessarily as close as the final score indicates. In some ways, the Hawks were just as outclassed as they were on Saturday night, when they lost by 49 to the Clippers in the same building. There’s no shame in losing a road back-to-back to perhaps the two best teams in the league, but the process by which they collapsed against the league’s premier opposition won’t sit well with anybody in the organization.
There were far more positives for the Hawks on Sunday than there were on Saturday — including the fact that Atlanta outscored Los Angeles in the second half — but still not nearly enough to keep them competitive with a Lakers squad that’s firing on all cylinders right now.
Trae Young’s numbers look good in the box score, but the point guard’s play was marred by eight turnovers and the general inability of the rest of the team to pick up any playmaking slack when he was trapped in pick-and-roll. The Lakers have a ton of length defensively, which gave Young a lot of issues throughout the game.
Before the game, head coach Lloyd Pierce addressed the Lakers’ length.
“They’ve got a lot of size, they’ve got a lot of length, they’ve got a lot of athletes on the perimeter and in the interior, so we just have to be smart with how we’re executing,” Pierce said. “We have to be able to play to our strengths, which means Trae’s ability to play in the pick-and-roll and also his ability to find guys when he converges the defense.”
Outside of those few turnovers caused by the Lakers’ aggression and length on ball screens, Young didn’t have a ton of trouble finding open teammates, but the issue was that those teammates just aren’t capable of consistently carrying that additional playmaking load. With an injury to Kevin Huerter and a suspension for John Collins, the Hawks are still short their second- and third-best players, which really shows up against the best teams in the league.
Jabari Parker has had a wonderful beginning to the season but has sputtered a bit recently to a pair of poor performances in Los Angeles.
“Part of my job is to make it easy for (Young),” Parker told Peachtree Hoops after the loss against the Lakers. “I haven’t been there for him these last two games, but I’ll bounce back.”
In particular, Parker is not the sort of decision maker the team needs in pick-and-roll; if Young isn’t finding him for a catch-and-shoot three or a dunk at the rim, he has some trouble making the right read and finding the open man. He’s a scorer first, second, and always, but doesn’t always see the right pass in those spots.
Evan Turner’s return to the lineup gave the Hawks another playmaker to put in that spot, but the team has yet to go to him as a short roll playmaker like they have with several other guys. While Parker, Damian Jones, and Alex Len have all gotten chances to play that role, Atlanta has yet to consistently give Turner a shot in ball screen action with Young. Turner is easily the best passer at one of the big man spots who could play in that action with Young, but this isn’t simply an Atlanta thing – Turner’s teams have never really used him in this way.
When Turner was in Portland, I wrote that he would be perfect for the short roll playmaker role next to Damian Lillard, but the Trail Blazers never consistently gave him that chance. In Atlanta, it’s been the same; even though Turner hasn’t been healthy consistently, the games that he does play feature very little connection between the team’s two playmakers.
Should the Hawks be dissuaded from going to Turner in that spot because of his lack of shooting and scoring acumen, the next best option might be De’Andre Hunter. Young ran quite a few ball screen actions with Hunter against the Lakers on Sunday night; it was perhaps the only thing the Hawks did in the halfcourt that gave the hosts significant issues.
Hunter’s added dimension as a three-point shooter is already evident in the way teams play against him – on multiple plays, the Lakers were unwilling to leave Hunter at the three-point line, which made Young’s life a whole lot easier. Getting any sort of spacing from Young’s pick-and-roll partner is important against a trapping defense and the Hawks may have found something in using Hunter in that role.
On the other end of the floor, things are still very ugly for the Hawks, but they did turn defense into offense consistently against the Lakers. Atlanta has now forced double-digit live-ball turnovers in three consecutive games after notching 11 steals against the Lakers. When they got the ball from the opposition, they were off to the races: they ran in transition after eight of those 11 steals and scored 13 points on those eight possessions. Considering that they put up a 77.4 offensive rating in the halfcourt, anything and everything they got in transition was a big plus.
Atlanta finally heads home after five consecutive road games in the Western Conference, but things get no easier upon returning to State Farm Arena. Waiting for them in Atlanta will be Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.