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Improved execution not enough as Hawks fall to Raptors

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks entered play on Saturday evening looking to end a five-game losing streak during which they have not looked like the most confident of teams for any significant stretch of play. Facing the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors did not seem to be the best situation in which a young, struggling team could go in looking to find its confidence. With that said, the Hawks might have done just that despite coming up three points short in a 119-116 loss.

While losing five straight and seven of their last eight games prior to Saturday, Atlanta has seen games get out of reach at many different junctures. It has happened early, late and in the middle of a games for no single, obvious reason. They’ve simply struggled to compete in games from beginning to finish.

Professional basketball players will tell you that there are no moral victories. However, a young team needing to reestablish its identity and find some foundation upon which to start to rebuild some amount of confidence might need to take something positive from a loss at times during a very long NBA season. Saturday’s loss to Toronto might very well fit that description.

The game was in range for the entire 48 minutes. Even after the Raptors seemed to be getting away for good with a double-digit lead in the final minutes, the resilient Hawks found a way to get the contest back to within a single possession. They had an opportunity to tie the game with a three pointer in the final seconds. It did not work out, but maybe for the first time in a while, they competed from the opening tip to the final buzzer.

It’s important to note that Atlanta continues to play without John Collins and Kevin Huerter, two of their most important returning players from last season. Their absence shifts even more workload to second-year point guard Trae Young. Newcomer Jabari Parker has been helpful, especially in Collins’ absence, in generating offensive production. Parker can still pick up fouls at a pretty quick clip, though, especially when he draws a tough defensive assignment as he did on Saturday evening in the form of the NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player award winner, Pascal Siakam.

When Parker has to depart earlier in the first quarter than planned, even more pressure is transferred to Young. These are the types of variables that inevitably crop up in games to take a team off of its plan. Of recent, those are the moments at which the young Hawks have not been able to find a way to overcome adversity. Even in a loss at home in this game, one could see this team attack those moments of adversity differently.

They lost, so naturally, it was performance not to be described as flawless. They struggled to rebound the ball on the defensive end of the court in the second half. The Raptors has 10 offensive boards in the game’s final 24 minutes. The Hawks’ starting center, Damian Jones, secured one rebound in the game and it came on the offensive end.

Atlanta put the visitors on the free throw line for 30 attempts. A number of those came in the final minutes as the Hawks were forced to foul to extend the game, but the game was already lopsided from that vantage points, as the home team would eventually attempt just 11 shots from the free throw line.

An Atlanta bench unit that produced 27 points in the first half generated just three points in the third and fourth quarters. This would become one of a number of reasons Young would attempt a would-be game tying three pointer at the buzzer despite logging 41 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back that included travel. (Young played nearly 32 minutes in Friday’s loss in Detroit.)

In contrast, seeing Young and De’Andre Hunter, each a top-five pick in the last two NBA drafts, carry the team in the second half of a game against a veteran Toronto team making play after critical play to keep the game within reach until the final moments was noteworthy.

The duo scored 34 of the team’s 55 points and accounted for 8 of their 9 makes from beyond the three point line in the second half.

Young achieved his second career triple-double with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Hunter put up 26 points, just one shy of tying his season high. He converted 6 of his 10 attempts from long distance. He continues to produce at an impressive level for a first year player.

“I just thought he was more vocal more than anything,” said Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce when asked about his point guard’s performance. “Understanding how they were going to blitz him and attack him. Being able to position guys where they can catch freely, attack freely, get off the ball quicker. But I thought he was just way more engaged on both sides.”

Atlanta generated a season high 32 assists, Parker moved the ball well during his time on the court dishing out 5 dimes (in addition to 13 points and seven rebounds). DeAndre’ Bembry, Bruno Fernando and Hunter had 4 assists each.

For Toronto, Siakam led all scorers with 34 points (on 23 shooting possessions). Fred VanVleet did not have the most efficient night shooting from the field but converted all nine of this free throw attempts to help generate 25 points. Norman Powell had 20 points as he continues to start in the absence of Kyle Lowry.

In the end, Atlanta just could not get stops when it most needed them. After limiting the Raptors to 50 first half points, they saw the visitors put up 67 points after intermission, and it was just a little too much for Atlanta to match.

“Tough, tough team to play, how hard they play and how physical they are. But I thought our guys came out and competed from start to finish,” Pierce said after the game.

“We couldn’t stop them and that was really a difference,” the head coach added. “But I thought our guys competed even during that time for 48 minutes. Really just proud of the effort that everybody showed tonight.”

“I was pleased with our guys from start to finish,” Pierce elaborated after being asked about his team’s start to the game. “Again for 48 minutes, there is always ups and downs, I didn’t think it was a lack of effort at all tonight at any point really. There was a lull where we couldn’t score in the fourth quarter, but it definitely wasn’t a lack of effort.”

“It felt great. It sucks that we lost, obviously,” said Young in post-game comments. “But if we play like that, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

“Obviously, we’re down a couple guys, but the way we played tonight… if we play that way, we can turn teams around and that’s what we have to do every night,” Young added.

The most important factor in the Hawks being able to remain competitive on this contest was their improved defensive connectivity. They were better in help defense. The defensive rotations were more timely and effective, and they rallied to the paint as a unit to deny easy points at the rim. This, by far, was the best improvement they demonstrated in this game, especially as compared to their most recent string of losses.

Let’s take a look at some of the action.

On this possession early in the game, we can see the way the Raptors were defending Young in the pick and roll. Marc Gasol’s priority is to help crowd Young. He allows Jones to slip behind him on the roll. The result is an easy score.

Here, we see an offensive set the Hawks used extensively for Huerter last year. They continue to use it this season to get Hunter and Cam Reddish (in addition to Huerter when healthy) opportunities to operate on the ball. One benefit is that it can create catch-and-shoot opportunities for Young as it does here. He knocks down the shot for three points.

Atlanta was able to generate good offensive production in this game by attacking before Toronto could set its defense. Parker finds Hunter with a lob for an easy bucket on this possession.

Here, we see Young running the set usually reserved for the wings when he needs an opportunity to function off ball. Of recent, Atlanta has been deploying this, at times, when Young shares the court with Evan Turner. Vince Carter benefits and knocks down the uncontested corner three.

Fernando and Allen Crabbe execute a beautiful give-and-go in the second quarter. The Hawks can really benefit when they are able to generate shots like this from the second unit players.

This play offers another look at how hard the Hawks were working in the first half to generate high quality looks before the Raptors could get all five defenders back and set. Young finds Turner for the lay up.

This was one of the more encouraging plays from the contest. Again, it comes early in the shot clock. Young and Jones diagnose the opportunity at the same time and execute the play with perfection. Young beats his defender, OG Anunoby, with a dribble to his right. Jones works very hard to set and maintain a seal on Gasol.

This possession allows us to see the value of being able to quickly reverse the direction of a high pick and roll. Young initially starts to his left, which makes the left side of the floor the strong side. As a result, Matt Thomas, defending Bembry in the right (weak side) corner has the responsibility of sliding to the lane to help on Jones as he rolls to the rim.

Young then quickly reverses course and moves to his right after Jones sees the play and flips the direction of his screen. As this happens, the weak side help responsibility shifts to Anunoby who is defending Hunter in the left corner.

But confusion reigns due to how quickly the play changed direction. The lanky Siakam tries to rescue the Toronto defensive possession by crashing to the rim even though it’s not his job to do so. He’s not quite in time and Jones is able to convert the score.

Because of the success Young had by reversing the direction of attacks out of the high ball screens in first half, Toronto decided to start dropping Gasol in coverage in the second half. It did not work out here but it was more effective on the whole.

This possession is simply a good opportunity to contrast and see the adjustment in coverage.

Hunter made important contributions in the second half on both ends. Here he draws the assignment of defending Siakam.

He is able to push the action toward the baseline. It’s widely known that Siakam wants to attack with his left shoulder when working one-on-one. Hunter is able to steer that effort back toward the paint where Fernando shows up with a timely rotation to help deny the play.

Hunter was able to use his shot making to carry his team offensively in the final minutes of the third quarter. On this possession, Siakam essentially dares him to put up a very long distance attempt. Hunter embrace the challenge and converts the opportunity.

Here, Hunter knocks down another critical three point attempt as Atlanta tries to make it a one possession game with fewer than 30 seconds remaining.

It must be noted that this possession is an abject defensive failure on the part of the Raptors. The last thing that should happen here is for any reasonably competent perimeter shooter to get this look.

Eventually Young was entrusted with the final shot attempt in regulation and he was not able to connect.

“Trae? Without a doubt, “ Pierce responded when asked if the final possession was intended to create a look for Young.

“Yeah, the toughest part is you know everyone knows that. And how do we get him the basketball in 4.5 seconds,” Pierce added. “And he’s a small guy so Toronto played from the inbounds to get a shot off. That’s going to be hard, and to give him the basketball with a lot of dribble, at least he can create his own space and they switched on the pin-down back screen … they switched with whoever was guarding him initially and he still was able to create a little bit of space but he was too far out. We’ve seen him make that shot. He wants that shot.”

The losing streak was extended but, in the end, there were a number of positives for the young team to take away.

Up Next

The Hawks (4-12) will host Karl-Anthony Towns and the 8-8 Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday at 7:30 pm ET at State Farm Arena.