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Hawks fail to contain James Harden, Rockets in blowout defeat

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks were nearing the quarter mark of the 2019-20 season heading into their match-up with the Houston Rockets on Saturday night. They carried a nine-game losing streak into the contest with the Rockets, and at no time threatened to put an end to the skid. They left with a 10th consecutive loss after giving up a franchise record in points allowed to an opponent (in a game that ended in regulation) by way of a 158-111 loss.

If there has been a single game on the Atlanta’s schedule thus far that most qualified as a “schedule loss,” it was this game. It was the team’s third road game in four nights during which their only break came on Thanksgiving Day. Beyond that, they were tasked with matching up with the league’s most prolific scorer in James Harden, and it’s not as if Houston is simply a one man show. While Harden is the focal point of nearly everything they do on offense, he is surrounded by players that know and understand their respective roles and execute with a supreme amount of success.

Houston entered the evening with a top-five offense, while the Hawks entered as a bottom-five defense. It wasn’t a great match up for the visitors.

While the game would go the way that it seemed, on paper, that it would most likely go, a schedule loss or a highly unfavorable match up doesn’t describe the extent of the trouble the young Atlanta team was unable to overcome in the lopsided defeat.

The Hawks lost contact with Houston early in the game and, from that point on, the home team played with confidence and comfort the rest of the way. They would put up 100 points before the mid-point of the third quarter. They amassed 38 points or more in each of the first three periods (before a full fourth quarter of garbage time). En route, the Rockets produced a shot chart that reflects the philosophy of their head coach, Mike D’Antoni.

They were 20 of 25 on shot attempts inside of the restricted area, they generated 51 attempts from the three point line (connecting on 25) and converted 29 of their 34 free throw attempts. The result is, unofficially, 144 of their 158 points from those desired locations of offensive production.

Harden put up 60 points and played none of the final quarter. He also had eight assists. Russell Westbrook added 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in just 26 minutes of action. Ben McLemore made the most of the defensive attention being allocated to Harden and produced 26 points and 13 rebounds.

“You come in and you play a guy and a team in James (Harden) and the night he has and the confidence their entire roster has… I think they had 25 threes,” Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the game. “We try to do what you have to do against James which is throw a lot of bodies at him, try and put him under duress.”

“He just didn’t feel us,” Pierce continued. “He didn’t feel us with the doubles. He didn’t feel us with the blitz. He didn’t feel us with the extra defender running out at him. A lot of their guys have confidence. Obviously, he made a ton of shots, he got to the foul line. It’s kind of who James is. It was amplified tonight.”

As demonstrated on this possession, Atlanta was perhaps overplaying the three-point line defensively. It is where Harden certainly most wants to operate, but the best offensive teams know how to punish a defensive team allocating too much of their effort to one are of production. Harden is not known as a guy who generates a lot of points moving without the ball but, as is the case here, Harden usually makes the right play.

And even though Tyson Chandler is not a perimeter threat, the Rockets run sets that are intended to lure the opposing teams’ big man away from the paint. He’s part of simple dribble hand-off action with Westbrook here, but the result is an uncontested shot at the rim for Harden.

Defensively, Atlanta often struggles most when they are not able to get organized in their transition defense. Such is the case on this possession. They never stop the basketball from advancing up court, even by way of a dribble, and never get in position to deter an attempt at the rim.

Frankly, as the score would attest, the defensive play was troublesome for the entirety of the game. The Hawks could not find a way to get better organized, to get better connected as a defensive unit nor to be competitive for any stretch on that end of the court.

Lessons to be learned

If there is a lesson to be learned for the young Hawks team in this contest, it might be that when close games slip from your grasp, you may never know when the next opportunity to secure a win in a close game might be possible.

This game was, truly, never in question, but the Hawks lost in overtime on Friday night to the Pacers in Indiana. Before that, they lost to the Bucks in Milwaukee on Wednesday evening in a game in which they trailed by just five points with three minutes remaining.

“I feel bad for our guys because I thought because I thought we had been playing really good basketball,” said Pierce after Saturday’s game. “You miss out on an opportunity last night. You miss out on an opportunity against Milwaukee the game before. You come here and you run into a tough situation.”

“We played extremely well last night, we take Indiana to overtime. We played extremely well against Milwaukee,” Pierce continued. “We have to find a way to continue to focus on what we did in those games and the effort we put forth in those games… try to push this one aside and hopefully it’s one of those unique deals. But I thought our guys had been playing pretty good basketball. This one just wasn’t our night.”

A positive

Trae Young continued his impressive play on the offensive end of the court. He had 37 points (and seven assists) in an incredibly efficient shooting performance. He was 10 of 16 from the field while converting five of his nine three point attempts. He was 12 of 13 from the free throw line.

“He’s playing great basketball. He’s playing efficient basketball in terms of his shooting which was obviously a big issue for us last year,” Pierce said regarding the play of his second-year point guard.

“To see him start the season shooting efficiently, shooting effectively, play making effectively is important for us to continue and try to find ways to get better is important as well,” added Pierce. “We are not going to take away from what he’s doing on the basketball court. He’s having a heck of a year. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. And he’s hard to guard. There’s some growth you are seeing on a nightly basis.”

As some teams do, the Hawks made an effort to make Harden the weak side defender in action they were using in the half court. On this possession, Jabari Parker is able to sneak to the front of the rim after Harden helps on Damian Jones.

It must be noted, however, that Houston was playing without perhaps their most important defender, center Clint Capela.

Young received very little help in this game. Rookie De’Andre Hunter had 14 points but nearly all of that came in the fourth quarter long after the game had been decided. He struggled mightily in the first three periods.

Having been leaned on for offensive contributions since the suspension of John Collins, Jabari Parker had limited opportunities in this game. He had 11 points on just eight field goal attempts.

Alex Len has 12 points shooting six of seven from the floor off of the bench. The second unit, apart from Len, went just eight of 35 on field goal attempts. Allen Crabbe, in the absence of injured rookie Cam Reddish, started his first game of the season but was able to produce just six points.

All in all, it was an ugly performance from a young team that appeared to be fatigued, but a better performance than this one would be expected of any NBA team in almost any situation.

The 4-16 Hawks will now return home to face the Golden State Warriors at State Farm Arena on Monday evening. The Warriors will face the Magic in Orlando on Sunday evening and will be on a road back-to-back of their own entering play on Monday.