The Atlanta Hawks made their final visit to Miami this season for a Tuesday evening contest against the team with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat.
Atlanta had seen a bit of an offensive resurgence in the last two games with the return of Kevin Huerter to the rotation. They posted 118 and 122 points respectively in each of their past two games that included a loss to the Brooklyn Nets and a win over the Charlotte Hornets.
In this contest, the offense gave the Hawks everything they needed for roughly 47 minutes of action. However, failed possessions on both ends of the court allowed the Heat to bounce back from down six points with less than a minute to play to force overtime where it would be all Miami in the eventual 130-121 loss for the visiting team.
In a narrow, tough loss (and especially one that seemed so in grasp for Atlanta), it can be easy to forget some of the positives that were demonstrated along the way.
It might have been the Hawks’ most balanced offensive performance of the season. Throughout the game, Miami used two defenders to force the ball out of Trae Young’s hands as to dictate that other players make plays that would lead to points.
Young did not put up his typical gaudy stats in the game (21 points, nine assists) but he deserves credit for time and time again making the simple play with a pass out of the trap trusting his teammates to execute in subsequent four-on-three opportunities. And that they did.
They were able to maintain excellent spacing in those opportunities to generate 54 attempts from beyond the three point line, converting 20 of them. They had 30 assists on 45 made shots. Huerter continued to serve as a secondary playmaker when playing with Young and a primary initiator when getting minutes while the starting point guard was on the bench. He tied his career high with seven assists to go along with nine points.
Atlanta generated 117 points (or more) in regulation for the third consecutive game and for (just) the sixth time this season.
Rookie forward De’Andre Hunter had a tremendous game especially on the offensive end of the court. He attacked the Heat defense especially in situations in which he had an advantage after Young had passed out of a trap high on the floor in the half court.
The fourth overall pick was four of five at the rim and five of ten from distance en route to a career high performance of 28 points.
“I thought he was great. I thought this was probably one of his more solid games in terms of offense and defense,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said about the play of his rookie. “He was able to make plays and create plays when we were dead at the end of the shot clock. He gets a nice little in the paint foul. He gets a nice little pull up on two possessions at the end of the possession just driving closeouts. I thought he was good all night. It was really encouraging to see.”
Jabari Parker was especially effective as a cutter during half court possessions on the offensive end. He had 16 points and seven rebounds. Cam Reddish had a bit of an up and down game but made offensive plays for his team when it was most needed. He had 14 points and seven rebounds in reserve play.
After the Hawks fell down 25-10 in the first quarter, Vince Carter brought some timely offensive production off of the bench to make perimeter shots and open up the floor for his teammates. He had 12 points and four assists.
Alex Len was, by far, the Hawks’ most effective center in the game. He posted nine points on seven shooting possessions. Allen Crabbe was effective in his normal off ball role. He had an efficient seven points and two assists.
The offensive production positioned the Hawks with a six point lead with 59 seconds remaining in regulation at which point Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra called for a timeout. Pierce deployed a lineup that did not include Young for the purpose of getting a stronger defensive unit on the court. The move backfired as Duncan Robinson connected on a three-point attempt to cut the lead in half on the subsequent possession.
Despite having two timeouts remaining, Pierce decided to stick with the defensive oriented unit with the three point lead as his team transitioned to an offensive possession. The plan went awry when DeAndre’ Bemrby had a fairly wild shot blocked, after which Jimmy Butler converted a three point attempt to tie the game with 29 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, Hunter was not able to get a contested shot to fall from the right corner which eventually sent the game to overtime where the Heat would dominate by a score of 18-4.
“I feel bad. I think I had an opportunity to call a timeout after that first three,” Pierce volunteered in comments after the game. “In hindsight, you look back and you think of what you could have done. I probably should have called a timeout there.”
“But on the road at Miami and you get your leading scorer with a corner three. It just didn’t come up,” he added. “We had a couple of opportunities late that we couldn’t capitalize on.”
It should be noted that the lopsided overtime performance came after Huerter had to sit after using his full allotment of 25 minutes of play (due to a minutes restriction as he continues to progress back to a full workload) in regulation. It’s indicative of how critical his availability is to the team’s success.
For the victors, rookie Kendrick Nunn lead all scorers with 36 points on 26 field goal attempts. Duncan Robinson had a career high with 34 points on just 16 shots. He tied a Miami franchise record with ten made three point attempts (on 14 tries).
But big man Bam Adebayo might have had the most impactful performance for the home team. He posted a triple double with 30 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. The Hawks tried to force the Heat to play smaller lineups than they normally do, with a reasonable amount of success. But Adebayo was able to make enough plays for his team as to keep the Heat in the game each time Atlanta tried to pull away in the second half.
Miami newcomer Jimmy Butler also posted a triple double with 30 points, a game best 18 rebounds (which was critical as the Heat played smaller lineups) and 10 assists.
For Miami, Derrick Jones Jr played more than 18 minutes in the second half (mostly) at the power forward position while Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk each played fewer than five minutes.
Jones would be called upon to defend Young for a significant stretch of the second half. Justise Winslow, who has frequently drawn this assignment in previous games, did not play due to injury.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
This possession early in the game is an example of Huerter functioning as a secondary creator. He gets a ball screen from Damian Jones and starts to work toward “the nail” where he draws the attention of the help defender, Adebayo.
Pierce has started to reduce the rotation in recent games with a tendency to play shooters (at the guard and wing positions) more minutes than challenged shooters. But it’s more than just that.
Atlanta has realized an uptick in offensive efficiency as a result of increased ball movement and increased player movement away from the ball. Notice here how Parker and Hunter subtly exchange positions after their defenders sink towards the lane to help on the dribble penetration. It puts Hunter, the superior shooter, furthest from his defender (now Adebayo) and in position to receive a simple pass to the weak side from Huerter.
Parker continues to create space on the play by working hard toward the front of the rim.
The offensive improvement of recent is not simply the result of casual rotation adjustments as previously unavailable players become available. The attention to detail and the five man execution, as demonstrated on this play, has been much improved of late.
This is another example of excellent execution which creates an open shot for Hunter in the right corner. This action also demonstrates what Atlanta was running early in the game in attempt to force Miami to smaller lineups.
Young and Len operate in normal pick and roll action on the left side of the floor. Reddish draws the attention of the defense by rubbing off of a (dummy) screen by Hunter and around the traffic created by Carter. Hunter floats to the corner unaccounted for. Notice Leonard and Adebayo are confused as to which of them should be accounting for Hunter.
This play is an example of how (understandable) mistakes by young players create scoring swings in games.
Reddish tries to save the ball before it travels into the back court, but the result is a Miami run out transition opportunity and an uncontested three point attempt for Robinson.
In the NBA, a player is allowed to pursue a rebound into the back court without the risk of a violation.
This is another example. Bembry gets credited with the turnover here, but Bruno Fernando is mostly at fault. He is a little slow in his cut, and he’s not assertive enough.
If Fernado flashes to the strong side block with both hands shown to the passer, Bembry, he very likely creates a two-on-one opportunity with Parker who is on the weak side baseline.
This possession offers a look at when a read might be imperfect but solid execution allows that to be overcome. Typically, either Parker or Hunter would cut toward the rim on this play with the other floating to the perimeter for the purpose of spacing.
However, if you notice the timing and the spacing of their cuts they still overwhelm the outnumbered Heat defenders on the weak side. It sets up a passing lane for Young to deliver the ball to Hunter for the easy score.
This might have been the most impressive play from Hunter on the evening. Working with dribble penetration toward the middle of the paint he is able to get his defender, Robinson, retreating. He leans in with effective timing and uses his body to create enough separation to prevent Robinson from getting back into the play.
Most critically, he has the discipline to not extend the left arm during execution of this play... which would have resulted in his being called for an offensive foul.
It’s unusual to see rookies demonstrate this level of execution as a scorer especially those that did not enter the league with a reputation for scoring prowess.
Does the execution of this play by Butler, later in the fourth quarter, look familiar? This is a nine year veteran with four all-star appearances on his resume.
Here we see one of the more interesting play calls on the evening for Atlanta. The coaching staff calls for this play, run for Reddish, on the possession immediately after one on which the rookie was called for a charge. This is a mechanism for building confidence in a young player.
Young, the ball handler, and Reddish set up on the left side of the floor, As Young works, deliberately to his right while occupying two defenders, Reddish travels the baseline toward the right corner where he uses Parker’s traffic to get free for a catch and shoot opportunity. He connects.
This is Young, early in the fourth quarter, making the simple play versus the trap to create a shot for a teammate. Atlanta’s scheme simply, but effectively, calls for two shooters to set up on the right side of the offensive formation and Miami is unable to cover them both. Crabbe knocks down the open three point attempt.
Here, Young is getting a high ball screen from Jones. So instead of overloading one side of the floor the Hawks use the defensive attention at the point of attack to set up to spread the shooters across the floor. Crabbe attacks the close out defender by dribbling to the middle of the court to leverage the balanced spacing. He returns the favor to Hunter by hitting him with a pass for the nice look from the arc.
This is another example of an advanced play by Hunter. He takes Robinson off of the dribble right down the middle of the lane with two potential help defenders on each side of his attack.
He diagnoses the play and recognizes that Butler is the biggest threat to him as a possible help defender. Butler is looking to disrupt his play with a “dig.” Hunter navigates this maintaining his dribble past Butler’s foray toward him and gets to the rim for the score.
How about another? Here Hunter recognizes that if a “dig” is going to come it will be from Jones, who is to his left. He narrows path toward the middle of the lane and recognizes that Adebayo is his biggest threat, in the form of a help defender, lurking from the right baseline.
So what does the rookie do? He gets to his right foot and approaches the rim to lead with his left hand as to use the rim to deny Adebayo a path to a block.
This is the first defensive possession after the Heat called timeout down six points. Robinson knocks down the look from the three point line.
The execution is not awful. But, up six points you likely don’t want two defenders chasing Butler toward the rim leaving one defender to account for two shooters on the perimeter.
This is the subsequent offensive possession. It’s not the shot any team is looking for when a bucket would basically put the game away.
And this is where Butler makes the three point attempt to tie the game.
Again, the execution is not awful. But after the blocked shot on the other end, Atlanta has to race back and scramble to get matched up... this is not how they wanted to match up in this situation.
It was all downhill from there.
Good NBA teams put games away when they have the opportunity. And, this Hawks team knows that.
The Hawks will have to wait until Feb. 20, the first game after the All-Star break, for their final opportunity of the season to get a win over Miami and avoid a season sweep.
They will play Wednesday night in Chicago against an 8-17 Bulls team that (also) lost in overtime in Miami on Sunday before taking a one point loss to the Toronto Raptors at home on Monday evening. The Bulls currently lead the season series one game to none and, in terms of the schedule, Chicago has the clear advantage with Atlanta facing its third road game in four nights.