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Poor first half dooms Hawks in loss to Pacers

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A good second half showing but not enough to overcome a poor first half...

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks have been struggling of late — coming off of the heels of a 34 point loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday — and things did not improve as they notched their third consecutive loss in falling to the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, 110-100.

Despite having three players who notched 20 points or higher — Trae Young led the Hawks in scoring with 23 points, De’Andre Hunter added 21 points, Jabari Parker scored 20 points — it was not enough to offset the balanced scoring effort from the Pacers, who enjoyed seven double-digit scoring efforts, led by Malcolm Brogdon’s 19 points.

The Pacers would’ve been favored heading into this game but it was a very even start between the two teams. It was closer to the end of the first quarter where it felt as if Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce sensed something in the game that he needed to address, taking a second timeout of the first quarter as his side trailed by five points.

Whatever it was that Pierce was concerned by, his decision was justified as his side began to lose control of the game as the Hawks fell behind by double-digits before the end of the first quarter and the Hawks fell further behind in the second quarter, trailing by as many as 17 points before walking into the locker-room at halftime with a 15-point deficit.

Heading into the third quarter, the Hawks deserved to be where they were but put together one good quarter and they tore into the Pacers’ lead in the third quarter, cutting the lead to just three points heading into the fourth quarter.

Having found something within and with the momentum and crowd on their side, the Hawks were unable to find a way to score consistently in the final period, shooting 28.6% in the final period and scoring just 17 points as the Pacers took the victory on the road as the Hawks missed quite a number of shots in the paint in the final quarter.

The Hawks took quite a number of shots inside — some were decent looks that just didn’t go down — that were tough shots, contested shots.

Here, Trae Young is unable to make the layup as Aaron Holiday contests and gets into the body of Young, whose layup falls off the rim:

Here, Cam Reddish takes it inside and takes an ill-advised shot in traffic:

Despite the Hawks’ struggled in the fourth quarter, this was still a game with more than two minutes to go after Kevin Huerter’s layup cut the Pacers’ lead to five points.

After a miss from De’Andre Hunter and a split pair of free throws from Brogdon to put the Pacers up by six points but then came a costly turnover from Kevin Huerter on a discontinued dribble:

A chance to cut the Pacers’ lead to four or three points went a-begging, and the stoppage in play allowed the Pacers to sub in Domantis Sabonis back into the game. And on the next trip for the Pacers, Brogdon uses his superior physical frame to work himself inside and scores the bucket to the put the Pacers up by eight points with just over a minute to go:

While not impossible to claw back an eight-point lead with over a minute to go, the Hawks would need to convert heading out of the timeout Pierce took after this basket. Huerter does well to get to the rim but misses the easy opportunity at the rim and that was all she wrote for this game, as the Hawks went through the final 2:26 without a bucket:

While it’ll be disappointing for the Hawks to lose this game as they did in the end, they deserve a lot of credit for their third quarter showing: they could’ve easily ended up down by 20 points but tore into the Pacers’ lead to somehow make this game when, based on the first half, it really shouldn’t have been — so the Hawks deserve a lot of credit for that at the very least.

“They are just young, they play with a lot of energy, and they are playing hard every possession,” said Pacers forward Doug McDermott (who had some big three-pointers in the fourth quarter, including a four-point play to begin the fourth). “You have to give them credit. They didn’t go away, there is no quit in that team, they are tough to guard, they have a very bright future, and they are very well-coached. A win is a win, and you have to tip your cap to them for not folding.”

Postgame, Lloyd Pierce was satisfied with the second half fight his team displayed last night.

“Good to see our guys compete,” said Pierce in his opening statement. “Gritty effort in the second half. To go down, I think it was 18 right off the bat, and then crawl back and get it to three at the end of the third. You know, it’s the defensive end. We knew it would be the mid pick-and-roll. We knew it’d be a balance of guys for them. I think that’s seven guys in double figures which is, it sums up their team. I’m just proud of our guys, the way they competed and got back into the game, and the effort they showed on a defensive end. We just couldn’t get enough stops. We couldn’t capitalize on the stops in the fourth quarter. A lot of empty possessions offensively.”

So often in the NBA, you see teams — who are down by a large amount in the first half — make a comeback in the third/fourth quarter but it ultimately falls short because the energy expounded to get back catches up, and the team who originally had the lead goes on to win.

Trae Young believes that the Hawks had difficulty maintaining their third quarter energy — shooting 28% in the final quarter having shot 59% from the field in their 35-point third quarter.

“It’s hard. When you fight that hard to get back into the game, to maintain that energy, that momentum…is tough,” said Young postgame. “At the same time, Coach wants to keep the guys out there that are making the run, but they’re tired. It’s hard to keep that run going. We fought all the way back to within three. Some shots just didn’t go down.”

Realistically speaking, the Hawks didn’t lose this game down the stretch or in the final quarter — it was lost in the first half.

The Pacers were able to almost score at will in the paint in the first half, scoring 44 paint points in the first half alone while shooting 54% from the field. The shotchart does not tell a pretty picture, as Indiana attempted 28 shots at the rim in the first half, making 19 of them.

“That was the most concerning part at halftime,” said Pierce of the Pacers’ first half paint-points. “And they did it in different ways. It was pin downs and curls with McDermott a couple times and obviously some blow-bys just off straight one-on-one defense, and then in the pick-and-roll. I knew going into the game, we knew going into the game, that the pick-and-roll was going to be concerning. The curls and the blow-bys were the bigger issue. It was just the containment, being able to contain the basketball all night obviously. They had 66, I think, points in the paint. And all night that was an issue, in the first half is really a concern with 44 (points in the paint).”

The Hawks did a much better job in the second half — conceding 24 paint points in the second half, and just 10 in the third quarter (one of the reasons the Hawks were able to make a comeback) — but conceding 44 points in the paint in the first half is going to be a tough hurdle to overcome. The only consolation is that the Pacers struggled from three-point range. Had they shot a percentage higher than the one they did in the first half (2-of-10 for 20%), this game would’ve looked even more bleak than it was at halftime.

“We didn’t think we had our best defensive half in the first half,” said Kevin Huerter. “I think we were a lot better in the second half. We didn’t really feel like shots were falling (all night). That’s how it goes sometimes.”

“They’re big in the middle pick-and-roll, especially Sabonis coming downhill,” Huerter went on to say. “A big emphasis coming into this game was getting over screens, getting into guys, trying to be physical. We didn’t do that in the first half. They lived in the paint and that was a big emphasis coming into the half. We had to get more physical and we did that better in the second half. We didn’t make enough shots.”

Alarmingly, the Hawks have conceded 144 points in the paint in their last two games, fuelled by poor first halves in their last two games — giving up 38 paint points in the first half against the Bulls on Wednesday, 44 last night.

Pierce referenced one-on-one defense and, really, that’s where many of the Pacers’ paint-points came from — the Hawks just couldn’t guard.

Here, Malcolm Brogdon squeezes by Young for the layup at the rim:

In transition, the Hawks aren’t able to stay in front of Brogdon and it results in a layup at the other end:

On this possession, T.J. McConnell is allowed to accelerate inside and score at the rim too easily:

Again, McConnell is involved in the paint but this layup perhaps is more so on Damian Jones to help Young out a little more as the help defender:

With Reddish defending Brogdon this time, the Pacers guard is still able to just drive by and get to the rim for the bucket:

And to end the half, a momentary lapse of concentration from Hunter — who was largely positive in the first half — leads to a layup for T.J. Warren:

Nevermind the Doug McDermott cuts/curls or the pick-and-roll defense when trying to guard Sabonis, the Hawks just couldn’t keep anyone in front of them — they can consider themselves lucky to have only trailed by 15 points at the half.

Now, in saying that, you could also say the Hawks were also unlucky to be down by that many, considering their poor shooting half. The Hawks failed to make a single three-pointer in the first half, shooting 0-of-13 from distance. It marked the first game since March 2016 where the Hawks failed to make a three in a half, as well as the second-worst shooting first half in the league this season — Memphis’ 0-of-15 first half against the Bulls is unbeaten for now.

Lloyd Pierce believed that it was the Hawks’ inability to hit threes in the first half that had more to do with their lack of scoring than what the Pacers achieved defensively.

“I don’t know if it was much,” said Pierce when asked how the Pacers’ first half defensive effort halted the Hawks. “When you’re 0-13 from three, it’s just a tough night in general. You gotta open it up a little bit, and I thought we had some pretty good looks. I thought defensively in the first half was the biggest issue, in addition to not making any of our threes. But I don’t know if their defense really took us out of it. We just couldn’t capitalize on some of the offensive possessions that we had in the first half.”

The Pacers could make the argument that limiting Young — who scored 49 points the last time these two sides met — to six points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field was a mark of their defensive impact in the first half.

“I thought we did a better job of pressuring him and forcing him into our defense,” said Pacers head coach Nate McMillan. “We were a little loose last game; he was running guys off screens and getting downhill on us. We just did a better job of pressuring him and forcing him towards our bigs.”

“We were able to control Trae Young,” said Brogdon on putting pressure on Young. “He wasn’t able to have an explosive game tonight. Then, stops defensively allowed us to get out in transition and get easy buckets...”

Young’s comments would seem to reflect a disagreement, maintaining that he was able to get open shots but just didn’t fall.

“I was able to get my shot off. They weren’t going down tonight,” said Young of being defended by Brogdon and the Pacers. “I was getting good looks. I was getting wide-open looks. I was missing. Sometimes it’s like that. It sucks. Tonight I felt I let my team down. We all fought so hard to get back in the game. For me, trying to be one of the closers, I have to be better. I was getting wide-open looks and missing. I feel like I let my team down tonight.”

Arguably, this first half was Young’s worst half of the year as a whole as he struggled defensively, in addition to his 2-of-12 shooting half. Young did enjoy a significantly better second half but it was not enough for the Hawks to pull through, shooting 9-of-30 from the field and 3-of-10 from three on the game as a whole.

Alex Len arguably enjoyed the best performance last night for the Hawks, scoring 11 points and grabbing a season-high 13 rebounds — including five offensive rebounds, taking his tally to 14 offensive rebounds over his last four games — as well as enjoying the highlight of the night, hammering this dunk on Sabonis:

And in slow-mo...

We spent time talking about Len after the Bulls game, and whether it was time to think about re-inserting him into the starting lineup and nothing changes in that regard following last night’s performance.

Interestingly — something I’ve noticed of late — anytime Len is brought up to Pierce after a game, Pierce makes sure to include Damian Jones in his answer, last night again saw this occur.

“I thought he was great,” said Pierce of Len. “His activity...we’re playing through him a lot with the offense and his ability to play with DHO, dribble hand-offs, and get out guys going and then get behind the defense, I thought his activity was great. He and Damian, Damian was 4-for-4 from the field and they’re both doing it the same way, they’re playing about the same minutes. Our 5 gave us a lot tonight.”

I just find it interesting how Pierce brings up Jones — unprompted at times — when he’s asked about Alex Len. It probably means nothing but just thought it was interesting.

Len has credited a new play the Hawks have implemented, which has allowed Len to have the ball in his hands and allow him a little more choice offensively.

“We put in a new play, it’s called ‘five’,” said Len on what has been working offensively of late. “When I catch at the top and basically get to choose which way I want to go — I can go right, I can go left — I can basically create some offense...I set good screens, they’re looking for that pocket-pass or lob and obviously we’ve got willing passers on the team so it makes it easy.”

You can get a glimpse of what this looks like as Len described in his answer — on two occasions Len assisted on baskets to Allen Crabbe in a situation similar to how Len and Pierce described.

Here, Len hands-off to Crabbe, sets the screen, rolls and probably would be available for a lob had the extra defender not been present — partially due to the positioning of Reddish bringing over an extra defender on that side — and Crabbe spots the opportunity to rise and score on this possession:

A similar play in the third quarter occurs, again it’s Allen Crabbe and it results in a bucket:

If that’s Young, he’s probably looking a little more to set up Len on the return but you can kind of get a grasp as to what Pierce and Len are talking about: Len handles, hand-off, screen, roll, and basically see what happens after that.

In terms of a few rotation notes, the Hawks effectively ran a 9-man rotation and it seems as though, right now, DeAndre Bembry is out of the rotation. Bembry did feature in this game but all for the tune of 29 seconds, the majority of those coming at the end of the second quarter where Pierce subbed Bembry in for a defensive possession to end the half.

Elsewhere, Kevin Huerter’s minute restriction rose to 30 minutes and he played for exactly 30 minutes on the dot (according to NBA.com), sitting a few minutes in the fourth quarter so he could finish the game in the final three/four minutes. Had the Hawks forced overtime, things would’ve gotten tough as Huerter would’ve hit his criteria but, well, we’ve talked about some of Huerter’s tougher plays down the stretch and how things got away from the Hawks...

A winnable game for the Hawks on paper — and on showing in the third quarter — but conceding 44 points in the paint in the first half and shooting 0-of-13 in the first half is going to make life very tough indeed... Solid fightback but just not enough.


Life for the Hawks (6-20) doesn’t get any easier as the rolling Los Angeles Lakers come to town on Sunday evening for what’s going to be a lively event at State Farm Arena.

Should be fun.

Until next time...