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Slow defensive start leads Hawks to non-competitive loss in New York

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks did not win as many games as they would have hoped during the early part of the 2019-2020 NBA season. As the schedule has edged firmly into mid-December, the urgency the team feels to find opportunities to grab wins is likely only increasing. A tough early-season schedule, with plenty of road games, can explain some of how they entered play on Tuesday evening with a record of 6-21, the same record held by their opponent, the New York Knicks.

It was as likely of an opportunity for them to get a win as they have had in some time, but in disappointing fashion, they really could not find a way to be competitive in the game in the eventual 143-120 loss. The final score, in the end, was even a bit misleading, perhaps, as to how non-competitive the game actually was.

As has been the case in their uglier performances of recent, it was the defensive play that stood out more. New York entered the game as the worst offense in the league on a per-possession basis and the Hawks saw them put up 77 points before halftime. That led to a 24-point deficit for Atlanta entering the third quarter, which is significant to overcome against an opponent of any stature.

In the end, it basically turned into a game in which teams traded baskets for nearly the entire second half. The Hawks ended up outscoring the home team by a single point after intermission, but Atlanta never seriously threatened to make the game competitive.

After (another) performance like this, it can be natural to explore things such as roster construction, lineups, rotations and the like as to assess where things might be able to be improved. In post-game comments, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce suggested that the root of the issue(s) exist at a more fundamental level.

“As expected, a very frustrated room,” he explained when asked about the mindset of his team following the performance. “It’s tough when you come off of an effort you have on Sunday against the Lakers and you come here and we didn’t hit first. And we played on our heels. And we let a lot of things effect our effort. And that’s the biggest thing.”

“I keep talking about competitive spirit and trying to find that effort,” he added. “And we don’t have it right now. And that’s always going to come back to me. I’ll never put it on any of our guys. It’s going to come back to me and we’ve got to find it.”

“It’s always going to be our effort.” he continued. “It’s not a scheme thing. It’s not a coverage thing. It’s not just a defensive thing. I think our effort offensively is just as important. Our competitive spirit defensively is important. Our interaction with one another is important. They are all apart of it. It’s not just the 41 (points the Knicks put up in the first quarter), it’s the competitive spirit or lack thereof right now that we are missing and we need to find.”

The view seems to be that changes in other areas (lineups, etc.), while likely to be in play at this point, should not be expected to resolve the most challenging issues the team faces at this point in the season.

Point guard Trae Young had another big night as a scorer. He continues to consistently put up numbers that rank him in the top five in the league in points and assists. While too many of these performances are taking places in losses, his team needs all of the production that Young can deliver, and that was apparent on this night.

Atlanta entered the game 27th in league in offensive rating. Young had an efficient 42 points and eight assists. He was 9 for 16 on two-point attempts and 7 of 13 on three-point attempts.

New York has a roster stocked full of big guards and opted to defend Young in the pick and roll with a drop technique — by the opposing big — and a trail technique — by his defender.

Possessing one of the best floater games in the league, Young is extremely confident generating shots versus drop coverage. While the trail technique made him very uncomfortable last season, he has been seldom bothered by it in his second NBA campaign.

Still, it’s easy to understand why a team with lengthy defenders would want to opt to deploy it versus Young at this point. With that said, he had little difficulty finding optimal shots throughout the game.

Despite a slow start shooting the ball (2-10 in the first three quarters), rookie De’Andre Hunter used a strong fourth quarter (14 points on ten shooting possessions) to contribute 19 points. He also had five rebounds and four assists.

Kevin Huerter played more than 32 minutes after leaving Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury. He is still working to find his shooting rhythm but had 14 points and (another) five assists in this game. He now has 27 assists in seven games since returning from an 11 game absence.

Playing his last career game in Madison Square Garden, Vince Carter amassed 15 points on 10 shooting possessions including converting four of his seven three point attempts.

Alex Len and Cam Reddish each contributed nine points in reserve play.

It was New York’s domination in bench scoring that created much of the scoring differential in the game. Their reserve unit outscored the visitors’ by a margin of 72-33.

Second-year center Mitchell Robinson had 22 points and 13 rebounds. Kevin Knox, also in his second year in the league, had a season-best 17 points on 14 shooting possessions.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, RJ Barrett, had a season-best 27 points on just 17 shooting possessions. Veteran forwards Marcus Morris and Julius Randle, both in their first seasons with New York, had 22 and 17 points respectively.

Atlanta’s issues defending the paint were present, again, in this contest. Despite entering the game among the league’s least productive teams scoring in the lane, the Knicks were able to generate 72 points on the interior. As a point of comparison, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks lead the league with an average of 53.4 points per game in the paint.

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

This possession in the first quarter offers a look at how New York was defending Young in the pick and roll. Taj Gibson drops deep in the paint to protect the basket. Frank Ntilikina chases Young from a trailing possession hoping to use his length to affect any mid-range shot attempt. Ultimately, the Hawks’ point guard easily converts the shot from just below the free throw line.

A defensive possession in the middle of the first period provides a glimpse into myriad issues that plagued Atlanta throughout the game. Barrett is the physical aggressor versus Huerter in his dribble penetration.

Similarly, Randle using physical play to get and Keep Hunter on his back. Damian Jones appears to be floating through the play to some degree. He is tracking his assignment, Gibson on the right baseline while threatening to help on Barrett but not doing so.

Notice the comfortable passing lanes on each side of him available to Barrett. Regardless, the rookie converts a second attempt at the rim for the score.

Young connects on a patented step back perimeter attempt here to keep the game close in the first frame. This play allows us to see how much, especially bigger defenders, have to respect the threat of Young attacking to his right with dribble penetration. The second-year guard is leveraging this technique with regularity this season.

Here, the Hawks are looking to go to a set that, in its intent, allows Huerter to function on the ball while Young operates off of it. With Gibson calling the defensive signals, the Knicks unsurprisingly detect the play and overplay Huerter on the left wing.

Len, initially looking to approach with a screen for Huerter, has to reverse course and ready himself for one for Young. For some reason, Dennis Smith Jr. decides to go under the screen of Len. Young punishes the mistake with another three-point make.

Here, we see another play on which Atlanta’s defensive intensity is not sufficient. Jabari Parker looks to assist on the dribble penetration of Damyean Dotson after Young has to chase him from a trailing technique of his own after the screen of Bobby Portis.

Desspite attacking to his left, Dotson is allowed to get comfortably back to his right hand for the easy lay up.

This is another example of a sub-optimal defensive possession from the Hawks. Initially, Reddish is working reasonably hard to stay attached to his former college teammate, Barrett, who successfully cuts to the rim on the back side of the play for the lay up.

Notice how little Len is doing to help his teammate deal with the cut. His hands are down, not up, and in no position to threaten to close the passing lane. Also, he is neither up on Randle, as to bother him as a passer, nor doing much as he drops in the paint to otherwise be any sort of deterrent on the play.

No game, even this one, is bad play after bad play. Here, we have a chance to see an offensive wrinkle Atlanta has been increasingly using of late. Most actions of this sort call for one (or two) bigs to work with Young in high screen action.

On this play, we see Huerter operate with Parker in the screen action. This creates confusion for the defense as to which “principles” to use to defend the play.

As Young works left to right, the successive screens from Huerter and Parker create role confusion for the defense. This is further leveraged by the offense as Hunter moves from the left to the right side of the floor.

As Parker works toward the rim, Dotson should be helping by “tagging the roller” but he is focused on tracking Huerter.

Knox reads the play correctly and attempts to help on Young’s dribble with a “dig,” but Portis is trapped between helping on Parker (technically not his responsibility) and accounting for Hunter in the right corner.

The result is an easy score for Parker.

We see another positive play here. Young attacks with the dribble after Gibson closes out on him on the perimeter. He is able to get to the middle of the paint and recognizes that New York does not have a rim protector deployed in this lineup. He attacks with confidence and connects on another floater.

This is a similar play from Huerter who works with the dribble as he comes around the screen of Len. Gibson only partly drops toward the path of his dribble and Huerter reads the play as his path to the rim opens up. He also converts a high-percentage look.

These plays offer a feel of the game across the third and fourth quarters as the teams traded scores. Regardless of who you are facing in the NBA, a 24-point halftime lead is very unlikely to be manageable, even if the offense awakened after the break.

Up Next

The Hawks will host the 16-11 Utah Jazz on Thursday at State Farm Arena (7:30 pm ET). Utah has largely struggled on offense (bottom ten in the league) this season and may offer Atlanta a chance to put together a better defensive performance than they did in New York. Still, the Hawks will have to deal with the top ten defense of Utah as they look to put up enough points to potentially secure a bounce-back victory.