The Atlanta Hawks weren’t “supposed” to win when tip-off arrived on Saturday evening in Brooklyn. With John Collins serving the final night of his 25-game suspension, the Hawks entered the face-off as 7.5-point underdogs, further underscoring the perception that Atlanta was fighting an uphill battle against a superior team in the Nets. However, the Hawks took a double-digit lead with a tremendous first half and, at that point, any discussion of “supposed to win” evaporated into justified expectations of a victory. Atlanta’s performance in the second half, though, left plenty to be desired and the end result was a disappointing 122-112 defeat that marked the team’s seventh straight loss and their 18th in the last 20 contests.
After an inspired and improved effort on Thursday against the Utah Jazz, the Hawks performed quite well in the first half against the Kyrie Irving-less Nets. A 14-5 run set the tone in the early going and, in an oddly encouraging sign, the Hawks were able to withstand a 15-0 spurt from the Nets while taking a double-digit halftime lead. In fact, it was the best offensive half of the season for the Hawks, scoring a season-high 73 points and leaning heavily on Trae Young and Alex Len.
Young scored 24 points, dished out six assists and grabbed four rebounds before halftime, while Len added 16 points and 10 rebounds in only 14 minutes of action. The Hawks didn’t have to shoot the lights out to compile 73 points, either, as they took care of the ball (with only four turnovers), generated 13 free throw attempts (making 12) and prevented Brooklyn from creating additional opportunities by securing the defensive glass.
Unfortunately, most of the positives stopped after the halftime break came to an end.
“I thought our guys gave everything they had to put us in a position to win the game, and the offense really let us down tonight,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the game, via Fox Sports Southeast. “39 points in the second half. We go 2 for 24 from three in the second half. I think you saw some glimpses of a young team lose their will, lose their confidence in a game where we had the will. We had the pace of the game. We had the control of the game. We had the scheme of the game the way we wanted. Our guys were playing with a ton of confidence tonight. When they made their run, we got rattled and the shots weren’t the same. Guys were a little tight. You saw some rookie mistakes down the stretch, and it’s tough.”
Perhaps the most high-profile gaffe occurred in the final two minutes, when the Hawks had the ball trailing by only three points... only to have the game flipped back in Brooklyn’s direction with haste.
Cam Reddish bumps into Kevin Huerter, leading to a reverse finish from Joe Harris pic.twitter.com/XWzJVrQzHp— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) December 22, 2019
As Pierce notes, Atlanta’s offense was the problem in the second half, even with the acknowledgement that the defense was merely adequate and not spectacular. The fourth quarter was fully disastrous for the visiting team, with the Nets outscoring the Hawks by a 37-14 margin and beginning the period with a 14-0 run that became a 23-4 extended spurt.
Overall, Atlanta shot just 6 of 26 from the floor and a dismal 0 of 14 from three-point range in the fourth quarter. The numbers weren’t much better for the full second half, as the Hawks mostly survived the third quarter based on Brooklyn’s own struggles. In fact, the Hawks shot just 26 percent from the floor in the final 24 minutes, knocking down only 2 of 24 three-point attempts.
After the game, though, Pierce seemed almost baffled about the shots not falling in the fourth quarter, pushing back on the notion that much changed other than the ball simply not going in the basket.
“I can go back and look at the shots,” Pierce said of the closing period. “I don’t think they were shots that I would think any of our guys will miss. Cam (Reddish) gets a wide open three in the corner. Trae (Young) gets a wide open three above the break. Trae has a couple of floaters and a couple of layups around the basket. I don’t think they’re shots that our guys aren’t accustomed to shooting or getting. They didn’t go down, and it really drained a lot of our guys.”
The head coach wasn’t alone in that thinking.
“We were still getting the shots we wanted,” Young said of the fourth quarter struggles on the offensive end, via Fox Sports Southeast. “It’s just how the game goes. Sometimes, whenever teams are on runs, it’s hard to kill that momentum, especially when the crowd is into it. We just couldn’t get a bucket to fall to stop that run.”
The second-year guard was the only offensive bright spot after halftime, scoring 23 of his team’s 39 points, including 12 of the 14 points generated in the fourth quarter.
“The way we played, especially through the first three quarters, we played really well,” Young said. “Scored the ball. Got stops. I think we had a 13-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and we just let one get away from us. They went on a run and we just couldn’t stop it. So yeah, we definitely feel like we let one get away.”
Ultimately, Young finished with a sparkling stat line of 47 points, eight rebounds and six assists, operating at a superstar level in captaining the offense. Though he was individually spectacular — with Len also deserving credit for a great performance with 23 points and 14 rebounds — there was only so much Young could do, and the supporting cast, young and old, really scuffled.
“I thought our guys were engaged and confident pretty much the entire time,” Pierce said. “73 points at the half. We even it out in the third quarter and didn’t lose any ground. They were going to come out and hit, and I thought we hit back. I just thought that the start of the fourth quarter, from an offensive perspective, we got some clean looks. We got some good looks, and they didn’t go down, and theirs did. That momentum was good for them and really rattled us. Even when we got it somewhat balanced and tied back up, we were never really in sync or in flow and the shots were tough on our confidence. You could just feel some of the guys competing but not feeling confident shooting the basketball, which is tough.”
Young and Len combined for 70 of the team’s 112 points, with only rookie forward De’Andre Hunter (14 points) joining them in double figures. Jabari Parker was limited to 15 minutes, seemingly due to a coach’s decision based on his performance, while Cam Reddish and DeAndre’ Bembry combined to make only 5 of 19 shot attempts. Beyond that, Kevin Huerter notably struggled offensively, shooting just 3 of 13 and missing 7 of his 8 three-point attempts.
“I’m a little confused myself,” Pierce said when prompted about Huerter’s shooting struggles. “He’s a really good shooter. He shoots an airball right in front of our bench on a pretty good look, and that’s not Kevin. I think the repetition of game shots is what we’re looking for. He was able to get eight (threes) up tonight. But they’re not clean and they’re not going down. I don’t know if he’s adjusting his shot or tampering with it a little bit. We want him shooting eight. We’ve gotta keep him shooting eight. That’s the biggest thing. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to get him that many shots. I feel 100 percent confident that he’ll get to that 40 percent mark of which he’s done last year. We just need him to keep shooting and shooting at game speed.”
In some respects, Saturday night’s performance was representative of the issues that have plagued the Hawks throughout the season.
For one, Atlanta was +5 in 40 minutes with Young on the floor, indicating that the Hawks were blasted by a 15-point margin in the eight minutes that the star guard sat on the bench. That has been a theme throughout the campaign and, while Collins’ return should help in that area, it remains clear that the Hawks have a significant offensive issue whenever their floor leader isn’t at the helm.
Elsewhere, there have simply been too many collapses for long periods of time. To their credit, the Hawks didn’t allow the early 15-0 run by Brooklyn to doom them but, in the final quarter, things clearly spiraled and that was seemingly acknowledged in the post-game comments from Young and Pierce. Part of that can certainly be attributed to a young team simply not knowing how to close out victories but, in short, it can be maddening to watch and that adjective certainly applied to Saturday night’s performance.
Collins returns to action on Monday and, considering the Hawks were the worst team in the NBA (at least by the numbers) during his 25-game hiatus, that is a welcome sight for Atlanta. He will undoubtedly help the team in myriad ways and, coupled with a favorable schedule from this point forward, wins will likely materialize. Still, Saturday’s game was a strange microcosm of the entire time that Collins has been out of the lineup and the snowball simply rolled down the hill against a playoff-caliber opponent in the fourth quarter.