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Collins’ return not enough as Hawks succumb to Cavs

John Collins returned, but the Hawks’ return to winning ways did not.

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

On Monday, the Atlanta Hawks welcomed back the previously suspended John Collins as the team traveled to Cleveland in the hopes of breaking their seven-game losing streak. In the end, the Hawks fell short, dropping Monday’s contest against the Cavaliers 121-118.

Trae Young led the Hawks with 30 points and 11 assists, John Collins added 27 points and 10 rebounds while De’Andre Hunter added 23 points.

For the Cavaliers, Colin Sexton scored 25 points while back-court partner Darius Garland added 21 points.

Let’s get into this one

Poor fourth quarter leads to loss, defensive questions

Heading into this game, it was basically a coin-flip on paper to decide which of these two struggling Eastern Conference teams would take this win, and that was very much the case as the two teams entered the fourth quarter all knotted up at 94 apiece.

However, the Hawks started the fourth quarter very poorly from an offensive standpoint and only scored two points in the first 5:26 as the Cavs began to pull away, establishing a double-digit lead in the final period.

“We’ve seen that, it’s the same thing that happened in Brooklyn,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, via Fox Sports Southeast, on the slow offensive start to the fourth quarter. “You get tight. You get your confidence on the defensive end, you get your confidence taking pride in your matchup. We’ll find ways to score. We talked about being ‘an attack mentality’ against this team — we got a lot of points in the paint, we got downhill, we were able to spray out and find threes. But we’ll get that. We have to get stops. We’ll find ways to get simple scores, we’ll be able to move the basketball and make them have to work on the defensive end as well.”

The Hawks turned the ball over often in the fourth quarter, especially to begin the quarter. Jabari Parker had back-to-back turnovers, followed by this poor turnover from DeAndre’ Bembry:

The Cavs pulled away as the drought continued and the Hawks, it looked as though, didn’t have an answer. It looked like this game was over when the Cavaliers took a 14 point lead after a bucket from Cedi Osman put the Cavs up by their largest margin of the night with 3:20 remaining, and that was surely that.

Right? Wrong.

The Hawks, somehow, cut into the lead and a flurry of threes from Young and Kevin Huerter put the Hawks back in contention. Now, let’s be fair, yes, the Hawks made some shots but Atlanta getting back into this game had more to do with the Cavaliers utterly imploding than what the Hawks did. Regardless, a three from Young with 49 seconds remaining cut the lead to just three points and the Hawks had chances to tie.

Ultimately, it all led to one final possession, with the Hawks down three with 5 seconds remaining. The Cavaliers defend the perimeter well and the Hawks are unable to get a quality shot off. In the end, it’s Young’s heave that misses and the losing streak rises to eight.

I don’t think, really, there was anything wrong with this play. Often, Young inbounds the ball, he got it into Carter, a good screen from Collins freed up Young, Young got the ball and got a shot up.

The Cavaliers, to give them credit, defended this well, they were aware of the situation and that the Hawks needed a three and their ball denial was good enough to kill some time, and there was only five seconds to begin with.

Postgame, Pierce elaborated on the final play and why Young was the on inbounding the ball.

“They’re going to deny him if he’s not,” said Pierce of the final play. “You saw how hard it was for him to get him...he’s a small guy, they’re going to switch it... any team under five seconds, under eight seconds is going to switch. If you can’t get it to him, now you’re in a tough position. We were able to get him the basketball, he’s able to get a shot. It’s never going to be a clean look. If you’ve got a really bad defense and you give up a clean look at the end of the game, especially a team that needs a three, I think that’s far and few that you’ll see that. We’ve seen him get the basketball and not be able to make a shot and we’ve seen him get the ball and make a shot. We were able to get him the basketball and he got a shot, and that’s what you ask for when you’re in that situation.”

Logical from Pierce — you could kind of see how difficult it may have been to try get the ball to Young on the inbounds, especially with time being against the Hawks. Again, give the Cavaliers credit. They also chose not to foul while up three, their choice was justified, they did enough to defend the perimeter.

Young’s answer on the play was... a little more interesting.

Context is important and how this question was answered, audibly, is important — so be careful reading into that quote. There is obviously frustration building within the team and I think with Young too, but I think it’s not to do, directly at least, with the coaching as it is just the losing — 19 of the last 21 games the Hawks have now lost.

“I feel like everyone is extremely disappointed,” said Collins postgame via Fox Sports Southeast. “...Obviously on the defensive end we could’ve been a lot better ... no one likes to lose.”

Part of it is the schedule, coupled with Collins’ absence, but also the preseason work of Travis Schlenk, who obviously put this team together. That’s another item for another day, but winning would certainly solve so many problems, and I think a lot of the other issues that are cropping up wouldn’t really be talking points (and a lot of them shouldn’t be. Regardless, because there’s been a lot of losses racking up due to circumstances both in and not in the control of the coaches and players, everything is brought into question and minor issues seem worse than they actually are.

Young inbounding the ball at the end shouldn’t be a talking point or an issue, especially with Pierce explaining why this was the case. But people will make it one anyways, and that’s just how it goes.

Despite almost rallying from 14 points with three minutes to go, the Hawks should be pretty disappointed with this loss — they could’ve won this game.

Their poor offensive start to the fourth quarter ultimately gave them too much to do but their defense was very poor all night long, and that’s why the Hawks lost this game.

The Cleveland Cavaliers rank 28th in points per game, averaging 103.9 points per game and the Hawks allowed them to hang 121 points on them, shooting 52% from the field. In all honesty, it’s amazing that that field goal percentage wasn’t higher, because it looked so simple for the Cavaliers at times to score.

It was this aspect that was displeasing to Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, who was asked a lot about the defense but also seemed to take whatever opportunity he could during his post game press conference.

“Our ability to contain the basketball was just awful tonight,” said Pierce in his opening statement. “One-on-one defense, pride on the defensive end, they just play one-on-one basketball, found defenders, went at them. We looked at it at halftime: 38 points in the paint, 66 points in the paint for the game. The bottom line is it comes down to our guys defending their guys in iso situations and we couldn’t get a stop when we needed it. We’re fine offensively, we’ll be able to score. We’ve got to find ways, mentally, to be tougher, physically to be more aggressive on the defensive end.”

“We have to change our mindset,” Pierce followed on defensively. “Right now, when we get in those situations it’s about getting stops, it’s about being mentally tough, it’s about being more aggressive on the defensive end. ‘We’ve got to get stops, we’ve got to get stops in a row’ — we’re not thinking that way and we’re not taking that part of the game serious enough.”

For the eighth time this season, the Hawks saw an opponent score 35 or more points in the opening quarter, as the Cavaliers hung a tied-season best 42 points in a quarter to open this game.

“I think we wait, we wait and we think we’ll get it on the next play,” said Pierce when asked if the 42-point first quarter sets the tone for the rest of the game. “It’s just something we’ve got to continue to work on. Play until exhaustion, giving the maximum effort on the defensive end. We’ve got all our bodies, that’s not the issue. We can play anyone. But we’ve got to take way more pride on the defensive end.”

“I think it’s understanding, that’s the most important part of this game for guys who have not been in that position for most of their careers.” said Pierce on the challenge of the defensive intensity. “You’ve got a lot of offensively talented players. We’ve got a lot of guys who are capable of scoring and making plays on the offensive end. I think when you’re put in a position and you’re playing heavy minutes — and a lot of our guys have played heavy minutes — it’s understanding you have to do it on both sides. From a competitive standpoint, that’s what competition is: it’s playing both sides of the basketball, it’s taking advantage of every possession defensively and mentally. We just have to take way more pride, we’ve got to change our mindset. It’s not just ‘because I’m on the court, I get to play free and someone else is going to make the stop’. It’s all of the guys — all of our young guys that are playing, all of our vets that are coming in and providing minutes. We have to understand we’re going to get ourselves wins by doing it on that side of the basketball.”

“It’s personal pride,” said Pierce on how the Hawks buy into it defensively. “I don’t know how you make a guy mentally tougher, but we’ve got to focus on that. All of our guys are healthy, maybe I sub guys quicker, maybe you start playing for stops and getting guys out if they can’t get stops. That’s just something they’ve got to buy into and a lot of that goes into the film study, a lot of that goes into understanding your schemes and tendencies in your opponent. That’s where it is right now. Offense isn’t the issue. We’re not going to outscore anyone. We’ve got to get stops to do so.”

There’s obviously a lot to take in there but I think it’s important to include a lot of what Pierce said last night here today. You can tell that the head coach is obviously not happy with his team’s defense and the individual defense, which is obviously putting it mildly, because he had a lot to say, and it speaks for itself.

There’s an elephant in the room that has to be addressed when it comes to individual defense that, I think, it’s time is addressed somewhat, and that’s Young’s performance defensively.

Look, offensively, Young is absolutely fantastic. What he provides to the Hawks is completely invaluable and the Hawks would be worse than 6-25 without him averaging what he’s averaging.

Defensively, I think most people accept that Young isn’t great but that that would be OK to a degree because of what he adds offensively and what he has to carry. Monday night was the first night I can remember, though, where part of the fan base was seemingly upset with Young’s defense (and shot selection at times).

Time after time, whether it was Sexton, Garland or even Matthew Dellavedova just blowing by Young with ease for baskets — it was just so easy. I respect Dellavedova’s toughness and his play over the years, and he’s obviously an NBA champion (we’ll say nothing on Kyle Korver’s ankles) but if he’s blowing by you on defense, that’s a problem.

This is just poor:

I’m not sure as to why Young is looking at Jabari Parker after this play, if he expected Parker to go with Dellavedova (despite no screen/reason to switch taking place) but Young has to be better here (and there’s a reason why this led to an immediate timeout).

Faced by Colin Sexton, Young is beaten far too easily and seems to give up and reach far too easily as Sexton scores:

You couldn’t help but feel when Pierce talked about individual defense, that he was referencing Young (as well as others). Don’t hear what I’m not saying, though — Young isn’t the only one that applies here.

The Hawks are bad defensively and that obviously goes beyond one player. I think there’s a reason why Parker only plays 15 minutes in this game, despite the injuries to Alex Len and Bruno Fernando in this game forcing Pierce to play Vince Carter 15 minutes in the second half — there’s a reason why a lot of those minutes aren’t going to Parker and I think it’s defense. But Young’s defense, at the point guard position — a position where the a large contingent of star players play — plays a big part towards the team defense, and it’s problematic for the team’s success if it’s this bad. Young’s defense doesn’t have to be great, heck, it doesn’t even need to be average — it just can’t be this bad.

Young may have had 30 points and 11 assists, but this was not a great overall game from Young. At the beginning of the year, he was showing improved effort defensively but that has slipped away in recent days.

What was telling to me when watching this game live was in the fourth quarter, despite the Hawks just dying for some offense, Pierce took Young out of the game. I thought, at the time, this may have been a message he wanted to send to Young but Young did return to the game and Pierce elaborated on why he took Young out at a time where the Hawks needed to score and in a precarious point of the game where the game could’ve ended up in a blowout while Young sat.

“We needed to get stops,” said Pierce when asked why Young sat in the fourth. “I think De’Andre Hunter was the only guy who played 12 minutes (in the last quarter) and when you’re not getting stops, part of that may be fatigue, part of that may just change in the rotation a little bit. Trae is playing both sides, trying to get stops defensively and bringing the ball up and trying to create plays for other guys, so I wanted to buy a few minutes if I could. I thought Kevin (Huerter) did a good job of getting us going in that stretch and we get Trae back in, and they climb their way back in. Anytime you’re playing someone 12 minutes in the fourth quarter and you’re asking them to step up and try make plays on both ends of the basketball, you should expect fatigue to kick in and so it’s an opportunity to get him (Young) out for a couple of minutes.”

Chris Kirschner of The Athletic then followed up on that with a question about Young’s defense in particular, which was cut away from during FSSE’s broadcast.

Make of all of that what you will, but the bottom line is Young has to be better defensively if the Hawks want to try and win some of these games. And, look, Young doesn’t even need to be good defensively — he can be so good offensively that he gets a pass in many ways defensively, and he does have an awful lot to carry offensively. I get that. He just needs to not be awful defensively and, sadly, last night it wasn’t pretty defensively.

Pierce also referenced in his post game press conference (which I recommend listening to) that Huerter, like the rest of the team, will need to be better defensively, so, again, it’s not just Young. Pierce was careful in treading that line but he wasn’t short of basically calling out his team’s toughness last night and their competitiveness defensively. The Hawks’ defense has to be better, and it cost them this game — and everyone has to be accountable to that.

John Collins’ return

Incredible with how the postgame comments and the stories that unfolded from that that Collins’ return almost became secondary, but the Collins did indeed make his return after serving his 25-game suspension.

Collins has obviously been working out with the team in practices and it looked as though he didn’t miss too many beats, returning with 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting from the field, 2-of-5 from three and 10 rebounds in 34 minutes of action.

Lots of activity around the rim for Collins, beginning with this steal and dunk in transition to get the Hawks on the board:

Collins provides an athletic body and option for the Hawks to just lob it up to coming out of the pick-and-roll, which we (collectively) know Collins is great at doing as he gets downhill, his athleticism puts pressure on teams as they back-pedal:

You can tell that Young has missed Collins not just as a lob-target but just another big-body that can set a screen, Collins’ screen here freeing up Young for a three-pointer:

There’s a reason why this tandem is respected:

Defensively, Collins will have to adjust toward — more so as a help defender — but, honestly, you can’t have asked too much more of Collins in his return.

“Just John being John,” said Pierce of Collins’ performance. “Activity, bounce, he was very active, very active in the pick-and-roll, obviously made a couple of shots from the perimeter as well. Just having his activity is great.”

Collins himself was satisfied with his performance.

“A solid game,” Collins assessed postgame via Fox Sports Southeast. “I feel like my teammates got me involved, I got some easy shots around the rim. A couple of open shots didn’t fall which you didn’t like to see but a solid game overall ... could’ve been better on defense.”

(I think the defense reference was to the Hawks as a team defensively he was talking about the that the question prior)

There were times where Collins looked a little gassed but this was as good as you could’ve wanted for Collins in his return after a 25 game absence.

Collins was adamant about his conditioning and that now he has a game under his belt, he’s good to go as the Hawks will attempt to get their season, really, kickstarted.

“I wasn’t afraid of being too excited, I was more afraid of going out there being excited to the point I get tired and just get all of the jitters out,” said Collins. “Thankfully I wasn’t. I feel like I’m in great shape and hopefully I continue that.”

“For sure (I feel in game shape.) First couple of minutes, got my wind out. After that, felt good.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Collins follows this performance, especially against a formidable opponent in the form of the Milwaukee Bucks, who the Hawks will face next. But for now, a great return to the fray for Collins, he was very much missed and that was very evident last night.

Center injuries

Just when the Hawks returned to full strength, the injury bug struck again.

First, Len sprained his left ankle as he was coming down to land in the early stages of the second quarter and was subsequently ruled out for the remainder of the game. In his place in the rotation, Pierce inserted Damian Jones, who has been out of the rotation of late.

Postgame, Len said that his ankle was ‘pretty swollen’ and while he is hopeful that he can play on Friday that it depends on how severe the injury is, which they’ll only discover when they return to Atlanta.

Len should, really, be starting at this stage but if he is to miss any time, that would be a blow for the Hawks, as Len is putting together a now solid season for the Hawks.

Elsewhere, Fernando suffered a mouth contusion in the second half, which required six stitches to his lip (which sounded and looked painful, there was a lot of blood involved) and he would go on to miss the remainder of this game after being ruled ‘questionable’ and then ‘available/ to return.

Fernando’s injury obviously isn’t as severe as Len’s injury could be going forward and I’d be surprised if Fernando missed time heading into the weekend. Christmas turkey may be tougher to enjoy but alas...

Len is the player whose fitness you’d sweat a little more heading into the weekend, so we’ll see what happens and what news emerges from Atlanta Wednesday/Thursday/Friday — unsure how the Hawks handle these kind of issues so close to Christmas.

Bench scoring leaves Hawks dry

One other aspect of this game that went in the favor of the Cavaliers was bench production. The Cavs’ bench outscored the Hawks’ bench 34-17 as Kevin Porter Jr. almost outscored the Hawks bench himself, scoring 15 points.

A few things to note when it comes to this: obviously losing Alex Len pretty in this game early hurts (Len has been averaging double digits over the last 10 games), Allen Crabbe did not play last night — Crabbe has been in the rotation of late so his absence is notable. Not massively important but noteworthy.

Cam Reddish struggled from the field as he scored seven points on 2-of-7 shooting, and some of these shots were just ghastly (but that said, he was good defensively and was a team-best +9). Jabari Parker only played 15 minutes as we’ve talked about here already. DeAndre’ Bembry attempted one shot in 19 minutes — which he missed — while Vince Carter shot 1-of-5 from the field.

So, a combination of losing bodies, rotation and guys just struggling from the field.

In fact, the majority of the Hawks’ scoring was done by four guys, Young, Huerter (who enjoyed a season-high 19 points and a season-high five threes), Hunter (who enjoyed a strong second quarter, as he has been one to do) and Collins combined for 99 of the Hawks 118 points — that’s tough.

Some mitigating circumstances, but the bench will have to do more to help the Hawks going forward. If they had, who knows, we’re probably talking about this game completely differently. But alas...we are not.

The Hawks (6-25, now possessing the worst record in the NBA after the Warriors picked up a victory last night) are back in action on Friday, where things don’t get any easier as the Hawks face the Milwaukee Bucks at State Farm Arena.

And the schedule doesn’t get easier after that.

In the meantime, there are festivities to enjoy — so Happy Holidays!

Until next time...