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Hawks unable to compete in first half, suffer blowout loss to Bucks

Brook Lopez and Kris Middleton were too much to handle in the first half.

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks entered State Farm Arena on Friday night with a possible shot of topping the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, who were without reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe.

The Hawks were down personnel themselves — missing Alex Len and Jabari Parker — but this was as good an opportunity as any to take on the Bucks, playing at home and coming off of three days rest, with the Bucks coming off of a tough loss against the Sixers on Christmas Day.

Sadly for the Hawks, they were blown out wire-to-wire, falling 112-86 (a season-low for the Hawks) as the losing streak hit nine games.

Allen Crabbe led the Hawks with 20 points as he got going in the fourth quarter (scoring 14 points) while both Trae Young and Kevin Huerter added 12 points — Young’s scoring output obviously limited by the ankle injury he sustained in the second quarter (but more on that later).

For the Bucks, Khris Middleton scored 23 points to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists in 25 minutes while Brook Lopez scored 19 points.

This game was a game of one half, the first half.

The Bucks had already taken a commanding lead into the half and a quick run meant that they led by 29 points with basically the entire second half remaining, rendering effectively pointless. The lead was eventually squeezed to as many as 32 points but, really, the second half was a formality — a fact proven true when Chandler Parsons took to the court prior to the end of the third quarter.

So, we’re going to focus in on the first half and we’re going to key in on Brook Lopez who was a thorn in the Hawks’ side all night long (and by night, I mean first half because that’s all that mattered from this game).

I’m a big fan of Lopez’s game — his combination of size, strength and his ability to score inside and out makes him an incredibly tough cover on a team that has multiple scoring threats.

Given the Hawks’ setup at center, this is already a very poor matchup for them — let alone in the absence of Alex Len.

Lopez did the majority of his scoring in the first half, scoring 17 of his 19 points in the first half (his services weren’t really needed in the second half) and, really, the first 10 seconds of this game should’ve been the indicator, as he easily scores and draws a foul for the ‘and-1’ opportunity on Bruno Fernando following a good screen from Matthews on Fernando:

The Bucks began this game on an 8-0 run — the sixth, seventh and eighth points coming from this three-pointer from Lopez, after Fernando feels the need to come inside and help on the driving Middleton, who kills his drive and passes the ball back to the now open Lopez for a three-pointer, leading to a Hawks timeout:

Fernando was pretty poor in many spots last night and this was another scenario: if Middleton gets by here, John Collins is one who is in the best position to rotate and help at the rim — Fernando does not need to help here nor should he at the expense of leaving a notorious three-point shooter, in the form of Lopez, wide open. That, I’m sure, would’ve been one of the first notes for preparing to face the Bucks.

“...I didn’t like the way a couple of our guys approached the game to start which led to an 8-0 lead,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce postgame.

To be fair for Fernando, it’s just an awful matchup for him.

Damian Jones didn’t fare a ton better and he also gets this one wrong as Jones believes he has to cover De’Andre Hunter, who was screened by Lopez, and this leaves Lopez on his own for another three-pointer:

Again, Collins is positioned well should Middleton elect to continue his drive — there’s no need for Jones to be there, and not be there at the expense of another Lopez three-pointer.

Not long after this, the Hawks decided to go small, playing Collins at the 5. This is a very tough ask for Collins defensively in this matchup, as Lopez just his superior size, strength and skill inside to work an easy bucket plus the foul on Collins:

With Jones back on Lopez to begin the second quarter, can this switch between himself and Cam Reddish be avoided? The switch here makes it far too easy for Lopez to score inside, no one is going to challenge this:

This next Lopez bucket is all about the screen set from Kyle Korver on Collins, and Lopez is free to roam to the rim where he is found for the alley-oop:

Again, the Hawks go small and this play starts with Lopez on the perimeter. The Bucks do a good job swinging the ball around, it finds Lopez, Collins scrambles somewhat, Lopez drives by with ease and once Lopez has negotiated the big — the only big — he’s now steaming down the lane and there’s just no defense for this that the Hawks can do as Lopez finishes with the dunk:

And there you go: 17 first half points for Lopez and a whole lot of problems.

But obviously there’s more to the Hawks’ defeat here than just Brook Lopez and Kris Middleton combining for 35 first half points.

The Hawks scored a season-low 40 first half points and their inability to score in the paint (just 12 paint points in the first half) obviously played a big role in that. The Bucks, convincingly, lead the league in opponent points in the paint, allowing just 38.7 paint points per contest.

Again, it’s that man, Brook Lopez, who plays such a key role in all of this.

Lopez leads the league in contested shots per game, quite considerably too. Last night, per, 22 field goals were attempted when guarded by Brook Lopez — only three were made, a defensive field goal percentage of just 13.5%.

On this possession, Collins attempts to drive inside and finish at the rim but is deterred by Lopez’s contest:

On this play, when Hunter was able to squeeze his way into the paint, he’s faced with Lopez, and Hunter is unable to convert with Lopez in close proximity:

In a very clogged lane, Damian Jones is unable to get a clean look inside with Lopez in his face, eventually thwarted by Ersan Ilyasova, who blocks Jones:

On the Reddish drive, Lopez is able to stick with the rookie and block his dunk attempt:

A little further away from the rim, Lopez steps out to contest this jumpshot from Hunter:

32 points in the paint for a game represents a new season-low for the Hawks, and now you have an understanding as to how it happened. And when the points inside aren’t coming your way, you better hope the long-ball is on your side.

It wasn’t falling for the Hawks.

The Hawks shot 12-of-41 from three on the game for 29%. They did, however, shoot 6-of-19 from three in the first half. It’s still 31%, but it also means that just eight field goals and 22 points in the first half came from two-point range — just to further highlight the Hawks’ struggles inside.

“They were just funneling me into their seven-footers, making me take a late floater or a late pass to John [Collins],” said Young postgame. “They were just trying to play cat and mouse and make me decide late, and (it) threw us off early. It carried through the whole game.”

And, to be fair, Lopez was also causing trouble for the Hawks on the perimeter, contesting eight threes on the night with only one being made when he was guarding them.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

So, there’s your insight into how the Hawks lost this game, which, again, was lost in the first half and the second half was largely a formality.

With the loss of Giannis heading into this game, Lloyd Pierce did not underestimate the challenge the Bucks would bring to State Farm Arena.

“Not at all,” said Pierce postgame. “You guys saw Khris Middleton out there. I think he had just one of those games and I think when you look at their roster and you look at their team, they’re a good team. I tried to make the point earlier, they don’t play through Giannis. He’s just a special player. They play with ball movement, they play with execution. They have a lot of guys that can score. George Hill leading the NBA in three-point percentage, Middleton is an unbelievable player. We don’t take anyone for granted ... no one feels sorry for us and we’re obviously not going to feel sorry for any of their guys not being here. Just the way it goes.”

But of course the Hawks lost a lot more than just this game. Late in the second quarter, Trae Young suffered an ankle injury — later announced as a right ankle sprain — and did not feature in the second half.

For a brief moment, the Hawks had everyone back. Then went Alex Len to an ankle injury, Parker’s troubled shoulder and now another ankle injury to Young.

Pierce was left to reflect on that postgame.

“That’s pro sports,” Pierce said. “In every sense, honestly, you walk into the gym and you’re like, ‘man, it’s great to have all our guys back’…And you wake up today and Alex is still out, Jabari re-aggravates his shoulder and now Trae goes down and we’re kind of back in the same boat. But that’s professional sports. It’s just how it works. These are the things you can’t control.

“This is where as a unit, as a staff and as an organization, you find the mental fortitude and toughness to figure out, you know, opportunities for other guys to step up. It’s great to see Allen Crabbe do what he did tonight - compete and get some shots going. It’s really great to see what Cam does aggressively at the basket and just all over the court. But this is no excuse for us. Nobody feels sorry for us when guys go down. That’s not the point. I’m not that way and I won’t be that way. But this is pro sports and we will adjust and try and figure out how to continue to compete with different guys.”

When asked about Young’s ankle, Pierce wasn’t able to say much other than Young ‘rolled it pretty good.’

“We watched the video,” said Pierce of Young. “He is trying to create a little contact, and as he’s going in, I think he stepped on George’s foot or rolled his own ankle and as he picks it up and makes another step, he rolls it on the other side. We have a little bit on both sides. It didn’t swell too, too, too bad. We’re in there right now but I don’t know anything beyond that. I only spoke to him. I didn’t speak to Chelsea or anyone on the training staff. He rolled it pretty good.”

Young himself was able to say a little more, saying that his ankle was hurting quite considerably at the time of speaking and that he wouldn’t travel to Chicago with the team last night.

“Rolled it pretty bad. It hurts pretty bad right now but that’s expected,” said Young of his ankle. “I got back here and did some treatment on it, iced it already.”

“No. I’m not going to go with the team [to Chicago] tonight. I’m going to stay here, get some treatment in the morning and try to fight my way to get back as quickly as possible.”

This was interesting to hear, because at the time it didn’t seem that bad — Young, while he had to have help getting off the court, was at least able to put pressure on his ankle, seemed to then be able to walk on it and was seen later in the tunnel walking almost as normal with Vice President of Athletic Performance and Sports Medicine, Chelsea Lane.

Young, however, is determined to bounce-back as soon as possible.

What happens with Young going forward, remains to be seen. Atlanta’s official update on Friday evening offered only that he will not travel to Chicago and that an X-Ray on Young’s ankle, conducted at State Farm Arena, was negative. The Hawks’ next game after Saturday is a road tilt against the Orlando Magic on Monday evening.

Even when Young suffered his injury, this game was basically over and that on its own will be a very disappointing reality for the Hawks. To lose by 26 at home without Giannis and Eric Bledsoe is tough, that’s a tough performance as well as a rough performance. It’s not too often where the Hawks’ offense is worse than their defense, which wasn’t awful last night.

There were very few positives to be had last night for the Hawks, although Reddish had a solid game as he scored 11 points on the night. Kevin Huerter had some decent moments as well in this game (more so from a playmaking point of view), somehow managing to register an even zero in plus/minus, despite playing 27 minutes on the game. Compare that to, for example, De’Andre Hunter, who was -36 — not a good game for Hunter, arguably his worst as an NBA rookie so far.

Brandon Goodwin was recalled from the College Park Skyhawks and he did feature in the second half. He was slightly tentative at times and his shots didn’t really fall last night but against a side like the Bucks and given the nature of the game you can forgive him for those. With Young as a no-go for Saturday’s game in Chicago, I’d like to see Goodwin play some minutes, and some real minutes at that.

The Hawks (6-26) are back in action on Saturday against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center, the third time this season where the Hawks have faced the Bulls on the second night of a back-to-back (something Pierce noted postgame).

I would say ‘should be fun’ but, let’s be real, it has the potential to be very-not-fun.

Until next time...