The losses just seem to keep piling up for the Atlanta Hawks after a tough early schedule has supposedly turned toward a more manageable stretch of the season. A 116-81 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday evening — without point guard Trae Young, who missed the action with an ankle injury — leaves Atlanta with just two wins in 23 contests since a Nov. 12 victory in Denver.
Despite daunting opponents coming up less frequently for Atlanta at this point in their season, the NBA schedule continues to throw oddities at the young team. This was the third and final time these teams would meet this season with the Hawks being on the second night of a back to back in each of the three games.
In a vacuum, there really isn’t much more of a schedule advantage for a team than playing an opponent on their second night of back to back games while having had at least a day of rest. In this case, the Bulls were working with four days of rest.
Normally, a team taking a defeat sometimes categorized as a “schedule loss” gets a pass or at least is not as deeply scrutinized. When the losses are piling up for a team that entered the season (fairly or otherwise) with elevated expectations, the context that might otherwise get attached to the narrative of a defeat just doesn’t,
Losing is hard for everyone.
“Another rough night in Chicago,” said Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce after the game. “I feel bad for our young guys that are out and there competing and learning the ins and out of the NBA. Another back to back where we just didn’t have it.”
It’s also important to note that third year power forward John Collins was playing in just his third game since returning from suspension. And for the second time in his eight contests, this season he would play without Young, who injured his ankle in a home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday evening.
It might seem that the basketball gods don’t want this Atlanta team to have the sustained services of their two best players this season... a reasonable explanation for not yet meeting expectations for this season. But, for those that have been watching, it must surely seem that it can’t explain these repetitively non-competitive performances.
Still, it can’t be completely set aside at this point that after generating a ton of excitement in 1,448 minutes of shared court time last season, Collins and Young have logged just 122 minutes of action as a duo this season playing in six of Atlanta’s 33 games.
The Hawks’ offense has struggled any time Young has been off of the court this year and Saturday night was no exception. They generated just 81 points despite one of the better career performances from Collins.
The Wake Forest product had 34 points (just one shy of tying a career best mark) while shooting 14 of 26 on field goal attempts. He converted two of his six attempts from the three point line and knocked down each of his four free throw attempts which translates to 34 points on 28 shooting possessions.
In contrast, the rest of the Hawks team amassed just 47 points on 64 shooting possessions. Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter, both surely asked to do more in the absence of Young, combined to shoot 4 of 21 from the field and 2 of 9 from distance. They each had just six points.
“Shots weren’t falling,” Pierce commented on the play of his young wings. “Kevin goes two for twelve, De’Andre two for nine. And then just trying to find ways to impact when the shots aren’t falling.”
“We’re asking guys to do things out of character,” he continued. “Kevin’s our starting point guard tonight and one of his worst performances numbers wise just because it’s a different role. I feel bad for those guys because I want them to continue to compete. I want them to take these as learning experiences. I want them to grow in this environment. But not this way all of the time. It’s unfortunate.”
Cam Reddish also struggled shooting in this game. He has just two points but did have six assists.
Alex Len was the only reserve player for Atlanta to put up more than five points. He had ten by way of converting both of his two-point and both of his three-points attempts from the field. He missed on all three of his free throw attempts.
On defense, 116 points might not sound awful in light of what has been happening of recent, but it’s not good. They gave up 29 points or more in three of four quarters. For the opposing team, there were easy shots at the rim, uncontested points in transition and mildly contested attempts from the three point line. The Bulls connected on 15 of their 31 attempts from deep.
The Hawks were at an 18 point disadvantage scoring from the three point line and a 17 point deficit in fast break points. And they lost by 35 points. A coincidence? Maybe.
It was a game for the home team in which it didn’t really seem to matter who scored the basketball. They ran simple but sharp action, took the shots that were created... for whomever they were created. And, they were consistently good shots for all shooters.
Rookie Coby White might have been the exception, in the form of relying on ball movement for his shot attempts, as he was able to probe for his own looks off of the dribble in reserve minutes. White still had 18 points, though, shooting eight of 11 from the floor including converting two of this three attempts from the arc.
Lauri Markannen led Chicago with 25 points. Zach LaVine had an effortless 19 points and four assists. Tomas Satoransky played a smart game and amassed 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
The Bulls lead the league in points created off of turnovers, and they capitalized on an evening in which the visitors played without a natural point guard for much of the game. They generated 26 points on 21 Atlanta turnovers.
A young Chicago team looking to establish themselves did what they were supposed to do when the schedule hands you an advantage. They played sound team basketball and got the win for the season sweep.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Without Young, the Hawks looked to use Collins as an offensive initiator early in the game in half court possessions.
On their firs trip, they ran a variation of a frequent after time out (ATO) play they use to create shots, usually for Hunter or Reddish, from the three point line in the corner.
On this play, however, Collins and Huerter exchange their traditional roles. Collins functions as the point guard while Huerter sets the ball screen.
The timing ends up a bit awkward and the passing lane to Reddish never materializes. Collins is still able to use his offensive instincts to attack and eventually work the ball to Bruno Fernando who puts Atlanta on the scoreboard.
Collins initiates the set here on another early possession. For a familiar point of comparison, the Miami Heat do a ton of this with Bam Adebayo.
This time, it turns into a common dribble hand off (DHO) with Collins and Reddish who generates an assist via the successful lob feed. Considering how prepared the duo looked for this action, the Hawks were probably still running scripted plays at this point in the first quarter.
On this defensive possession, we see some of the problematic themes start to appear for Atlanta, including a lack of recognition and communication on the part of the lineup on the court.
Initially the recognition is fine and, for the Bulls, Satoransky (in the corner) and Wendell Carter Jr. are likely looking to set up for a side pick and roll. Hunter does a good job forcing Satoransky toward the baseline dissuading any feeling he might have that he will be able to lift into a screen from Carter.
Fernando refuses to allow Carter off of the baseline into a would’be path to a ball screen on the perimeter. This is good physical assertiveness from both defenders so far.
But Satoransky and Carter recognize this and essentially flip the play into an effective baseline drive for the easy score. Carter seals Fernando above and out of the play. Hunter is not able to recognize (or doesn’t receive communication) that he has no help behind him.
Atlanta gets out-executed on this possession. It wouldn’t be the last.
Defensively, the Bulls are as aggressive as any team in the league on ball screens. They expect their big men to “show” forcefully at the point of the screen and then work hard to recover back to their original assignment.
One way to counter that type of defensive scheme is to simply spread your offense out and abandon ball screens, which the Hawks do on their first possession of the second quarter.
They are able to work the ball to Collins who posts in front of the rim.
His defender, Thaddeus Young, sees this and is able to push Collins further from the restricted circle than he’d like to be, but the Hawks’ forward is able to use his usual excellent touch on jump hooks (and similar shots) to convert the attempt.
Another way to attack the type of defensive coverage the Bulls operate versus the pick and roll is to create quick, decisive passes into the seam of the play.
Chicago, because they want to afford their defensive bigs a chance to recover to the interior of the defense, is ideally trying to get the ball handler (Hunter on this possession) to dribble backward out of the play. They don’t get that result in this example.
Here, Collins receives a timely pass and gets downhill with his attack for another scoring opportunity.
Here is another thing the Bulls defense is looking to create, a chance to jump the passing lane on “skip passes”. Thus, we see Chicago doing what they do best, turning opponents’ turnovers into points.
This may look simple, but there is a lot to see in this transition possession.
Satoransky, after securing the steal starts up the court. From there, he quickly recognizes how the transition formation should take shape as he sees that he should run and fill the lane closest to the left sideline.
He gives the ball to LaVine, specifically, so that the ball handler can get the ball to the middle of the floor and attack with options. He is rewarded when the ball finds its way back to him for the easy dunk.
From a close look at this play, it’s clear Chicago works on this phase of their game.
Here is another. Notice that Satoransky and LaVine recognize the two on one advantage before the ball even reaches their level on the play.
LaVine communicates very early for Satorasky to attack with the dribble as to set up the lob pass for the easy score.
This play in the third quarter offers a bit of a refreshing look at a Hawks’ possession. The action kind of breaks down but Huerter and Collins are able to figure this out and work to find a good shot. Collins knocks down the three point attempt.
What’s refreshing about this? Seeing two players that were together all of last season improvising in rhythm to create a play. The Atlanta roster just hasn’t allowed for a lot of that this season.
In the absence of Young, there was anticipation that Brandon Goodwin (on a two-way contract) might get some extended playing time in this game, and he did.
If Goodwin is to stick in the league, it will likely start with his defensive play, and especially with a physical style he can bring on that end of the court.
On this play, he tracks White, with urgency, across two ball screens and then works hard to get his body back into the path of his dribble penetration to contest the shot.
If he can use this type of play to establish a defensive baseline for himself, Goodwin may have a real future in the league.
This transition possession by Atlanta in the third quarter is not nearly as effective as the ones the Bulls executed (that we looked at) in the second quarter.
What goes wrong? Well, for starters, Chicago has four defenders run back and collectively prioritize defending the paint.
But an NBA team, in transition, should be able to attack four-on-four when the defense is scrambling back.
Len likely misses an opportunity to create an easy path to the rim for Hunter by just running Carter under the rim. He does this often enough that it is curious that he doesn’t do it on this play.
Upon a closer look, it seems likely that Len sees DeAndre’ Bembry filling a lane on the left and wants to not muck that up. He avoids that, but the passing lane never materializes.
Hunter ends up dribbling straight into the Bulls’ best rim defender.
So many possessions on both ends of the court for the Hawks look like this right now. There is hesitation, one perhaps not wanting to get in the way of another. Even when intent might be good on the part of individual players, the collective execution is completely missing.
Here is an example of a defensive play in which there are some good things seen but the collective execution misses.
Goodwin is tracking Satoransky around a screen from Carter. He has a hard time staying attached but notice how his sheer effort on the play forces Carter to move higher (toward half court) to ensure the separation. This subtle impact on the play by Goodwin creates the time for Hunter to help on the ball handler with a “dig” Which, in turn, gives Len a bit more time to set up to defend the rim.
Solid team defense so far. And the result is an errant shot attempt.
But, while the diminutive Goodwin recognizes his responsibility to account for the much larger Carter as a rebounder, Hunter does not see the need to beat his man (Young) to the rim for rebounding position.
Young secures the rebound and another possession for his team.
Let’s take one more look at a positive defensive play from Goodwin even though its in garbage time.
The defense completely breaks down at the point of attack on the strong side of the play. Adam Mokoka slips toward the basket for an easy pass.
Before the breakdown on the other side of the floor, Goodwin communicates with Allen Crabbe to exchange the players for whom they are accounting on the weak side. He then rotates to the rim as a help defender and makes his best effort to offer resistance on the shot attempt. And he gets the block.
Perhaps it is a bit easier to demonstrate this type of effort and urgency as the new guy trying to earn playing time with the parent club. However, this type of effort should never look this starkly different from what was seen from the team the rest of the game... and it did.
The Hawks will be able to enjoy a nice three day break next week but not until after they face the Orlando Magic (14-18) in a road contest on Monday (7 PM ET). Atlanta currently leads the season series 1-0, but they haven’t face one another since the opening week of the season.