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Slow defensive start, rough third quarter scuttle Hawks’ comeback bid in loss to Hornets

A familiar problem rears its ugly head again

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to point to the gaudy number of points the Charlotte Hornets hung on the Atlanta Hawks during the first quarter of play on Saturday evening at State Farm Arena as the primary reason the game went the way of the visiting team. Charlotte scored 46 points, the most they have produced in any quarter this season, in the opening period and established a 15-point advantage heading into the second frame.

But Atlanta was also outscored by 15 points in the third quarter, 33-18. It was likely their play during that period that contributed most to the eventual 129-120 loss to Charlotte. The Hawks committed seven turnovers in the frame, which led to 16 points by the visiting team. That’s a tough route to try to take toward a victory.

“When you’re playing from behind, a lot of times you try to make home run plays. You put yourself in those home run situations,” Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce said when asked about the turnovers. “It’s completely the wrong play or the late play. (We) had a lot of live-ball turnovers that just led directly to baskets. That’s more about our defense than it is our offense. You become too aggressive or your try to get it all back at once. Tonight, turnovers were a result of that.”

As has been the case all season, there are some positives to take away. Each of the Hawks’ first- and second-year players that played in the game had productive, efficient offensive performances. John Collins led Atlanta in scoring with 21 points on 15 shooting possessions. He also collected five rebounds, four of them on the offensive glass.

Trae Young had 20 points, 11 assists and a pair of steals. He connected on 8-of-15 field goal attempts including converting on four of his six attempts from long range. He is now shooting 37 percent from the three-point line since January 1.

The most efficient overall shooting performance came from Kevin Huerter who produced 17 points on just nine shots. His only two misses came from two-point range, as he connected on all three of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Dewayne Dedmon had 14 points on just eight shooting possession. He also added seven rebounds and three assists.

Off the bench, Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore contributed 13 points each. Lin added four assists and two steals. Both of them provided key activity and energy that almost got the game back to within reach; in the fourth quarter, Lin finished a +10 in the box score, while Bazemore posted a +7. The Hawks outscored the Hornets in the final frame, 34-23, but could not get the deficit to fewer than ten points until the final seconds of the game.

The only All-Star playing in the game, Kemba Walker, put on a show and it was obvious from the opening minutes of the first quarter that he was going to be a problem for the home team. The Hawks were switching on defense for most of the first half in an effort to make sure someone was always accounting for him. After halftime, Atlanta largely went away from switching and instead use an aggressive show-and-recover technique at the point of attack on ball screens, but the results were nearly the same. Walker led all scorers with 37 points on just 29 shooting possessions. He had 17 points in the first half and 20 in the second. He also had seven assists.

“Kemba Walker is an All-Star starter, he’s deserving and we saw exactly why tonight,” said Pierce during post game comments. “But, he didn’t feel us. And that’s inexcusable. He has to feel us. We have to get into his body. We have to pick him up. We’ve got to frustrate him.”

“He should have gotten to the foul line a lot more,” Pierce added. “And I’ll take the blame for that. He’s got to be at the foul line because we’re too aggressive. He was comfortable and when he’s comfortable he’s probably the best point guard in the league.”

Former Hawks’ swingman Marvin Williams had 27 points on 16 shot attempts. He was a beneficiary of the Hawks’ third quarter turnovers issues which results in several easy buckets in transition for him.

Jeremy Lamb, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season, had 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds. He needed just 16 shooting possessions to generate that impressive level of production.

“We’re not tired. We scored 120 points in the game,” Pierce said when asked if there was a connection between his team’s energy and the 129 points Charlotte produced in the game. “That’s not the issue. I think it’s just more about our approach. We’re not physical enough. We weren’t tough enough tonight. We weren’t together defensively. It’s definitely not fatigue, it’s the effort, I think it’s the approach.”

Charlotte had only one bench player that was productive offensively. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist converted on all five of his field goal attempts and amassed 11 points.

Hornets’ rookie forward Miles Bridges didn’t necessarily stuff the stat sheet (six points, five rebounds and two steals). However, at key moments in the game he used his size and athleticism to make an impact for his team. He and Collins will form half of the competitive field of the dunk contest that will take place in Charlotte later this month.

A consistent theme in this game was that when both team’s second units were on the floor the Hawks gained ground. Atlanta’s reserves outscored Charlotte’s 41-25.

As much effort as the Hawks put towards trying to build a comeback, it simply came down to two things. Atlanta dug sizable holes more than once in the game. And Kemba Walker was by far the best player in the contest.

“Great night offensively. Really poor night defensively,” Pierce summarized. “Charlotte came out...they didn’t feel us (defensively) from the start and pretty much didn’t feel us most of the game. Anytime you give a team confidence and opportunity they had in the first quarter, it’s hard to defend. You feel like you’re just chasing them around the entire game. That’s what we were doing.”

Let’s take a look at some of the good and the bad.

Collins gets a familiar tip in for the Hawks’ first score. But this is an example of why when he is successful in this area of play it’s not just about what he is doing. On this possession, Huerter attacks the smaller Walker with aggressive dribble penetration. Dedmon is being physical with his man before the shot is even attempted.

A lot of this activity is what often creates the space for Collins to do what he does.

Young connects on a step back three-point attempt early in the game. He is improving in this area of play, partly, because he is just looking to make simpler plays. Earlier in the season, he was trying to get maximum separation with drastic tricky dribbles and such. That type of play kept him from being able to get his feet set for a higher percentage shot.

On this play he measures his defender and gets just the amount of separation he needs to get the shot up.

This play offers a nice look at an offensive score created by Huerter. He drives past the bigger Kidd-Gilchrist, who is able to stay in front of his man. That’s a 6’7, 235 lb former #2 overall pick that was drafted because of his defensive potential. Huerter is solid through the decision making and controlling his body and comfortably converts a jumper that requires him to contort while dealing with the defender.

Atlanta was not good defensively. But that’s not to suggest that Charlotte doesn’t deserve credit for their offensive performance. They got a number of uncontested perimeters shots. But they also converted on shots that were often reasonably contested, as Nic Batum does on this possession.

Pierce is getting more and more creative as the season progress on play designs after timeouts (ATOs). Here, he draws up a play to seemingly use a wing and a big man to step up into a would-be staggered screen set. But as soon as the Hornet’s smallest defender on the floor, Devonte’ Graham, switches on to Bazemore, the Hawks’ veteran wing cuts straight to the rim where he receives a lob pass and converts the uncontested layup.

This is one of the more interesting sets Atlanta ran within their offensive in the game. Collins has been getting more and more attention and priority from opposing defenses as he’s been presenting himself as a primary threat for which to account.

Notice Collins present with his defender on his back at the restricted area. Also notice how the Hawks have overloaded the strong side of the offensive formation with four players.

Collins then works his way back toward the free throw line and steps toward the strong side of the play and ultimately sets a dummy down screen for Taurean Prince. The entire Charlotte defense is trying to diagnose what they are seeing. Meanwhile, Huerter cuts straight down the lane unaccounted for. Alex Len delivers a perfectly timed and accurate pass and the result is a score.

This is another smart, even if somewhat improvised, action the Hawks present on offense. The Hornets were not significantly concerned with getting matched defensively in very specific ways in the half court defense. They were going to switch a ton. So the priority on this possession, for example, is to just get a man on each man.

The Hawks initially present a balanced floor. Young moves with the ball toward the top of the key with Huerter at the left three-point break and Prince in the left corner. Presumably, the other Hawks players will fill the right side of the floor as they arrive for the possession.

Dedmon contributes by sprinting to to the right side of the floor. This provides, even if briefly, a false sense of safety in how Charlotte is getting match up. You can see the communication about the right side. Meanwhile, Prince subtly slips from the left corner to the right corner and now the Hornets are undermanned on the left side. The results is an uncontested three-point attempt for Huerter, which he converts.

Let’s look at a fun wrinkle on this play from the Hawks’ side lines out of bounds set (SLOB). For a deep dive on the action in this set, take a look at a piece put together by Jeff Siegel in October. If you do, you will notice this is not the first time they’ve used this wrinkle. But it’s been a while.

The set typically calls for the power forward to enter the ball and then run a “pinch-post” type of action with the point guard who will then lift in a dribble hand off (DHO) action with the center. On this play though Collins works to the rim looking to receive a pass. Dedmon delivers a safe bounce pass and the results is a fairly easy bucket for Collins.

This play offers a look at the defensive adjustment as to how the Hawks would try to defend Walker in the second half. Notice how Dedmon flashes at Walker at the point of the ball screen. It’s very different from how the Atlanta schemed to defend this in the first half.

The results is a mildly risky skip pass across the defensive formation. Williams catches the long pass and attacks with the dribble. He knocks down a tough runner. This was a well-defended play but would not be representative of how most of the second half would go for the Atlanta defense.

Here we see one of a number of third quarter possessions on which an Atlanta turnover would become an easy bucket for Charlotte. There’s no need to go in deep on this as to describe how problematic these types of possessions were for the Hawks.

DeAndre’ Bembry’s only score in the game was a fun one. And it came from another SLOB opportunity. Although the entry pass has to come from near the baseline.

Bembry sells the back screen he sets for Prince and then moves to curl to the top of the floor for a possible entery pass. But he double back toward the rim to the surprise of Bridge. The result is a perfect lob pass from Lin and an impressive one-handed flush from Bembry.

The Hawks will not have to wait long to get another opportunity to chase a victory to help them move past this defeat. They will host the Orlando Magic Sunday evening at 7:30 PM ET at the State Farm Arena.

The Magic, like the Hawks will be on a back to back. But Orlando will have had to travel from Milwaukee where they delivered the Bucks just their fifth home loss of the season on Saturday evening. (The Bucks were without their MVP candidate Giannis Antentokounmpo.)

Coach Pierce expects that neither team will for sorry for the other.

“Orlando is playing tonight as well,” he said. “So, there’s no excuse for us, there’s not excuse for them. We’ve got to come out together and have a different defensive approach.”