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Hawks unable to overcome Pistons in heated affair

Things got chippy at State Farm Arena last night.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks were unable to mark their return from the All-Star Break with a victory as they fell short to the Detroit Pistons on Friday night at State Farm Arena, 125-122.

Trae Young became the first Hawks rookie since Dominique Wilkins to register three 30-point games as he scored 30 points while dishing out 10 assists. John Collins also added 19 points for the Hawks, who had to navigate this game without Kevin Huerter, sidelined with an ankle injury.

For the Pistons, Reggie Jackson scored 32 points while Andre Drummond added 26 points while grabbing 21 rebounds.

The first quarter was a high scoring one but it was in the second quarter where things really began to kick off. The Hawks opened up a 14-point lead behind some great plays, including this incredible move from Trae Young to find Dewayne Dedmon for a dunk:

But similarly to a few games this season, the Hawks couldn’t take their double-digit lead into the half and the Pistons were able to slice it to just two points entering the locker-room.

And then the third quarter arrived, where it all went down.

Firstly, the Pistons made an adjustment — they placed Bruce Brown on Trae Young — who had 20 points in the first half alone — and this dramatically slowed down the Hawks on offense.

Here, Bruce Brown is able to block Young’s floater:

Brown showed great defensive activity, fighting over the screen and re-screen as Young throws a pass out of bounds:

As a result of the Hawks’ offense slowing right down, the Pistons were able to pull away and opened up a double-digit lead of their own and right around then is when things got interesting.

There had been quite a bit of chatter, trash talk. between the two teams in the first half but it went up another level in the third quarter.

Things got physical too and Blake Griffin picked himself up a technical foul:

After hitting a three-pointer, Griffin then had some words to say and was subsequently handed a second technical foul and ejected from the game and whatever Griffin said certainly had Vince Carter heated:

Postgame, crew chief Josh Tiven elaborated on the play and the decision to award Griffin a second technical foul, saying Griffin had directed ‘vulgarity’ towards the Hawks’ bench.

Pistons head coach Dwane Casey was left perplexed of the officials’ decision to eject Griffin, calling the two technical fouls ‘questionable.’

“It’s tough when you have your best player taken out of the game by two questionable technicals,” said Casey postgame. “I have never seen that in my coaching career. A young man going to pick a ball up, he is excited about making a shot, and he gets a technical. Two for that matter. Then he is thrown out of the game.”

There were a few rumors floating at the time around as what that may have been said from Griffin, and postgame a little more information about the play came to light:

Or, if you prefer the NSFW version...

The defender on Griffin during that play was Omari Spellman and it seems plausible that Griffin had thrown an insult at Spellman, which would make sense because the bench, especially Vince Carter, seemed quite incensed over what Griffin said. I don’t think they’d get that mad over Griffin yelling to ‘step up’ on a three-point attempt. Something more than just basketball came out of Griffin’s mouth, you would imagine.

Blake himself didn’t have a ton to say about the play postgame, which I think only adds to the validity that more was said than just ‘step up’.

“I don’t have too much to say about that,” said Griffin postgame of his second technical. “I think the tape pretty much speaks for itself...”

Carter repeatedly said, postgame, that he didn’t hear what Griffin said but I’m sure there will be many who will find that questionable, firstly, because he was UP quickly after Griffin said what he said and, second, Carter was visibly bothered and played with a fire underneath him for the rest of the game from that point on.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that Vince also acted how he acted as a means to set an example to his younger teammates to have each other’s backs and basically to go to war for one another — his postgame comments seemed to reflect something similar and would certainly line up with his actions on the court.

“...I’m out here to play ball and protect my guys and that’s what it is,” said Carter postgame, who finished with 16 points and was a team-high plus-17 on the game. “Competitive nature, just setting the tone and the mentality for our team to protect each other.”

Carter described the game as one similar to the playoffs in terms of intensity, which of course many of this current Hawks group have not experienced thus far in their careers (nor, likely for another season at the very least) and I think Carter wanted to highlight that to his teammates throughout the game — ‘This is what it’s like. There’s going to be chippiness, how do you respond?’.

“It’s a learning process for us,” said Carter postgame. “I’m proud of these guys for just staying in the fight and giving ourselves a chance. (This is) how playoff games work and how they go. We learn how to win those now for when there’s an opportunity for a playoff game later on. A lot of our young guys have no idea what it’s like but at least it’s something we’ll be familiar with when that opportunity comes.”

“...As you talk about playoff approach, a playoff mentality — for me — I feel like more so than seeing it, you have to show it. That’s my approach. It’s easy to say (then) ‘OK, this is what I’m talking about’. You can show it. I think guys really responded, guys stayed in the fight...”

When you put all of these things together, I don’t think it’s too farfetched to believe that something over-the-line was said from Griffin (as well as the taunt) and that the heated Carter used it as an opportunity to help educate his teammates on having each other’s back and bringing the intensity there-after.

Alternatively, some of this anger on the court may have stemmed from an elbow Carter took earlier in the game that seemingly went unnoticed.

Though, this may have stemmed from earlier when Carter took an elbow that went unnoticed.

“Vince (Carter) is a guy that tries to play the right way, even though he got elbowed early on. He was polite with how he wanted to say it,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. “A couple of guys didn’t really care for it, so I know he got fired up and our guys got fired up...”

Whether Pierce meant the officials or his own team when he references that ‘a couple of guys didn’t really care for it’ is not clear (it would make sense in both scenarios, it’d make sense that Carter was mad that his teammates didn’t fight for him the way he’d fight for them after something like that, the elbow, or heated at the officials for missing it — he was certainly animated on the bench prior to the whole Griffin skirmish and was fortunate not to pick up a technical foul himself) but what was clear was that things were heated out on the floor at times, which Pierce certainly didn’t mind.

“’s basketball, it’s competition,” said Pierce. “The guys were heated, it was a close game, pretty much back and forth the entire night, so you’d expect a little of that. I didn’t mind it, I liked the way our guys competed and fought back.”

“I think it was just a chippy game back and forth, including the last time we played them,” said John Collins. “I think the referees made a couple of calls that enhanced the intensity whether the call was right or not. Guys were getting anxious for the game. I thought the entire game was very chippy. It got down to the wire so you know you’re going to see that competitive nature come out.”

After Griffin was ejected, the Hawks were able to overcome their early offensive worries from the early exchanges of the third quarter and rallied to cut the lead to five points by the end of the third quarter but not before DeAndre’ Bembry just murdered the rim:

This was incredible to watch live — it also came out of nowhere. The Hawks’ bench couldn’t believe it. On another night, I’m sure there would’ve been some quotes about it but with everything that went down last night it got pushed to the side.

The aforementioned Carter — who, again was still heated after the whole Griffin exchange — also was a huge factor in the Hawks hanging around this one, scoring nine points in the final four minutes of the third quarter after Griffin was ejected.

Between Carter, Trae Young, Griffin, Bruce Brown, Taurean Prince and Reggie Jackson (I’m sure there were plenty of others) there was enough chatter for a full blown podcast.

Everyone seemed to be into it, some relished it.

“I love it,” said Young of the trash talking. “I love when you get in that competitive zone and people are talking back and forth. That’s a part of the game. That’s competitive nature. I mean, I love it. I love that type of game. People are talking back and forth. It makes the game that much more fun.”

“We were talking back and forth out there on the court,” said Young of Griffin. “It’s competitive. We both want to win. We know it’s a little bit of bragging rights back home but we don’t focus on that. We focus on the game. It’s always going to be competitive talk...”

It was interesting to hear postgame that the Pistons allowed the Hawks to get into their heads somewhat, Reggie Jackson admitting postgame that the Pistons are normally a more mature team than what they showed last night.

“We are a more mature team than that,” said Jackson. “I think they did a good job of getting in our heads tonight...”

The fourth quarter arrived, the chippiness continued and the Hawks were able to overturn the Pistons’ lead and regained it themselves with a Carter three-pointer:

The game ended up going down to the wire and it was a game where the Hawks held a five-point lead with under two minutes to go after a Dewayne Dedmon basket:

After the Hawks’ last game before the All-Star Break, Lloyd Pierce wanted his side to be in close games, to finish games and to win games at home — the Hawks had the opportunity to do all three.

But the Pistons didn’t go away and Reggie Jackson (who was just awful at times in the fourth quarter as he got caught up in 1-on-1 play with Young) came up with a big play for the Pistons as Jackson weaves his way toward the rim after the pick-and-roll and scores the basket and the foul:

The Hawks responded with a bucket, Trae Young using the Dedmon screen to shed Brown and get to the rim for score to put the Hawks back up by four points:

The next thirty seconds were all about Andre Drummond, who scored before breaking up this attempted lob from Young to Collins before being fouled on the other end and would make both free throws to tie the game:

When this play took place, it was a big moment in the game. You could feel it as it unfolded and it just seemed strange that Pierce didn’t elect to take a timeout at this juncture — up two with a minute to go where a basket would put the Hawks up by four with less than a minute to go. Not an unassailable lead but certainly a lot safer. The turnover occurs and Drummond heads the other end and hits the two free throws to tie the game.

Pierce took a timeout after those free throws and the Hawks were unable to score out of the timeout, the original play between Collins and Young breaking down, forcing the re-screen and Young drives inside but his floater misses and the Pistons grab the rebound and call for time:

Coming out of the timeout, the Pistons work the ball through Jackson with Young defending him (which seemed an odd time to have Young in the game for a defensive possession, given that the Hawks had another timeout to burn after this play — make or miss). Dedmon has to switch onto Jackson, who drives towards the baseline.

With Dedmon out of position due to the switch, Taurean Prince has to shade over toward Drummond to prevent Jackson dumping the ball to him underneath the basket, which leaves an option on the wing to Jackson in the form of Thon Maker. Maker receives the ball, fakes Prince, rises and hits the three-pointer that would become the game-winner with 16 seconds remaining:

Coming out of the subsequent timeout, the Hawks had plenty of time to work with but the play that ended up taking place was Young jacking up a deep three at the first chance when he had minor separation with over 11 seconds left on the clock:

Pierce revealed postgame that the Hawks wanted something quick and didn’t have an issue with the shot Young ended up taking.

John Collins was able to grab the rebound but time was short and Carter hoists a three which misses, the Pistons grab the rebound, the Hawks don’t foul (something Pierce wanted the Hawks to do: foul) and that was all she wrote.

“We knew they were going to hug up (defensively),” said Pierce of the play. “We needed (a) three, they know we needed three so they were going to deny everything we had. We wanted to try get something quick but they switched the action, they crowded and hugged up everywhere else. Because they went under the screen ... that’s the first look that’s there, what he took.

“I don’t have a problem with it (the shot). It’s hard to execute knowing the one shot you need is a three and everyone else knows that. They were denying the two wings ... we were trying to get some separation in the pick-and-roll and they just switched it, so there wasn’t going to be any separation or three kick-outs. We got two good looks at it. Trae (Young) gets one, John (Collins) does a great job of crashing, getting the offensive rebound and Vince (Carter) gets one. (I) wish we had crashed again — seven seconds on the clock — I wish we had been able to crash again and try get another possession out of it...”

Pierce was left to reflect on a tough loss and missed opportunities throughout the evening.

“Well that was tough,” opened Pierce. “There were a lot of lead changes throughout the game. I thought our guys competed and executed well and defended at a high level tonight when we needed to.

“We missed out on a ton of big moments. (Bruce) Brown hits a three late in the shot clock, Ish Smith hits a three late in the shot clock, Thon Maker hits a three late in the shot clock... we were just unable to finish the possession. ‘Finish’ is the keyword that we just talked about in the locker room. Still finding ways to finish games. That was a tough loss for us.”

While Pierce was obviously disappointed to let this game slip away — leading by 14 points at one point — one thing you couldn’t say the Hawks lacked was energy, something that can be an issue for teams returning after the All-Stat Break.

“One of the things that’s always hard is that first game after All-Star break,” said Pierce of the energy. “You never know what to expect. Everyone takes a couple of days off and some guys come back refreshed with energy and some come back sluggish because they’ve been off of their feet. I thought all of our guys came out with great energy. I thought our bench was great tonight. Omari (Spellman) in the fourth quarter rebounded the ball extremely well. Alex (Len) goes 3-for-3 in limited minutes and Vince (Carter) obviously gave us a spark. Our energy was great from every guy that played tonight.”

“Personally and as a team, we just want to get our rhythm back,” said Collins. “Taking a break like we had, you always lose a little bit of a step. I think we did a good job of coming out and competing tonight anyways. We have to do a better job of finishing – the story of our season – coming down the stretch we have to make clutch plays and finish games.”

“...For me, I knew they were going to come with a lot energy so I tried to match it, my team tried to match it,” said Young. “We did a great job. I just couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch. It’s tough.”

With so many headlines from this game, a lot of things got pushed to the side.

The Hawks made 20 three-pointers in this one with Trae Young leading the way with five of those, something Dwane Casey was not happy his side allowed the Hawks to do.

“Our defense has to improve…Any time you give up 20 three’s, you usually lose,” said Casey. “We have to do a better job of getting out to shooters, being aggressive on switches, switching up into the guys, and make sure that they feel us on the 3-point shot. I thought we were way too soft on them tonight.”

Kent Bazemore was (very) active early (starting in place of the injured Huerter) but faded away in this game somewhat afterwards whereas Taurean Prince (scoring seven points on 2-of-9 shooting and minus+17 on the game) was almost non-existent at times.

Jaylen Adams finally made his ‘debut’ as backup point guard — assuming duties in the wake of Jeremy Lin’s buyout — and played just 11 minutes on the night.

This was, as Pierce revealed, by design as the Hawks slowly integrate him into the fold.

“We’re going to slowly bring him along,” said Pierce of Adams. “It’s probably his fourth NBA game and we’re trying to put him out there. I thought his first stint was really good. He came in, he kind of had a funny shot on one of the possessions but he settled himself in. He gets a nice baseline drive and kick to Alex Len in the corner, he continued to defend and led our group for a while ... we’re going to bring him along. He played 11 and a half minutes tonight, we’re going to play him more as it goes on and he gets comfortable. He’s a solid young point guard that needs time and experience.”

All in all, a tough one for the Hawks. It would’ve been big if they had pulled out a victory last night but their offensive execution let them down late on (Pierce also lamented their lack of defensive execution) and the Pistons did a good job to rally and see it through despite the absence of their best player (and the antics of Reggie Jackson at times in the final quarter).

In terms of positives, Young was great, the energy for the first game after the break was high and the fight and chippiness is always something you enjoy seeing. Despite the loss, this was a very fun game.

The Hawks (19-40) are back in action Saturday against the Phoenix Suns as the Hawks wrap up their seven-game homestand.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how the Hawks respond from Friday night’s energetic game, if they come out flat, and their approach toward a team that have lost 16 straight games — flashbacks of how Hawks’ game against the New York Knicks (who had lost 18 straight and then beat the Hawks) instantly come to mind.

Should be interesting.

Until then...