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Hawks undone by second half three-point shooting in loss to Rockets

As soon as Houston began hitting threes, this game was over.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks suffered their third straight loss as they fell to the Houston Rockets 121-105 on Tuesday night at State Farm Arena.

Trae Young notched his 24th double-double of the season with 21 points and 12 assists while John Collins notched his 30th double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

For the Rockets, James Harden scored 31 points — becoming the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 opposing teams in the same season — while Clint Capela added 26 points and 11 rebounds.

There was nothing to separate the two teams in the first quarter as both struggled shooting the ball at times, particularly from three and neither team could grab separation. But while that trend would end up correcting itself, the first quarter did reveal what would be a common theme in the game — the mega pick-and-roll game of Houston with Clint Capela, as Capela scored nine points in the first and 17 points by the time the first half ended.

Houston execute their pick-and-rolls so well and Capela is obviously plays a massive part in that success.

Here, Harden and Capela execute a pick-and-roll, Capela with the nice roll, and by the time John Collins decides he wants to help on the contest at the rim, it’s way too late:

From the top of the arc this time, Houston execute their pick-and-roll, and with Capela’a ability to put pressure on the rim, if you’re caught stationary you’re done, if you can’t backtrack in time you’re done. Dewayne Dedmon can’t get back in time and John Collins is caught too stationary as the help defender and Capela is able to finish after catching a great pass from Harden:

With Chris Paul running the pick-and-roll this time, he delivers the ball to Capela on the roll. Alex Len is the help defender this time and he does a much better job as the help defender to try and contest the shot. Alas, it still wasn’t enough and Capela still ends up scoring the basket:

What obviously helps Capela is that he plays with players with extraordinary basketball IQ in Harden and Paul and two great passers in Harden and Paul — a combination of knowing what pass to make, when to pass and the ability to execute that pass.

One mistake, either as the ball defender or the roll defender, and you’re done. The rolls are so snappy, the passes are pinpoint:

But as much as Capela is helped by Harden and Paul and company, he can make a few plays once he gets the ball.

Here, a nice take from Capela under the rim on the drive as Dedmon does decently to marshall him to the weak-side of the rim:

And it’s obviously not just Capela who benefits from what Houston is able to do with their pick-and-rolls but the likes of Kenneth Faried too.

“It’s definitely difficult,” said Trae Young of Houston’s pick-and-roll. “They’re a really good team in the pick-and-roll. James and Clint have a really good connection. Kenneth (Faried), that pickup, that’s a big key for them. Coming off the bench, he can set hard screens, roll and make plays. He’s a really good pick-and-roll player, too.”

Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce would’ve preferred the Hawks’ help defense to be a little tighter before discussing how their adjustments led to Houston’s second half outburst from three (more on that soon).

“We struggled early,” said Lloyd Pierce of the Hawks’ pick-and-roll defense. “The goal is to get the ball out of James’ hands, but it’s really to get him to make the hardest pass, which is the skip pass.

“Obviously, Capela was getting a lot of opportunities directly from (Chris Paul) or from James or whoever else just hitting the roller. Our weak-side defense wasn’t pulled over as much as we would’ve liked. Then the flip side happens. We do pull over, they go swing-swing and they just started draining three’s in the second half. That’s who they are. There’s no surprise. They get to the rim and they shoot three’s. They only shot three shots last time we played them that weren’t (at the) rim or three’s out of their 90.

“So we know who they are. We know what they want to do. Taking that away is a difficult task. In the first half, we did not take away the roller. In the second half, we were late and not urgent in taking away the three-point shot. But I still thought we were in the game.”

The Hawks have a threat in the pick-and-roll themselves in the form of John Collins, who described that guarding Capela in the pick-and-roll was similar as guarding himself with his athleticism and energy.

“Very similar dynamic to myself,” said Collins of Capela. “Bigger guy that’s able to run, catch. Pretty solid athlete. You definitely have to be aware of his activity and what he brings energy-wise.”

But despite the success of Houston’s pick-and-roll offense, the Hawks were still hanging around — going on a mini 5-0 run to reduce Houston’s 11 point lead to just six heading into the half.

The problem that you could sense at the time was that the Hawks were down six at the half — an amount they were fortunate to be down to begin with — and the Rockets had shot just 4-of-21 from three-point range, and you just felt that was going to change in the second half.

Sure enough, it changed, and not even in the second half but the third quarter alone the game was turned on its head as Houston hit eight three-pointers in the third quarter alone before running their second half tally of threes made to 15, hitting 19 for the whole game.

The three-point shooting flipped the game on its head, so let’s look at some of these third quarter threes.

Eric Gordon got going from distance in the third quarter, hitting two three-pointers with Kevin Huerter there or thereabouts to defend him:

James Harden got a look at some easy three-point attempts, one in transition:

And, more worryingly if you’re the Hawks, one where Harden just walks into after a pick-and-roll:

Speaking of the pick-and-roll, Clint Capela makes the play this time to the corner, where P.J. Tucker is planted and hits the three:

Danuel House, who hit six threes last night, got in on the action too, as he hits the three over Kent Bazemore after the bobble:

Even watching these clips, you can see how the Houston lead keeps growing with each made three — four points, seven points, 10 points, 14 points...

The game completely flipped on its head in the third quarter with the Rockets’ sudden downpour and heading in the fourth quarter down by 12 points, the Hawks were in serious trouble.

“Obviously the whole game turned around when we started shooting three’s in the second half and started making those three’s,” said Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. “Our defense was pretty good all night, actually. They are an explosive team and they have been averaging about 120 points since the All-Star break. They play well, they move the ball, and they have a lot of shooters.”

While Harden rested, Chris Paul put in a mega shift to maintain the Rockets lead and increase to 17 by the time Harden returned to the game. From there, the Rockets pushed it to 20 points and that was really all she wrote for this game.

“Their second half execution was tough,” said John Collins postgame. “I think they turned it up a little bit, hit a lot of tough shots and that pushed the lead out. With a team like that, if they get a lead, they know how to keep it.”

But it wasn’t the three-point shooting or the pick-and-roll defense that appeared to aggrieve the Hawks the most, but the free throw shooting.

After shooting significantly less free throws against the Orlando Magic on Sunday, the Hawks found themselves in the same boat again on Tuesday night as the Rockets shot 30 free throws (making 22 of them) while the Hawks shot 15 free throws.

James Harden obviously draws a ton of fouls (leading the league in that regard) and drew multiple fouls from Taurean Prince in particular, as well as DeAndre’ Bembry — Harden really is something else when it comes to drawing contact, when to embellish it but he can just leave you for dead and your only choice is to foul.

Capela, as you’d imagine, also got to the free throw line often enough (though, missing four of his eight attempts). After that, it was spread out amongst the rest but the Hawks were certainly aggrieved at times with some of the calls that the Rockets were getting.

“Frustrating night,” said Lloyd Pierce in his opening statement. “Our guys came in with the mentality of getting downhill and attacking. You get annoyed trying to get free throws. In back-to-back games, we’re pretty much doubled up on free throw attempts. It’s frustrating for our guys. I thought our guys competed. We turned it over at really bad times but I don’t think that was really the difference.

“The free throw battle hurts us, and when you play a team like Houston, they spread you out and spread the basketball for a lot of three-point attempts. We try to do the same thing on the other end. We just didn’t get the benefit. It’s frustrating for our guys who came out and competed at a high level tonight, even with some of our mistakes.”

“...That’s what we were attacking and we’re trying to get downhill,” Pierce would go on to say, answering a different question. “We’re trying to get free throws. They’re grabbing. They’re being physical. We just didn’t get the benefit of it tonight.”

And, answering another different question, Pierce added, “...I thought we were in the game for the most part. We turned it over a lot in the second half and we couldn’t get free throws while they did in the second half.”

Pierce has been pretty vocal of late about not getting the benefit of the whistle and I think there have been some cases this season where this has been warranted.

Young also had a subtle quote when it came to the free throw shooting, saying ‘There’s only so much you can control.’

“Sometimes, it’s tough,” said Young of the Rockets’ free throws. “You can only control so much. I think, for us, we were trying to figure out a way not to let them get to the free-throw line that second half. Obviously, they’re a really good team at getting to the free-throw line. Clint was getting to the free-throw line. James, obviously, is a really good player at getting to the line. So, it’s tough. But it’s adjustments that you have to try to make to beat them.”

“You can only control so much” — pretty easy to see what Young is eluding to (or I’m reading between the lines too hard).

Look... You’re playing James Harden and the Rockets — there’s going to be some tough calls here and there, you expect that (or, at the very least, should expect that). But some of the calls multiple Hawks players were complaining about and vocal about were legitimate fouls — I think some of it was just out of a place of frustration. And it went both ways at times — it’s not a case of the Hawks, and only the Hawks, aren’t getting the calls/getting any calls.

The three-point shooting was, for me, much more damaging than the free throw disparity last night. The turnovers (19 turnovers for 24 Houston points) didn’t help either but the three-point shooting was the big turnaround in this game and the reason why the Rockets took a well deserved victory away from State Farm Arena.

The Hawks (24-48) are back in action on Thursday when they take on the Utah Jazz at State Farm Arena.

Should be interesting.

Until next time...