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Offensive struggles lead to Hawks loss against Portland

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The better team won.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The undermanned Portland Trail Blazers came into State Farm Arena on Friday night and managed to get an important win. The Hawks are missing numerous players at this point in the season. In addition to the players that have been out for a while, Taurean Prince missed this game with a foot injury. Additionally, Alex Len dressed but did not play as a matter of precaution; he could have been useful going up against one of the best rebounding teams in the league.

At the same time, Portland played without two of their three most important players. CJ McCollum missed his sixth consecutive game on Friday night, and the Blazers were playing just their second game since losing their starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, to a very unfortunate and serious leg fracture.

Justin Anderson got a very rare start in place of Prince in this game. For Anderson, it was his first start in an NBA game in nearly two full years. Enes Kanter started at center for the visiting team as he might for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.

Both teams had offensive success in the first quarter, combining for 68 points, Portland led 38-30 after the first 12 minutes of play. Each team’s starting point guard was the engine for their respective offenses. Both Damian Lillard and Trae Young had an impressive 18 points in the opening period.

From that point it came down to adjustments... and the adjustments to the adjustments. As the second quarter was winding down, the Hawks started using more help from the big men defending Lillard in pick-and-roll, while the Blazers started to try to crowd Young when he was working through the Hawks’ standard ball screens.

In the second half, the Blazers started outright trapping Young and forcing other Atlanta players to generate offense. That went reasonably well for the Hawks for a bit but eventually got them away from what they really want to do on offense: move the basketball.

“We were playing to how they wanted us to play,” said Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce after the game. “Which is they want a lot of one-on-one basketball and for you to take the first and second options because of how deep they play off the pick-and-rolls. It’s easy to fall victim to that.”

“We’ll always be able to score and get stats, but we’re tough to defend when we get a lot of ball movement and when we get a lot of ball reversals,” Pierce added.

The Hawks finally started connecting on shots again in the fourth quarter and briefly got the score to a potentially manageable point. During crunch time, however, they could not generate the defensive stops that would have been necessary to get the game to a one- or two-possession game.

In victory, Lillard led all scorers with 36 points. He’s a perennial all-NBA guard for a reason and he was the best player on the court during this game. He also had seven assists and was a +18 individually in the box score.

Kanter had 14 points and 11 rebounds, but even those relatively strong numbers are not reflective of the impact he had on the game. The Hawks had to allocate a lot of their defensive attention in an effort to keep him off of the offensive glass.

Norcross product Al-Farouq Aminu had 17 points on just 12 shooting possessions and gathered 11 rebounds. Seth Curry contributed 12 points off of the Blazers’ bench.

For Atlanta, Young led all scorers with 26 points, only eight of those coming after the opening quarter. Defensively, Portland threw everything they could at him in the final three quarters. He added nine rebounds and seven assists. The rookie point guard was just one-for-eight from the three-point line.

The rebounding numbers on Atlanta’s side of the ledger ended up a bit weird, but that’s because the Hawks’ big men had to simply use all of the physicality they had to keep Kanter off of the glass, so the responsibility of securing those rebounds went to the guards and wings. Young and Kent Bazemore were the only Atlanta players that grabbed more than five boards.

“They are one of the best rebounding teams in the league,” said Pierce about Portland’s rebounding prowess. “Their positional defense, they’ll let you come down and shoot the floaters. They try and keep themselves (in the paint). It’s hard to get downhill with this team. They want you to shoot pull-ups and floaters. They’ll stay disciplined.”

In fact, John Collins entered the fourth quarter with zero rebounds. He would eventually grab a couple as to avoid an unlikely goose egg in that column. He finished with 20 points on 17 shooting possessions. He had two more blocked shots in this game and continues to demonstrate increased activity on the defensive end of the court.

Kevin Huerter had 11 points, four rebounds and four assists. He had several good moments in the game but contributed as much as any player to the Hawks lack of offensive efficiency. He was 5-of-14 from the field including connecting on just one of his six three point attempts.

The second unit for Atlanta produced very little help apart from Vince Carter continuing to knock down timely shots from deep. He was 3-of-7 from the arc in the contest but each of the shots he converted were critical considering time and score of the game.

While Atlanta has picked up some impressive wins of recent, in the end for this contest one team (Portland), despite being shorthanded looked to be building up toward postseason action and the level of intensity and execution that requires, And the other team (Atlanta), widely free of expectations, is looking to play hard and with positive energy for the remainder of the regular season but struggled to do that in this game.

This was the first score of the game and represents what the Hawks were hoping to do offensively for a majority of the game. A ball screen gets Kanter away from the paint and he is famously terrible in recovering back into the play once he’s any distance from the paint. The result here is a lob to Collins for the easy dunk.

Portland’s head coach Terry Stotts is a good coach; thus, as it turns out, Atlanta did not get to do this with any regular consistency throughout the game.

This Blazers offensive possession in the first quarter offers a glimpse as to how the Hawks were defending Lillard in the pick and roll early in the game. Dewayne Dedmon offers just brief resistance but has to retreat to beat Kanter to the rim. Young does not demonstrate a lot of urgency getting back to Lillard before he gets up a comfortable jumper near the baseline.

This play was encouraging just past the mid-point of the first quarter. Collins gets a block at the rim which creates a transition opportunity for Atlanta. The Blazers are not able to get back and match up as desired defensively. The result is an uncontested dunk for Deyonta Davis.

The Atlanta coaching staff loves when the team uses defensive plays to create easy offensive opportunities.

This was an interesting play drawn up by Coach Pierce during a timeout. Young sets a pin down screen for Collins who flashes to the middle of the lane. The intent is to use Young’s threat as a shooter moving toward the three-point line to give Collins a one-on-one opportunity to operate near the rim. He converts the turnaround jumper.

This play is becoming a staple in the Hawks’ after timeout (ATO) package. They have run this play for Huerter, Bembry and Prince in recent weeks. Here Bembry is the lob target, he gets a subtle back screen from Dedmon that frees him up for space to catch and finish for the easy bucket.

This possession offers a look at how Altanta adjusted their pick-and-roll coverage in the final minutes of the second quarter. Dedmon presents more strongly at the point of the ball screen. Collins helps at the rim and Anderson ends up with a lot of responsibility helping set up for a defensive rebound. They used this coverage for a majority of the rest of the game.

And here we see the adjustment the Blazers made at halftime as to how they were defending Young in the pick-and-roll. They used as aggressive trap to force the ball out of his hands. Young finds Dedmon as an outlet but the attempted 4-on-3 execution ends up with a turnover. They tried to make the right play but were unable to execute.

On this possession, Young rushes into a long three-point attempt before a trap, or a screen, or anything really can happen. That’s not what the coaching staff is looking for in terms of how to use the leverage of a defensive trap against the opponent. He was pulled from the game fairly quickly after this play and sat for the remainder of the third quarter.

Perhaps most importantly, notice that Collins has his defender sealed right in front of the rim. Young can execute this pass from half court with either hand. This is the clearest indication that the Portland trap was causing him to individually press.

And we see the correction after Young reenters in the fourth quarter.

Portland was not trapping Young when their second unit was on the floor. So it seems quite smart on Pierce’s part to pull Young from the game when he was pressing and deploy him against the Blazer’s second unit. This was the point of the fourth quarter at which the Hawks were able to start narrowing the scoring margin.

And here we see the adjustment to the adjustment. After the Hawks found more success defending the side pick and roll (which Portland strongly prefers to run) with the defensive big providing more help at the point of the ball screen, the Blazers countered by running high pick and rolls after Lillard reentered the game in the fourth quarter. It requires that the defense cover more space.

Also notice the back screen set on Dedmon by Kanter. This is what is widely known as “Spain pick-and-roll”, although most NBA teams call it “stack pick-and-roll” action.

It was an effective adjustment made by Portland and this shot largely put the game out of reach for the home team.

Up Next

The Hawks will host the Milwaukee Bucks at State Farm arena on Sunday afternoon. It will be a very rare 12:30 PM ET start time. The Bucks, under the leadership of former Hawks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer, will be looking to continue on their way to a season sweep over the Hawks.

MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo left the Bucks’ last game with an ankle injury. His status for Sunday’s game is not yet known.