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Injuries mount for Hawks in close-fought loss to Spurs

The Hawks fell short in this one and it wasn’t without another injury...

San Antonio Spurs v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks were unable to best the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night at State Farm Arena, falling short 111-104.

Trae Young led the Hawks in scoring with 22 points (but struggled in terms of shooting efficiency, shooting 8-of-24 and 1-of-7 from three) while John Collins made his return from flu-like symptoms and scored 16 points. For the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge scored 32 points while Derrick White added 18 points.

Falling short down the stretch, Young struggles

This was a strange game, all in all.

The Hawks had found themselves down by 11 points but generally speaking this game was tightly contested throughout, and it basically came down to the final two minutes where the Hawks were trailing by just three points with 2:11 on the clock.

The Spurs went on an 10-2 run to put this one out of reach, so, how did this one get away for the Hawks?

Really, it was all about LaMarcus Aldridge, who was clutch for the Spurs on both sides of the ball inside the final two minutes.

Down three and down bigs (more on that later), Aldridge is guarded by Vince Carter in the post, which is asking for trouble. Aldridge spins and hits the fadeaway jumper whilst drawing a foul, giving him the opportunity at a three-point play:

Smooth, just so smooth.

Aldridge hit the free throw, putting the Spurs up by six and the Hawks come the other way to respond. Coming downhill off of a pick-and-roll, Young seems to finally get some distance between himself and Derrick White — who had been hounding him all night — only to have his shot blocked by Aldridge as the help-defender:

DeMar DeRozan then heads down the court and the Spurs — while he’s doing that — clear the right-side of the court to give DeRozan space, DeRozan is able to drive by Kevin Huerter and squeeze in a layup to put the Spurs up by eight points:

Given that the Hawks had two timeouts left at this point, it was — in hindsight — a little surprising that Lloyd Pierce didn’t elect to call a timeout...

After Young gets a switch off of White and onto Rudy Gay, Young blitzes by Gay but, again, LaMarcus Aldridge is there to help and sends Young’s attempted shot far, far away:

As the Hawks set up from the out of bounds play, Derrick White does a great job sticking with Young and forcing him into a tough situation, forcing the pass where Aldridge is just waiting and intercepts it:

After a missed three from the Spurs and a John Collins bucket to take the within six points, the Spurs come as the Hawks appear to try throw a double-team at the ball-handler with Collins. This leaves Davis Bertans all alone behind the three-point line, Carter has to come out somewhat to cover Bertans (he does shoot 47% from three after all, not that you would’ve known from last night, though, he did shoot 4-of-10 from three) and this leaves LaMarcus Aldridge in a prime position underneath the basket with Huerter having to switch onto him. The Spurs get it into Aldridge and it’s an easy bucket that puts the Spurs back up by eight points and with 36 seconds left, it’s game over:

I’m not sure if the plan was for Collins to try and get back to his defender after the (poor) double-team/blitz but with the Hawks already playing small and playing with mismatches with Carter having to guard Aldridge, it was just odd to see the Hawks execute as they did defensively during this possession. Not that it would’ve had a huge bearing on the overall result but it was still odd.

It was a strange game — and a very sloppy game at times, particularly in the fourth quarter — and while Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce admitted the Hawks didn’t play fantastically, he was happy with the effort his group showed.

“...(A) lot of credit to our guys -- I thought we competed,” said Pierce postgame. “We didn’t play great basketball, but we competed all night. That’s why it was close, pretty much down to the last three or four minutes. We didn’t knock the shots that we needed to knock down early.

“The ball got stuck a lot. Trae (Young) had a tough defender guarding him all night, (which gives him) another valuable lesson of playing under control and staying (out of) crowds. He’s got a really good defender guarding him all night. He struggled. We were able to balance it out and he got going a little bit late. This is a tough team, and they do a good job for the most part of defending without fouling and putting you in a tough position in crowds. We didn’t punish them.”

The Hawks play fast and that’s no secret but there was an emphasis placed on pushing the ball in transition against the Spurs, who allow over 14 fastbreak points per game (22nd in the league) but the Hawks could only muster their average of 14 when it came to fast break points.

“They’re a well-coached team. They imposed their pace on the game,” said Kent Bazemore. “They took the air out of the ball a little bit. We like to get out and run. What kind of kept us in the game and gave us leads was the fact that we were rebounding and pushing the pace. They aren’t one of the best transition defense teams in the league and we tried to take advantage of that. We came out and rolled the dice in the second half and just came up a little short.”

When he spoke to the media postgame before the All-Star Break, Lloyd Pierce spoke about the goals he had for his side in the final 24 games of the season. One of those goals was to be involved in close game, and the Hawks have been involved in plenty of close games since then but have fallen short in a number of them, to the frustration of Trae Young.

“It’s definitely been frustrating,” said Young of failing to close games out. “We’ve had some games where we’ve been very close and we just can’t get over the hump, can’t get a stop, can’t get a bucket. It’s something we have to get better at and we will.”

Pierce referenced the struggles of Young, who shot poorly in this one and distributed what would be considered a low amount of four assists. Part of the reason for his struggles was he was defended extremely well by Derrick White, who registered six blocks in this game.

And it started from the get-go with White blocking Young’s attempt near the rim in transition inside the first minute and a half:

Same half, Young tries to push the pace and get to the rim but White forces a tough shot and the help defense from Aldridge also deters Young on this shot:

On this play, White fights through the Collins screen and a poor re-screen from Collins doesn’t put any separation between Young and White, and White is able to stick with Young and contest his three-point attempt which misses:

White would notch one more block on Young in the fourth quarter, as Young’s shot driving underneath the rim is denied by White:

It felt like White was everywhere this game and on both sides of the ball too, shooting 8-of-10 from the field and he was just able to get whatever he wanted on Young — it was tough to watch at times.

But White’s performance defensively was what took the focus postgame, with Pierce praising the San Antonio point guard.

“Whoever asked about Derrick White before the game jinxed us, because he was really good tonight...” opened Pierce postgame.

The Spurs didn’t attempt to trap Young as many teams have this season, with Pierce believing that when the opposing team has a defender like White, there’s no need to trap. It seemed to catch the Hawks and Pierce off guard.

“I think when you have an elite defender, and I’ve been around a few-- Tony Allen was the best defender that I’ve seen in the NBA. We didn’t trap in Memphis; (we used) Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Marc Gasol, who was Player of the Year defensively. When you have an elite defender that can do damage by himself, you don’t have to trap. They have that; I think Derrick White is an elite defender.

“Any guard that can get six blocks in a game is pretty good. That’s disruptive enough, and that’s why it’s a different scheme. We have to find ways to help any of our guys when you have a guy that’s like that. Get off the basketball, play second-side, get back on the third-side, and then attack as he’s moving and coming out of a closeout-- but at the point of attack, he’s pretty good.

“We just didn’t do a good job at the point of attack to get off the basketball, play through other guys, and get it to Trae. I think (when) we did, Trae got a couple of and-ones. That’s just part of it. We’ve seen so many different coverage(s), sometimes you think you’re rolling. You see a guy like Derrick White, you see a team like San Antonio come in and they give you a different look. They make it tough for you in a different way.”

Young missed a lot of shots — some because of the Spurs’ defense, others, according to Young, because he was trying to draw fouls that weren’t called by the officials.

“You have to give a team credit when they do really well,” said Young. “A lot of those shots, I was trying to draw a foul and they weren’t being called. Those count as attempts too. A little bit of credit to them for sure. They played tremendous defense. They had a really good game plan. Some of it is on me.”

Young left quite a number of shots shorts in this one and some easy ones got away from him too, which White was quick to acknowledge.

“He missed a couple of easy ones, but I was just trying to make it tough on him,” said White of defending Young. “I just tried to follow the game plan and try to make him earn everything that he got.”

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was pleased with the performance of his point guard on both sides of the ball but more so his defense.

“He did everything well, his defense especially,” said Popovich of White. “He is getting more aggressive scoring, but his defense is just really solid. He blocked shots, and I thought he did a good job on Trae Young tonight.”

When Popovich speaks, people listen, and he had positive things to say about the Hawks and Young in what was the Spurs’ first viewing of the new Atlanta Hawks.

“...The Hawks were impressive,” said Popovich postgame. “As I said before the game, they come to compete every single night. They are establishing a new culture here, it’s a new system, and they have done a great job. Their guys have bought in, they are unselfish, they play hard, they are physical, and they are just going to get better and better. So we are pleased to be able to get a win.”

“One of his great assets is that he is confident, and also that he can pass the basketball,” said Popovich of Trae Young. “Obviously he can score, but he also passes the ball. So you have a point guard that can score and at the same time he finds other people, which endears him to his teammates. For him it is just a matter of experience and getting stronger. He’s got the confidence to get out there and really run the show, and he has done a good job of that.”

It’s always good to hear the perspective of a coach who has had as much success as Popovich, he knows a thing or two when it comes to this stuff.

A weird game and a game the Hawks were right there in but just lacked the experience that a team like the Spurs would boast over a young team like the Hawks — and LaMarcus Aldridge was huge too down the stretch.

The ejection of Taurean Prince

Here was an interesting little side-story to this game...

Third quarter, early enough in the third quarter, Taurean Prince picks up two technical fouls in a blink of an eye — Scott Foster issuing both of them — and was ejected from the game. It was all a little confusing at the time as to what earned Prince two quick T’s like that but after seeing the replays it would appear that he said something that Foster didn’t take fancy to.

Have a look for yourself, see what you think:

You can the reactions: Alex Len can’t believe it and Prince and Young are almost laughing in disbelief.

When Pierce sought out Foster at the next timeout for an explanation, Pierce seemed to accept, straightaway, what had happened and didn’t seem to have much to say — which would lead me to believe that he knows Prince probably said something he knew he shouldn’t have.

When asked about the ejection postgame, Pierce said it was “probably a bad choice of words.”

“We’ve dealt with technicals the last couple of weeks,” continued Pierce. “I know Baze is at a high number (of technical fouls), Trae obviously got it the other game and the only thing I can say is you have to be disciplined. We all argue, myself included, Vince (Carter) got one tonight, TP gets two.

“It’s a matter of how we communicate. I take all of these as opportunities to educate our guys on the importance of communication, and how we communicate with the officials, whether or not we agree. But, we have to show a little bit of respect for the game, and you got to be smart. I think he just got caught with a bad choice of words. They have the authority and the power to make the call. They felt something was said inappropriately, and they called a technical.”

As Pierce referenced, Vince Carter also picked up a technical after he was aggrieved when LaMarcus Aldridge went barrelling into him on offense and wasn’t called for a foul.

The officiating in this one was weird, inconsistent and it was just bad at times.

Not to lambast the officials — it’s a tough, thankless job — but it just wasn’t a good game from their point of view.

In a later question with regard technical fouls and earning technical fouls for the sake of ‘getting the team into action’, Pierce gave an interesting answer, and here seems like a good spot to bring it up.

“What will continue to educate our guys is we’re a no excuse team,” said Pierce. “To me, a tech is... for anyone, myself included —I don’t know how to justify that. We’ve had techs that have gone the wrong way, our momentum has got killed. I can get a tech, we give them a point (but) I don’t know what that solves. Going into a game and say ‘I’m going to get a tech and now you guys are going to play hard’. If that’s the answer then we’ve got a problem.

“There’s going to be questionable calls from the start of the game to the end of the game, so I don’t know which one I should get the tech on. But I don’t know if that also sets the right example because I’m preaching to our guys of playing (with) no excuse, preaching to our guys playing through contact — things happens. We’re on the other end of it too where they’re getting bad calls and we’re getting to the foul line.

“There’s just a mentality of guarding a pick-and-roll, playing through bad calls, playing unselfishly when we’re being defended the right way that we need to develop, and I’d rather focus on that than berating someone on the sideline.”

Just an interesting point of view from Pierce on technical fouls, interesting to hear him discuss that and those types of techs that, for example, coaches look for when they’re looking for something from the players on the court — just to pick up a tech for the sake of picking one up and hoping it’ll spur their team into action.


Alex Poythress’ injury leaves Hawks short on bigs

A lot of mixed news when it came to the Hawks’ big rotation...

John Collins made his return — limited to 25 minutes — but it ended up being a case of ‘one in, one out’, as Dewayne Dedmon was ruled out with a hyperextended knee (though, there was no need for an MRI and Dedmon isn’t expected to be out for long) — Alex Len started at center in his place.

With Omari Spellman sidelined for at least four weeks with an ankle injury, the Hawks recalled two-way player Alex Poythress to help shore up the Hawks’ big rotation.

While Poythress was having a mixed game last night, he rolled his ankle at the end of the third quarter and was ruled out for the remainder of the game and he was unable to walk under his own power toward the locker-room.

The roll looked bad and Pierce revealed postgame that Poythress was going to be out for a while, and, honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was it for Poythress’ season. The season has just over a month to run and a four-week layoff would basically bring the Hawks to season’s end.

In the short term, the Hawks are in trouble at the forward-center spot. If Dedmon is able to return quickly to the fold, the loss won’t be as bad but if Dedmon is missing another game or two, it certainly leaves the Hawks in a pickle — Collins, Len and Carter the only bodies available that have played significant minutes at power forward/center this season.

The Hawks could deploy Justin Anderson at the four if they’re stuck, but this would involve the Hawks actually playing Anderson, which they haven’t done a lot of this season. The Hawks could perhaps, go ultra small with Carter at the five for a stretch, Collins at the five in a still small lineup but that will depend if Collins is on a minutes restriction in the Hawks’ next outing.

Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds. If Dedmon is back quickly, the Hawks can survive but if not — or, if another injury occurs — the Hawks could end up dipping into the market to find a big body.

The Hawks (22-44) are back in action on Saturday when they take on the Brooklyn Nets at State Farm Arena.

Should be interesting.

Until next time...