There are very few sure things anywhere, but it seems as though there are two in the NBA: Kemba Walker losing to LeBron James and the Atlanta Hawks losing in San Antonio. Walker is 0-28 in his career against James-led teams, while the Hawks haven’t won against the Spurs in their home arena since 1997. The latter streak looked as if it could fall on Tuesday night, but San Antonio was able to rally back and deliver a 117-111 win to keep things going for a 21st straight time against the lowly Hawks.
Given that Atlanta has put together a decade-long run in the playoffs and multiple 50-win seasons over that stretch, it’s truly amazing that they haven’t been able to notch a win over Gregg Popovich’s men since they were tanking for Tim Duncan back in 1997. In the intervening years, tanking has taken on an entirely new meaning, from some downright comical lineups being run out by teams looking to avoid winning at the end of the year to clubs throwing away multiple years of competitiveness in order to set up a rosier future. The league has tried to legislate it out at every turn, but the most recent changes were the strongest – removing the heavily-weighted lottery odds in favor of a more equal system has all but eradicated multi-month tanking at the bottom of the standings, as an extra win or two (or five) isn’t nearly as impactful as it once was.
These 2018-19 Hawks are a perfect example – since the difference between first and fifth in the lottery is just a 3.5% chance at Zion Williamson, the incentive just isn’t there to throw away the season. Instead, Atlanta has focused on the development of their young stars, from Trae Young to John Collins to Kevin Huerter, without any obvious regard for the tank.
This thought process would likely have continued through the end of the season had they not made the trade last summer to acquire Young, sending Luka Doncic to Dallas in exchange for their point guard of the future and a 2019 protected first-rounder. However, as the Mavericks have fallen apart in truly appalling fashion and the Hawks have continued to exceed expectations, Atlanta has found themselves closer to Dallas in the standings than they should be, all of which led to what we saw in the last several minutes in San Antonio on Tuesday night.
Alex Len was probably the second-best player for the Hawks against the Spurs, behind only Kent Bazemore (whom we’ll get to later). He played 28 minutes and scored 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including 4-for-5 from beyond the three-point line. His five boards and three dimes added to his shooting prowess, while his boxout ability and size did a good job keeping the Spurs off the offensive glass, where they picked up just four for the game.
LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t nearly as heavily involved in the San Antonio offense as he usually is; Len is a relatively good matchup for Aldridge, as he can use his strength and length to bother the all-world post-up threat. Yet, when the game was close, Len sat on the bench. The final 6:48 ticked by without Len’s presence, as 10-day signee Deyonta Davis got the call instead. Davis has some advantages over Len, namely his athleticism, but to say he often doesn’t put that athleticism to work is an understatement, at least in his limited work in Atlanta to this point.
To compound matters, or perhaps to ensure the final result went the way the club wanted, Jaylen Adams relieved Young with two minutes to go and the Hawks down five points. If there was any way to defend pulling Len for Davis, it was that Len had played nearly nine straight minutes and needed a breather (though he should have come back with three or four minutes to go), but there is no logical defense for sitting Young for what amounted to the final competitive stretch of the contest. If head coach Lloyd Pierce were making offense-defense substitutions late in the game, deploying DeAndre’ Bembry, not Adams, would have made sense, or he would have immediately put Young back in the game after Bryn Forbes committed a turnover on the ensuing offensive possession. Alas, Adams remained in the game and the Hawks succumbed to the Spurs.
If all of this looks like a criticism, it’s only in how blatant the effort was, not in the result or the virtues of tanking itself. It was clearly the right move for the Hawks to lose this game with an eye toward the draft, just as if it would have been for them to drop the game against Milwaukee on Sunday. These wins could be catastrophic for their draft position, both for their own pick and the pick owed to them by the Mavericks. Losing this game should all but ensure that Atlanta will stay in the fifth spot in the lottery, which leaves them open to play as many guys as they can against Philadelphia on Wednesday. John Collins, who missed the Spurs game for rest, will likely be back out there for the Hawks against the 76ers.
Given that everything above this was about 900 words on Atlanta perhaps not trying quite as hard to win this game as they could have, it was not the most important aspect of the contest. Kent Bazemore finished the game with 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting in what was (hopefully) a breakout game for him after a months-long slump. Before his injury in late December, Bazemore was on his way to a very solid year, putting up 14 points, four rebounds, and three assists per game on 45/33/76 shooting splits to with his normal active defense. He missed almost exactly a month with a badly sprained ankle that seems to have zapped some of his athleticism, especially around the basket, as his play has dipped significantly over the last two months. He was down to nine points, four rebounds, and two assists per game on 34/28/70 shooting splits coming into Tuesday’s game, but the veteran had easily his best game of the second part of his season against the Spurs.
Bazemore had been vocal recently about how his injury had derailed his year, sharing details with the media after the loss against Houston two weeks ago.
“Before I got injured, I was on my way to having one of the best years of my career and when I came back, I just couldn’t get it going again,” said Bazemore. “It’s tough, but I just keeping working hard, staying healthy, taking care of my body. I just kind of feel out of sync right now. Just got to stay with it and try to finish the season strong.”
This performance looked like the vintage Bazemore that we saw on the court earlier this season and was a welcome sight for those of us who believe that he’s capable of being a starting-level wing on a good team (though that likely won’t be in Atlanta, as his contract expires in 2020 and he doesn’t fit the timeline of the rest of the club’s core players).
On the other side, DeMar DeRozan was the key man for the Spurs. He scored 29 points on just 11 shooting attempts thanks to a 15-of-16 showing from the free throw line. Atlanta fouled DeRozan 11 times in the game, falling for nearly every trick in his book, from jumping at pump fakes to reaching in and letting DeRozan rip through for the same fouls Young gets on the other end of the court.
DeRozan’s been a masterful foul drawer throughout his career, dating back to his days in Toronto, and he’s brought that same level of play to the Spurs this season. When Atlanta did keep their hands to themselves, he punished them with his usual midrange prowess – he made five of his six attempts from midrange – and found several good passes to teammates for open shots. The Hawks were able to force him into five turnovers, the only blemish on an otherwise very strong night for DeRozan.