NBA games in April often get weird. Well, things got super weird in Orlando on Friday night.
The Atlanta Hawks, frankly, demonstrated little (if any) interest in playing defense and the scoreboard reflected as much. As a result, they took an ugly 149-113 loss as the Magic swept the season series in dominant fashion.
To be a little bit fair, the lineups were strange, as the Hawks were missing Kent Bazemore and Kevin Huerter, in addition to other players already shut down. Because of those absences, it would not have been unexpected that second unit lineups would struggle. A few lineups were deployed during the game that have very likely never practiced together, but each member of the starting lineup has been with the team since the first day of camp last fall.
Orlando has seemed to have the Hawks’ number this season, having won all of the first three match ups by at least 10 points, but the Hawks were looking to make some progress being more competitive as each game took place. Prior to Friday night, they had lost chronologically to the Magic by 19, 16 and then 10 points, but when you play essentially no defense, any NBA team is going to put up a large number of points on you.
The Magic are not an incredibly gifted offensive basketball team. Head coach Steve Clifford is in his first year in Orlando and is taking a team with little roster changes and remaking them from a bottom 10 defense last season into a top ten defense this season. They rank just 22nd in offensive rating on the season, as Clifford has long been known as a defense-first coach.
The foundation of defensive play in the NBA is transition defense. If that is lacking, it’s going to cause obvious issues. Additionally, being poor in this area also punts on frequently being able to get matched up on half court possessions apart from those that follow a stoppage of some sort.
Orlando is 25th in the league in fast break points (10.8 per game) but they posted 28 points in transition in this contest. The Hawks give up the second-most fast break points per game (16.4) in the league but a lot of that was amassed when they were turning the ball over at a near historic pace earlier in the season. Only Dallas gives up more transition points per game in the league.
The Hawks lead the league in pace (104.5 possessions per game), while Orlando ranks 23rd in the category (98.7). Friday night’s game featured 110 possessions, which is very representative of how comfortable the Magic were operating on the offensive end of the court.
One explanation for Atlanta’s poor performance in this game could be that they were flat coming off of a number of recent wins over some of the better teams in the league. In addition, Orlando is basically playing every one of their games at this point with their season on the line. Players are human. From a contextual standpoint it can be tough to match another team’s level of intensity at times, but it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen what some might describe as a “no show” from this team. There were a number of games that looked like this one earlier in the season, but it seemed the team had gotten over the hump of learning how to bring consistent effort game to game. In that sense, the performance was a disappointment.
And while the reality is that this game was a poor performance and effort by this team perhaps that says something positive in the big picture. The expectations are higher at this point and the team is the entity that has raised those expectations by their increasingly improved play across the season.
“They came out and they shot it well,” said Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce after the game. “We came out and we were really funny. Obviously there was a lot that they’ve got invested in this game. And they came out and showed it. We were never a part of this tonight.”
“We weren’t here. And I don’t know why,” added Pierce. “I think everyone was expecting us to be this way a long time ago and tonight we were this way. That’s not us. The guys in there (locker room) know that’s not us.”
Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross led all scorers with 25 points apiece. The All-Star center, Vucevic, needing just 15 shooting possessions to deliver his production. He ends the season series with the Hawks averaging 25 points and 14.3 rebounds per game and was a net +17 per game (!). Atlanta just never found a way to contain the versatile big man this year.
“Vucevic is an unbelievable player,” Pierce said of the big man’s play against his team this season. “They’ve had our number all year. He’s the head of all of that. He’s had an unbelievable series against us.”
Fournier needed just 16 shooting possessions and Ross just 14 to each produce respective 25 point performances. Each member of the Orlando starting lineup had at least 10 points in what was an elite offensive performance for the Magic. It was just the third time a team this season has exceeded 140 points while shooting better than 60% from the field and better than 45% from the three point line. (Atlanta accomplished this in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in January.)
In the lopsided loss, Trae Young led the Hawks with 22 points. It wasn’t an efficient shooting performance but he also had seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. Second-year forward John Collins managed 20 points but was just 8-of-18 from the field and missed on each of his five three point attempts. Taurean Prince produced 15 points on 14 shooting possessions.
From the bench, DeAndre’ Bembry played with his usual energy, which stood out in this performance. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Vince Carter added 11 points while Jaylen Adams had 9 points plus four assists and four steals much of it coming in garbage time which probably started, unofficially, before the end of the first half.
The Hawks have just two games remaining with which to work to end the season on a more positive note. The first of which will be in Milwaukee on Sunday evening. Depending upon the outcome of the Bucks’ home game against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday evening Mike Bundenholzer and company might be looking for their 60th win on the season. Should they achieve that prior to the Hawks’ arrival on Sunday, we could see a bit of a replay of last Sunday’s match up in Atlanta in which Milwaukee sat a majority of their rotation players.
The Hawks will end the season hosting the Pacers on Wednesday night. Depending upon the result of a number of games, Indiana could be playing for the opportunity to hold home court advantage during the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.