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Hawks nearly overcome 21-point fourth quarter deficit, yield to Raptors on MLK Day

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The Raptors tried to give this one away but the Hawks’ comeback just fell shy...

Toronto Raptors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks hosted festivities on Monday afternoon as they hosted the Toronto Raptors while celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In the end, it was a spirited game but one the Hawks eventually dropped 122-117, but that doesn’t tell the full story of how this game unfolded.

Trae Young led all scorers with 42 points and dished a season-high 15 assists while the Raptors were led by Norman Powell’s 27 points, the Raptors enjoying double-digit scoring efforts from six players.

As always, if you’re looking for how the game unfolded as it happened — you’re covered in this space. We’re just going to dive in...

Fourth quarter mayhem — how the game slipped away, how the Hawks almost took it back

Frankly, there’s not really time to look at this game as far as the first three quarters are concerned because it all went down in the final period.

Let’s set the table first, and then we’ll dive in.

The Raptors — having fought back from a nine point deficit in the second half to take the lead into the fourth quarter — would go on to establish a 21 point lead after Serge Ibaka hit a three-pointer to put the Raptors up 112-91 with 4:30 remaining, and even before this the game was up for the Hawks.

Somehow, the Hawks closed the gap — with a large helping hand from Toronto — and made it a three-point game (114-111) with 1:23 remaining (and even a two-point game inside the final minute), but the Raptors were ultimately able to close it out, mostly from the free throw line.

Firstly, how did the Raptors take control to begin with?

Well, it was due to the work of Norman Powell for the most part, who scored 12 straight points for the Raptors to create the separation as the Hawks’ offense got stuck on the perimeter.

Powell started his personal run by converting all three free throws after a costly fifth foul committed by De’Andre Hunter, but after that it was all about Powell detonating from behind the arc (shooting 4-for-4 from deep) on his way to 17 fourth quarter points.

For his first three-pointer, Powell is guarded by Kevin Huerter, who tries to get around the Ibaka screen before getting hit in the face by him, thus, freeing up Powell to knock down his first three of the quarter:

Probably an offensive foul but alas, just one of many calls that would’ve left people unsatisfied with the officials’ performance in the afternoon.

For Powell’s next three-pointer, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hands the ball of to Powell on the wing and spins into the body of Huerter to try and protect the shooting Powell. To be fair, Huerter gets a decent contest in with his left-hand regardless but it’s not enough to deter Powell as he sinks the three:

Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce was particularly unhappy with this three-pointer.

On the drive this time, Huerter is credited with the block on Powell, Powell, however, collects the offensive rebound, passes the ball to Terence Davis, fans out to the corner, receives the ball from from Davis and hits the contested three-pointer:

Sure, there was a slight hesitation on the part of Huerter initially as Powell passed the ball, but even despite that, Huerter still gets in a good contest on Powell — he’s just hot at this point.

The Raptors’ three-point barrage continued, this time Serge Ibaka takes advantage of John Collins sagging off enough to the point to give Ibaka permission to give the Raptors a 13 point lead:

Ibaka shoots 36% from three on the season (and 35.7% for his career from behind the arc), so perhaps not the best decision from Collins on this possession.

Powell struck once again from behind the arc, this time hitting over the contest of Vince Carter to push the Raptors’ lead to 16 points:

When you’re hot, you’re hot.

Lloyd Pierce lamented the lack of urgency when defending Powell, admitting that it was too easy for Powell at times.

“...(Rondae) Hollis-Jefferson is bringing the ball up the floor right in front of our bench, and we let him touch it and shoot a three. That’s too easy,” Pierce said. “At that point, it’s a state of emergency. You deny him. You make Hollis-Jefferson score one-on-one, but you don’t let him (Powell) touch it. You definitely don’t let him touch it and shoot a three in front of you. And all of them- it wasn’t the urgency for the entire roster. We were switching after he made his second, we were switching everywhere, (our defensive call where) we just switch on the basketball and we try and make him drive. All of his shots, I think, were, were off the catch.

“So it’s just not this type of urgency that we need defensively to make that adjustment,” Pierce continued. “In the fourth quarter, we talked about doing it stronger, doing it harder, doing it a little bit more. That’s on both sides of the ball. It’s easy to come down and hit a home run. It’s easy to come down and just sit down and defend but can we do more? Can we do it a little bit harder? Can we be more engaged? We dug ourselves in a really deep hole. We were down (21) in the fourth quarter.”

“It was just him being him,” added Young of Powell. “He’s a great scorer. That’s why he’s in the league, why he’s on that team. He can really score the ball. It’s tough when he gets going. We had some good contests. Sometimes he got away from us but most of the time, it was good contests. Better offense always beats better defense.”

Ibaka would get in on the action one more time from behind the arc as Terence Davis draws the defensive attention of Collins, pulling him away from Ibaka. Davis finds Ibaka, who is unfazed by the closeout by Collins and hits the three:

Perhaps this could have been avoided, as Collins, perhaps, didn’t need to leave Ibaka on this play. Trae Young is still in front of Davis and DeAndre’ Bembry is close enough to rotate and help at the rim if needed. Should Davis kick out to then-open Powell in this hypothetical, Reddish can rotate if need be toward Powell. To be fair, it didn’t really even matter at this point — even before Ibaka made this three, the game was, realistically, over.

It was over.

Even with 2:24 to go in this game, it was still over as the Raptors held a 114-100 advantage — and then began the Raptors’ implosion.

A turnover from Powell — marshaled out of bounds on the sideline by Bembry — hands possession of the ball back to the Hawks. Off of the pass from Young, Hunter’s quick drive inside draws Powell away from Cam Reddish in the corner. Hunter finds Reddish, who hits the three to begin the comeback:

Two missed free throws and a wild layup at the rim — both courtesy of Hollis-Jefferson — allowed the Hawks to further cut into the lead, Young obliging on this possession with the cold, step-back three. Oh, plus the foul:

Now, you some would argue that Young may have stuck out a leg there to draw the contact but it wasn’t spotted and the Raptors had already used their coach’s challenge, and Young heads to the line where his four-point play is completed, cutting the Raptors’ lead to seven points.

Prior to the free throw, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, re-inserted Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam, highlighting just how things had unravelled for the Raptors in this small stretch.

The Hawks extend the defensive pressure, first on VanVleet inside the Raptors’ half and again as Siakam tries to traverse half-court. Bembry’s pressure forces Siakam to pass but his pass sails out of bounds (initially called as a deflection off of Bembry, but this was overturned following a review):

Off of that turnover, Young drives by Patrick McCaw (with ease) and his path to the rim is made easier by the hesitation of Marc Gasol to help on the drive, and Young has an easy layup at the rim to cut the gap to five points with just under a minute and a half to go:

From the inbound after this bucket, the Raptors cough it up again, as Powell finds Young as he stumbled inbounds, unable to find a teammate as the Hawks press full-court. Young’s floater is goal-tended (after another review) and the lead is cut to a single possession:

The Raptors, however, respond right away as VanVleet sheds Huerter and rises for two:

The Hawks are able to find an immediate response themselves, as Young skips by McCaw and into the paint where he sticks the floater despite the contest from Powell:

VanVleet splits a pair of free throws to put the Raptors up by four points but the Hawks, again, respond and cut the lead to just two points as Collins makes the cut and is found by Young, who draws the Raptors defense in transition:

Then comes the most important possession of the game as the Hawks — once trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter — now need one more stop before they can attempt to complete this comeback.

With only seven seconds left on the shot clock, Siakam is forced to pass to the perimeter and to VanVleet, who gets a good look at an open three but misses. However, as Collins closes out, he makes contact with VanVleet, who goes down and Collins is called for the shooting foul:

The foul not only marked Collins’ sixth foul but, obviously, resulted in three free throw attempts.

Speaking postgame, Collins believed that VanVleet stuck out his hip as Collins closed out, to create the contact and, subsequently, the foul.

“Tough foul,” said Collins of his sixth foul. “I definitely thought he leaned out a little bit with his hips. But contact was made.”

Perhaps Collins had a legitimate point:

Seems pretty clear from this angle, we’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report has to say about this call...

This was tough because the Hawks had already used their coach’s challenge — needlessly, I might add — on an out-of-bounds call when the game was still over in the fourth quarter, which was unsuccessful.

Speaking of the play, Pierce was of the opinion that another Hawk, other than Collins, should’ve been the one to challenge VanVleet and/or force the pass.

“He’s making an effort,” said Pierce of Collins and the foul. “He’s trying to fly out and contest a shot. He (VanVleet) misses the shot. It’s questionable whether or not he landed and then (Collins) bumped him or... I’m not worried about that. It’s really the ‘more’ that we’re talking about. John was down the floor protecting on the drive and then he makes a second effort to get out and contest. We need the other guy to make the second effort and go out and contest and make them have to make the second and a third pass.

“So, I appreciate his effort to fly out there. It’s tough when you’re just lunging and doing everything you can to contest the shot and you get the bad end of the whistle, or the landing or whatever it may be, but someone else should’ve been rotating to that. And that’s the ‘more’ that we don’t have right now. We were doing a great job of it for three quarters and we just didn’t do a good job in the fourth quarter.”

When you look at that play again after reading that quote and think, ‘Well, who was it that could even have rotated at that point?’ and, I’m guessing, perhaps it’s Bembry but, really, it’s a tough ask — on this possession — for anyone else to make the rotation. Perhaps Pierce is just looking for those second rotations in a general sense but I’m not sure how else this would’ve been prevented on this possession. Perhaps it is Bembry, perhaps not...

Alas...

VanVleet proceeds to convert all three free throws, re-establishing a two-possession lead for the Raptors, now leading by five points with 14 seconds to go. The Hawks, out of a timeout, get two points back on the board with a Bruno Fernando dunk but still have to play the foul game.

The Hawks are unable to send anyone other than VanVleet to the line — he converts the subsequent free throws and the Hawks, who were already up against it, are unable to score and there is your ball-game.

It was a valiant effort by the Hawks to, somehow, make this a game again, and by the Raptors for almost throwing away a 21 point fourth quarter lead and a 14 point lead in the last two minutes. But to have to try and comeback from a hole that size in the first place, that’s always going to be extremely difficult, nigh-on-impossible.

“...We just put ourselves in such a big hole, it’s hard to come back from,” said Young postgame.

For a team as defensively advanced as the Raptors are, it was odd to see them — albeit, not the starting group — almost crumble under a bit of pressing. Perhaps the Raptors just expected the Hawks to just see out the quarter with the final result seemingly a formality?

To be fair, the Hawks have rolled over in the past this season but showed spirit on MLK Day to launch an unlikely comeback attempt.

“I tell y’all all the time, whether we’re on the winning side or the losing side, the game’s never over until it’s over,” said Young postgame. “We’ve been good some games finishing and sometimes we’ve lost the lead.

“...I think we surprised them a little bit with how much we still had left in the tank,” said Collins after the game. “We made a nice run. We competed.”

Pierce, meanwhile, was left to reflect on a missed opportunity to punish a Raptors side that certainly didn’t play like a 28-14 side yesterday.

“It was a good, bad game all in one,” said Pierce in his opening statement. “We did everything we could to win that game and everything we could to put ourselves in the position we did in the fourth quarter. And it’s kind of just where we are. Fourth-quarter execution, we give up a 6-0 run; just not managing that game or managing the approach to the game in the fourth quarter.

“That extra-pass mentality that we talked about previously, they were scrambling. Their starters weren’t very good. They brought in some energy guys and we didn’t punish that group. We had them where we wanted them from a psychological standpoint, just having a cushion. They were trying to rest their guys and buy some time and we didn’t take advantage of it.

“I thought our guys played well enough to win, we just couldn’t figure it out from an execution standpoint, which is frustrating. And even with the effort to come back, it’s just frustrating.”

You can understand why Pierce was frustrated — he feels as though Hawks definitely could’ve won this game. A poor end to the third quarter combined with that poor start to the fourth quarter — it was a stretch that clearly irked Pierce, and it meant the Hawks were chasing the game from the offset of that final period.

Another factor that did not help the Hawks’ cause were fouls.

Hunter, Huerter, Collins and Fernando (who managed to pick up two fouls in the space of one second) all struggled with foul trouble yesterday, limiting their minutes in the second half and, thus, limiting the Hawks in their lineups and their strength of lineups.

Huerter and Hunter logged just under 11 minutes of action in the second half, while Fernando scratched just over four minutes and this was a blow because Fernando was showing positive flashes last night and still scored 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 16 minutes.

With Alex Len still sidelined, the Hawks can ill-afford foul trouble amongst their bigs right now. While Damian Jones can provide some solid minutes, these were not so abundant last night as Jones struggled to limit the Raptors’ scoring opportunities near the rim when he was on the court, and obviously didn’t have it going offensively as Fernando did yesterday.

Speaking of the rookies, they enjoyed solid performances last night (fouls aside) — Cam Reddish continued his positive trend behind the arc in January (knocking down another three three-pointers yesterday), Hunter was a team-high plus-13 despite his limited minutes due to foul trouble (27) and Fernando, as mentioned, also produced in his limited showing.

“We’re so hard on those guys in practice as rooks to get better,” said Collins of the performance of the rookies. “So we always love to seem them get in the game and actually do it.”

Ultimately, this game was as Lloyd Pierce described it — good and bad. Yes, they almost came back and won this game, but they ended up in a 21 point hole having entered the last quarter trailing by just one point...

Trae Young continues to make history

I’ve been fairly silent on Trae Young’s performance so far, but only for the reason to make special mention of it as a separate note.

Like Powell, Young ignited in the fourth quarter for 18 points en-route to 42 points and 15 assists (marking a new-season high). Added to that, Young also got to the free throw line on 21 occasions (a new career-high in attempts), converting 18 of those.

As you can imagine, this stat line made various little bits of history, both in the NBA and for the franchise.

Young had also notched his double-double by halftime, which was the first time in his career he had successfully done so in the first as he played the role of facilitator in the first half before scoring 27 of his 42 points in the second quarter.

Young obviously commands respect around the league for what he’s able to accomplish offensively, and the Raptors were no exception.

“...He’s been playing extremely well…he’s making the right plays and right decisions,” said All-Star Kyle Lowry of Young. “For 21, his usage is crazy so he can handle it right now. I think he’s just playing unbelievable right now. He’s playing with confidence and the assertiveness that you need to be that guy on your team and I think he’ll just continue to get better.”

With Young obviously spearheading the Hawks’ close-comeback, and with yesterday’s game also being one showcased on NBA TV, Young showed out at a good time as yesterday was also the last day for All-Star starter voting (which Young already leads in Eastern Conference guards voting).

He seems set at this stage to lead the Eastern Conference guards in votes and, perhaps at this stage, to start the All-Star game itself — this appeared to be the icing on the cake.

John Collins continues to block shots

For the majority of January, John Collins has been starting at center, and this has continued even after the return of Bruno Fernando. At this spot, Collins has produced a number of blocked shots, adding another three to his tally last night.

For the season now, Collins is averaging 2.2 blocks per contest but, remarkably, Collins has already matched his total number of blocked shots from last season — in 18 games.

This is truly remarkable for Collins. We (collectively) had seen a big improvement in Collins as a shot blocker down the stretch of last season (where he averaged over a block a game) but he’s managed to take that to another level this season so far. It helps that he’s playing a lot more of the five (obviously to start games too) but even still...

This block in the fourth quarter was particularly fun:

The step John Collins has made defensively has been fun to watch so far this season. We’ll see if he can continue to block over two shots a game long-term, but right now he shows little sign of stopping.

Rotation notes

A few things to note with the rotation last night...

Obviously the Hawks are still missing Jabari Parker and Alex Len, though it seems both of them will be returning to action sooner rather than later (and it appears it’ll be Len first).

Jeff Teague only played 11 minutes last night, for reasons that weren’t quite clear. Teague’s first stint was disrupted by two fouls in the first quarter but he played very little after that. Ideally, it would be nice to see Teague play a little more alongside Young — I think everyone is curious as to what that might unlock for Young’s offensive game if Young is deployed off-ball for a few possessions.

You would imagine Teague will obviously play more than 11 minutes going forward, but it was just interesting to note, especially when the Hawks went to Brandon Goodwin for the first time during the second half for two minutes.

The other player acquired in that trade, Treveon Graham, did not feature in last night’s game, having featured against the Pistons on Saturday.

The minutes and rotation itself, in general, were a little more scattered than perhaps normal, given the foul issues the Hawks faced in this game — I think high 30’s across the board for the starters would’ve been the way had Hunter and Huerter not ran into foul trouble.


The Hawks (10-34) are back in action on Wednesday night, when they take on the Los Angeles Clippers at State Farm Arena.

Until next time...