The Atlanta Hawks entered play on Friday evening in Oklahoma City looking to win their second consecutive game against a Western Conference opponent. Beyond that, it was the second straight night contest against a team playing well enough that they would qualify for the playoffs (in the more competitive half of the NBA) if the season were to end today.
On Wednesday night, they came back to beat a Los Angeles Clippers team that was playing without their two best players, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. In fairness, Atlanta was playing without Trae Young, their presumed sole representative in the NBA All-Star game (to be held next month in Chicago).
After some uncertainty, Young would be cleared to play against the Thunder on Friday, the team that he followed most closely, having grown up in Oklahoma. The home team would play without their starting center, Steven Adams.
On paper, it looked like a matchup that the Hawks might be able to make interesting, despite the fact that the Thunder rank as roughly league average on both ends of the court while the Hawks rank toward the bottom of the league offensive and defensively.
Entering play, Atlanta ranked second from the bottom in opponent second chance points allowed. This is an area in which they often bleed points to the opposing team even when they are doing a solid job defending at the point of attack and challenging shots. However, Oklahoma City ranks last in the league in generating points after offensive rebounds.
So, there was some reason for optimism that the Hawks might be able to keep the score in range. They were able to do that for much of the game but lost contact in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.
In the end, they would give up 140 points to an opponent for the fourth time this season. They entered the final period down by 14 points. Instead of closing the gap, they saw the Thunder more than double their lead in the final frame in the eventual 140-111 loss for the visitors.
The risk was there throughout the game that if the Thunder starting making their shots at a normal clip that Atlanta would be unlikely to be able to shoot well enough to keep pace. Oklahoma City is fifth in the league in field goal percentage while the Hawks are No. 23. As the home team got separation in the game, it was their ability to make more shots than their opponent that stood out.
The Thunder shot a scalding 58% from the field and 56% (14 of 25) from beyond the three point line. Despite trading Paul George to the Clippers after last season (mostly for future draft collateral), Oklahoma City also got a very good young player in the form of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. From there, exchanging Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul — another move that seemed to indicate the organization was looking to the future — brought in another top-tier veteran and Danilo Gallinari came alongside. As such, Oklahoma has two of the hardest players to defend and the point guard and power forward positions.
He may be past his prime — and there may be real questions about how much he can be relied upon across the entirety of an NBA season — but Paul can use his skill and intellect to manipulate defenses as well as any lead guard in the league. Despite his defensive issues, Gallinari is the prototypical stretch power forward. And the two veterans can really do a number against a young team.
They did just that to Atlanta in this contest.
While the game was close, for the better part of three quarters, and as they got separation, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder used offensive actions and sets that were just sophisticated enough to overwhelm their young opponent and just simple enough that they were able to run everything with crispness and precision. The result was 48 minutes of comfortable and desirable shots, which they were able to ride to their best offensive output of the season.
The Hawks used good shooting of their own for the first three periods of play to mostly keep pace. At the end of the third frame, Atlanta had amassed 90 points on 51% shooting from the field, 44% from the three point line and by converting 14 of their 17 shots from the free throw line. On most nights, that would be more than enough.
But, as Oklahoma City caught fire, the shooting of Atlanta fell off of a cliff. They generated 27 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter but connected on just nine of them. That insufficient shooting performance included a 1 for 13 effort from three-point distance.
The one aspect of play for the Hawks that is just starting to resemble their exciting performance from the second half of last season is that Young and John Collins are, collectively, starting to regularly lead the team in offensive production.
Collins led all scorers in the game with 28 points on just 16 shooting possessions. He was 13 of 16 from the field and converted two of his four shots from the arc. After a slow shooting start upon his return from suspension, the third-year big man is now shooting 36% from the three point line on four attempts per game.
Young struggled to get his shot to fall with any consistency in Oklahoma City, but he generated 26 points (on 26 shooting possessions). His 16 assists were a season high and was just one shy of his career best mark.
Cam Reddish continued his competent offensive play of late. He had 20 points and six rebounds. He made shots attacking the rim with his dribble and connected on four of his six attempts from deep. Success can be fleeting and fragile for young players but it looks like the game might be starting to slow down for him in a potentially permanent manner.
His counterpart from the lottery portion of the 2019 draft, De’Andre Hunter, made a handful of impressive plays but struggled significantly at other times. He had 10 points on 12 field goal attempts. He missed on each of his three attempts from deep.
Kevin Huerter made a few nice plays but had just six shot attempts (five points). Jeff Teague had nine points and two assists off of the bench.
After contributing 19 points in the fourth quarter to help lead Atlanta to comeback victory on Wednesday night, Brandon Goodwin could not get it going in this game. He had just four points on a one for six shooting performance.
The Hawks ran all of the things they normally run offensively and it largely worked for them for the first 36 minutes of the game. But when they most needed it, no one was able to step up and help them match the scoring output of their opponent down the stretch.
“I thought our guys were playing well tonight for about 34, 36 minutes,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce commented after the game. “They (Oklahoma City) hit eight threes in a 14-minute span from halftime on. on. Some were miscues. Some their guys just got going a little bit. I thought our guys were playing well up until that point. And then they just had a combination of getting beat off the dribble in the fourth quarter and an inability to score for us.”
“It was kind of a bad combination in that fourth quarter,” Pierce continued. “We could never really slow them down or take them out of rhythm. But I thought our guys were at least competing and kept the game close. And then it just got away from us.”
Two former Hawks excelled for the Thunder in reserve play and played in stretches in which their team was able to get the most distance. Point guard Dennis Schroder, currently a leading candidate for sixth man of the year award, had 21 points (on efficient shooting) and eight assists. Center Mike Muscala had 14 points on just seven shot attempts. The two combined to convert seven of 10 three points attempts.
Gallinari led all Oklahoma City players with 25 points and was the toughest player for Atlanta to defend throughout the game. He knocked down seven of his 10 field goal attempts which included four makes on six shots from the three point line. in short, he made it look easy.
Paul, as he does most of the time, made a lot of the success happen. He posted 18 points, six rebounds and five assists. Gilgeous-Alexander was nearly unstoppable with his dribble penetration. He had 24 points, six assists and three blocks.
“This team, one of the things we talked about, it wasn’t going to be a real scheme game,” said Pierce about the play of the victors. “Obviously their two bigs got going from three, Muscala and Gallinari. But for the most part if was going to be a lot of can you guard your own man? And, can we show a crowd? And in the fourth quarter that’s what you saw.”
“He’s (Paul) communicating all the time,” responded Pierce about the advantages the Thunder have in their veteran point guard. “He’s orchestrating and instructing his guys on where they need to be. So, the game management, the flow of the game is always in their favor because of what he brings and what he does on the court.”
“We just couldn’t get stops when we needed them and we couldn’t take away the three ball in that third quarter,” Pierce said in summary.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
On their second offensive possession, the Hawks demonstrate what they are wanting to do to the Oklahoma City defense. They are able to use a lot of motion from their ball handlers to get the defense really spread out and then attack with quickness and urgency.
Collins is eventually able to slip behind the Thunder defenders for a lob from Young.
On this Oklahoma City possession, Paul is able to attack the defense of Young.
Hawks defenders are taught to use the baseline as an additional defender in this situation. So, Young takes position to attempt to push Paul away from a potential ball screen higher on the floor. He, per the scheme, expects a help defender to appear at the rim if he is unable to contain Paul’s dribble advance.
Young’s execution here is decent. Huerter and Bruno Fernando work well together on the weak side to free up the latter to help on the strong side at the rim.
But, Hunter, who should account for Luguentz Dort after Huerter slides down to help on Nerlens Noel, loses track of his responsibility on the back side of the play and the result is a cut and dunk by the Thunder rookie.
Hunter’s play has been, unsurprisingly, up and down during this, his rookie season. But a consistent theme in his struggle on both ends of the court is his tendency to lose track of what is happening behind him. More to come on that.
On this play from early in the game, the youthful Hawks defenders are not able to get organized. Once again, Young is matched up on Paul.
Here, Paul does something he seldom does. He becomes the screener in pick and roll action with Gilgeous-Alexander.
By all appearances, Hunter and Young never get a plan identified, nor communicated.
Despite Collins, Huerter and Bruno Fernando holding up to their responsibilities solidly on the weak side of the play, the result is an easy basket for the Thunder.
After playing heaving minutes at the power forward position the past several games, Hunter moved back to small forward, mostly, in this game as Atlanta started a traditional lineup.
Presumably to avoid wear and tear, Paul is matched up with Hunter, who spots up off of the ball more than any other Hawks player.
Atlanta looks ready for this match up and enters the ball to Hunter in the post.
After establishing nice, deep position on the play the rookie is able to use a spin toward the baseline to create the easy shot and score.
On this play near the midpoint of the first quarter, we see a situation the Thunder want to avoid and that Atlanta wants to try to create.
Young attacks the Oklahoma City defense before they can get all five defenders back. As a result, Noel has to try to account for both Fernando and Collins.
What foot speed Gallinari once had in his career the 31-year-old no longer deploys as a result of lower body injuries and normal wear and tear. This will become a significant thing for Thunder fans to watch if and when their team plays in the postseason.., the opponent looking to push the pace in this manner with Gallinari on the floor.
Collins collects the pass and finishes with the lay up.
Here, we see Hunter post Paul again from the left block.
Notice that Paul is more assertive defensively on this play and is able to deny Hunter the deep position he had on the previous similar possession.
Also notice Hunter, with his back to the other defenders, did not find the arrival of Gallinari as a second defender.
He makes the shot as a result of his length advantage over Paul and because Gallinari is not well equipped to impact a play in this manner. But this is not a recipe for sustainable success against this defensive look.
Here, we see Young again attacking early in the shot clock with a dribble. He is able to get into the heart of the Thunder defense with no resistance. He delivers the ball to Reddish on the right wing who knocks down a three point attempt.
What is noteworthy here is the timing and feel of Reddish. He lifts out of the corner and toward the three point break just as Young demands the attention of his defender, Gilgeous-Alexander, which gives him the space to shoot.
Reddish was not demonstrating subtle movement such as this early in the season. This is progress.
On this play, we see an offensive set that appears to be run for Collins. It’s unclear if the Hawks coaching staff is still professing to “not run plays” for him.
It’s a set they don’t often run. And when they have run it, the arrangement has usually been for Young to start in the left corner and to move along the path that Huerter does here, but to set a cross screen in the process, for a shooter to be freed to move to the left corner.
Here, they are able to get Collins a comfortable face up look from the baseline, which he is able to convert.
On this Oklahoma City possession, we see Paul know exactly what is coming and turn it into an easy mid range shot.
His defender, Goodwin, sets up near the ball screen to deny a path to the middle - the famous “no middle” posture.
Paul recognizes this along with Alex Len dropped deep into paint and dribbles into a comfortable jumper.
On this second quarter possession, we see another example of the growth of Reddish as a shooter.
Simply put, he did not move in the half court as a confident shooter earlier in the season, and perhaps understandably so. He wasn’t making shots.
This time around, he sees the Thunder defense load up towards the strong side of the floor and notices a free and clear left corner. He moves there with good pace, catches a timely pass from Huerter and knocks down the shot.
As Collins potentially continues to knock down perimeter shots, we may see more of this action.
Here, he operates in side pick and roll with Young. The Thunder are “icing” this action on this play which calls for Noel to place himself directly in between Young at the paint.
This allows for a simple pass above the three point break to Collins who is easily able to get a shot off before Noel can recover to him.
This play is a simple illustration as to why Gallinari is so difficult to defend.
After helping on the ball handler, Collins works to close out on Gallinari as a shooter after the ball is moved to him. He gets there in a reasonable amount of time and offers an acceptable contest. But the efficient shooting form and unusually high release point of the Thunder veteran renders the Collins effort to be of no consequence to the result of this play.
This is a fun look at, perhaps, the most impressive of Young’s 16 assists in the game.
He threads the needle to Huerter who is racing up the floor in transition and benefits from the pass in the form of his sixth dunk on the season.
Also, notice how the lack of foot speed from Gallinari, again, factors into this play.
Lastly, let’s take a look at a play from the second half that is encouraging. This reflects team growth.
The Thunder don’t get matched up here the way they would like. In this case, Hunter ends up with a bigger defender (Muscala) on him. Young recognizes this and advances the ball to the rookie in the right corner.
Hunter immediately recognizes why the ball has been pushed ahead to him and takes the slower, bigger defender off of the dribble for the easy score.
They Hawks have not demonstrated a lot of quick recognition, quick execution on offense this season. That’s something to keep an eye on as Atlanta faces the second half of the season.
After an off day (for travel) on Saturday, the Hawks will host a divisional match-up on Sunday evening. They will take on the Washington Wizards, who currently lead the season series 1-0, at 6:00 pm ET at State Farm Arena.