The Atlanta Hawks entered play on Saturday evening with a record of 0-7 when playing on the second night of back-to-back games. Their opponent, the Indiana Pacers, had a rest advantage with two games at home this week, the last being on Thursday evening, prior to traveling to Atlanta for the weekend contest.
Atlanta used an offensive explosion in the first quarter (43 points) to get a lead early in the game, but saw it dwindle to an almost even score by halftime. The game was in the balance in the final possessions, but the Hawks secured the eventual 116-111 victory with timely defensive stops and just enough late scoring to get the job done.
Both teams were playing without critical contributors and that should be noted. For the visitors, point guard Malcolm Brogdon missed his second consecutive and the fifth in the last six games. His absence would push second-year guard Aaron Holiday into a bigger role. John Collins was not available for the home squad due to a sore back injured in Friday’s loss in Boston.
The Hawks were further shorthanded at the power forward position, with Jabari Parker unable to play due to illness. On the wing, rookie Cam Reddish could not play due to a sprained right wrist.
Being short on normal rotation players does not usually set a team up to snatch a victory when the schedule calls for a loss based upon how the calendar unfolds. But, that’s what happened.
The Pacers’ opening lineup offers a unique challenge as they essentially start two centers, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Opposing teams have to prepare to face the big lineup from the beginning of the game and adjust as they eventually deploy more versatile, shooting heavy lineups.
To match that size, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce decided to start Damian Jones (who hadn’t started since an embarrassing loss to the Knicks on Dec. 17) and rookie big man Bruno Fernando together in the frontcourt. Basketball-Reference indicates that Jones and Fernando had played 99% and 85% of their respective minutes at the center position prior to Saturday’s game.
Alex Len, Atlanta’s most productive and effective center this season, would again come off of the bench. However, he would play critical minutes as part of the closing lineup for the Hawks in the closely contested tilt.
Despite having not yet reached the midpoint of the 2019-2020 NBA season, the two teams would face off for the third and final time. The Hawks were looking to avoid being swept in the season series.
Familiarity between teams, even in the regular season, can lead to strategic and schematic adjustments. Both were seen in this game and had an impact as to how things unfolded.
The Pacers, statistically, are a relatively average offensive team, but they make an opponent prepare for many different things they will see when facing them. They can, at times, be dominant on the offensive glass when playing their big lineup. They can set firm, physical screens in the half court on both the strong side and the weak side of any given offensive play.
When Sabonis or Turner sits, they can spread their opponent out and generate dribble penetration into the paint. Should the defense collapse to protect the rim, they are content to create favorable shots from the three point line. When the game reaches the closing stretch, they can play whichever style is serving them best at the moment.
The variety of lineups the Pacers deploy also allows them to use different schemes and principles on the defensive end of the court. They will be very aggressive defending at the point of attack with some units and sag towards the paint with others. They will look to create turnovers for stretches with the longer wing defenders but play a more conservative style of defense with their stronger, more physical defenders.
Second-year point guard Trae Young saw to it that the Pacers’ defensive scheme was almost irrelevant early in the game, as he was shooting the basketball in an almost unstoppable manner. He eclipsed his average (per game) scoring mark in the first half with 30 points, setting a new career high for any half of play. He made his first nine field goal attempts.
By way of halftime adjustments, Indiana was determined to force another Atlanta player to generate offensive production in the second half. Kevin Huerter scored 12 of his season high 26 points in the third quarter. He also had two critical assists early in the fourth quarter to keep the Atlanta offense on track while Young was resting in preparation for the closing stretch.
Young finished with 41 points, eight rebounds and two steals. Despite struggling from the field in the second half, he converted a lay up on an important possession late in the fourth quarter and made free throws when it mattered the most.
Len played nearly 19 minutes in the second half and was a constant in the closing lineup. He will never be mentioned in the same tier of big men in the league as Sabonis and Turner. In this game, though, he had the biggest impact, of the three, on the outcome. He finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots, two of which came on critical possessions in the final six minutes of the game.
The play of the rookie Fernando has been highly inconsistent this season, but there was really nowhere else for Pierce and staff to turn in the game considering how big Indiana can play. He had several nice stretches of play where his activity was constructive and helped his team. He finished with 10 points and three assists.
De’Andre Hunter was scoreless in the game for the first time this season and seemed to struggle with all of the different responsibilities and reads the match-up required of him. That wasn’t necessarily shocking considering that he, more than any other player, would be switching between positions (small forward and power forward) as the Pacers adjusted their lineups. He was in for a few defensive possessions late in the game, though, and was helpful in getting stops.
It was also a milestone night for Vince Carter. By way of appearing in this contest, he became the first NBA player to appear in games in four different decades. His team would need actual contributions from him down the stretch. As the Pacers got more aggressive in trapping Young in the second half, Carter was needed to help move the ball after it was forced out of the hands of the point guard. While his stat line was not impressive, he helped late in the close game as a trusted ball handler.
“As a young kid, it was just a goal to be here,” Carter reminisced after the game. “Once you get here, it’s a goal to stay here. Once I got older, it’s a goal to still stay here. These are different milestones for me that have nothing to do with scoring. There are a bunch of 40-year-olds who have played in this league, but I want to be a 40-year-old still contributing, still competing.”
“That’s legendary,” said Young regarding the milestone accomplishment of his veteran teammate. “I’m blessed to be able to share a locker room and have that veteran presence around me.”
“It’s something I don’t take for granted,” Young added. “It’s special for me to be able to play with him.”
Offensively for Indiana, a team that truly seems to not care who gets shots attempts and scoring opportunities, it was their normal outcome in terms of distribution.
In the first match-up between these two squads, all five Pacers’ starters scored in double figures. In their most recent match up, seven players posted ten points or more.
In this game, they had six players (including all starters) with at least a dozen points. Sabonis led them with 25 points. He also had seven of his teams’ 13 offensive rebounds and contributed four assists.
Reserve wing Doug McDermott was not able to have an impact on the game as a shooter, leading to Justin Holiday seeing an increased workload. The former Hawk used 30 minutes of action to post 18 points on just 10 shooting possessions.
Aaron Holiday had 17 points and six assists but struggled down the stretch. As the Pacers looked to force the ball out of the hands of Young, the Hawks were doing the opposite with the young Indiana point guard pressed into starting duty. Atlanta repeatedly forced Holiday into the heart of their defense looking to see if he could convert floaters or contested shots at the rim. He was 0 for 8 from the field and had three turnovers in the final period.
Neither team connected on a three point attempt in the fourth quarter, they were a combined 0 for 11. The Hawks are not known as a team that can get defensive stops on a regular basis but they were forcing the action that they wanted to get from Indiana consistently down the stretch, and it ended up being the difference in the game.
“Good, inspired basketball. I’m proud of our guys,” Pierce said about his team’s performance. “We were playing musical chairs with our lineup before the game with guys being out and I thought the guys came in and really played inspired basketball.”
“I thought our guys didn’t really worry about the score tonight,” Pierce added. “And I think there’s been times where you could feel the effect of momentum change. And when that momentum started to change, I don’t think our guys were affected by it.”
“I thought we did it on the defensive end,” he continued. “I thought we competed on the defensive end.”
After giving up 34 and 35 points respectively in the second and third quarters, the Hawks allowed just 16 Indiana points in the final 12 minutes of the game.
“We just closed the game out,” Young commented after the game. “We played smarter. We finished it. We executed at the end, and that’s what ultimately won us the game.”
Young’s lay up with 1:22 remaining in the game put the the Hawks up by four points making it a two possession game. Atlanta was able to use that leverage to finish the contest for the win.
The Hawks would not likely have had the opportunity to play from ahead late in the game if not for the contributions of Huerter in the third quarter and the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.
“I was just trying to stay aggressive,” said the Hawks second year wing. “I knew I had made a couple of shots. I was feeling pretty good. We ran a lot of sets for me. We were trying to get me going downhill and get the ball and that always helps.”
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Perhaps sensing the need to ensure Fernando was engaged early in the game, Atlanta ran its first offensive play for him. Anticipating aggressive coverage of Young pick and rolls, the play is designed for Huerter to create. Notice here that Turner plays drop coverage as Huerter handles the action. Young provides spacing as a shooter.
The Hawks use this play out of timeouts pretty regularly for Collins and Parker. The idea is to use the threat of the pick and roll to create space at the very front of the rim. Sabonis seems prepared for this, keeps Fernando out of the middle of the paint and forces a fairly low percentage shot.
The Hawks’ rookie is able to convert it to put his team on the board.
The duo are also instrumental in the second bucket for Atlanta.
Turner drops in coverage again as Huerter operates in the pick and roll. As Jones dives to the rim, instead of stepping to the corner (the most traditional action in this set) Fernando seals Sabonis inside the paint which creates a path to the basket for Huerter.
A fairly sophisticated things Pacers’ opponents have to be prepared to see is vastly different pick and roll coverages when Sabonis is the primary big man helping to defend at the point of attack versus when Turner is.
Here, we see Sabonis drop in his coverage as Young works off of the ball screen from Fernando.
In contrast, notice here that Turner is prepared to be at least be at the same level as the ball screen (when Young is initiating). The Pacers’ coverage calls for him to be much more involved at the point of attack versus the opposing teams’ primary creator, in this case Young.
Atlanta, as they did on this play, used multiple big men setting screens (throughout the game) high in the offensive half court in an attempt to create confusion for the defense.
Turner is expected to be present at the point of the ball screen as to impact the play. He gets lost, eventually, above the play as Young splits the two screens and steps into and makes a comfortable shot.
Pacers head coach Nate McMillan called a timeout after this possession in an attempt to get his defense organized.
On this play nearing the mid point of the first quarter, we see the familiar duo working again to create a play. It’s also an example of the downside that can come, at times, for the Pacers as a result of playing their two bigs together.
Before getting too far along into this play, notice how high on the floor Turner is helping on Young. An outlet pass to Huerter results in the three Indiana (traditional) perimeter defenders all involved on the strong side of the play.
Holiday races across the floor to challenge Fernando while Sabonis has to account for Len until Turner can recover back to him. Hunter smartly crosses over to the left side of the formation. He and Young (moving to the top of the key) bring Jeremy Lamb and TJ Warren with them.
Fernando deftly moves the ball via skip pass back to Huerter for the open three point attempt.
On this possession, once the Pacers treat Fernando as a shooter (as they do on instinct) they are committed to covering Atlanta’s three (actual) shooters with two perimeter defenders.
Of note, passing is Fernando’s best NBA skill at this point.
A bit later in the first quarter, we see something else Young (and Len) went to in an attempt to take advantage of the aggressiveness with which Indiana asks Turner to defend.
Notice how, seemingly on instinct, Turner prepares to step up and help on Young, despite their being no real threat of a ball screen. Len sprints to the basket before Turner can get himself going in the opposite direction.
Young delivers the no look pass to the Hawks’ big man for the easy score.
Warning: perhaps skip this next one if you don’t enjoy examples of when Young’s defensive effort is lacking.
Apart from the turnover, this may not look at that bad for Young on the surface. Lamb jumps the passing lane and then hits a sprinting Sabonis for the easy score.
At best, Young misses an opportunity here to help his team in transition defense. After the turnover Sabonis gets a head start on Jones exchanging ends of the court.
Jones, running reasonably hard and only needs Young to step into the path of Sabonis to, hopefully, break his stride in offering a chance to recover... but it doesn’t happen.
This, frankly, is an example of a reason that some are so hard on Young for his defensive play. His lack of size does not prevent him from stepping in and helping a teammate out on this possession.
This play offers yet another example as to how the Hawks used the aggressiveness of the Turner pick and roll coverage to an advantage.
Young moves the ball out of the trap to Carter who passes the ball to Len before Turner can recover to the rim. He tries to challenge the shot but Len already has comfortable position.
Brandon Goodwin made an impact again in reserve action. On this play, his hard work defending physically at the point of attack leads to a turnover.
Notice how hard he makes Holiday work to even receive the ball in dribble hand off (DHO) action. Also, how he refuses to allow Sabonis to set a screen after giving up the ball.
Many of the defensive concepts that Pierce coaches start with making ball handlers “feel” the defender(s). This is an excellent representation of that being put into action by Goodwin.
It leads to what would end up being a critical bucket for the Hawks. After this play, the score for the remainder of the more than 8 minutes of action would be just 11-10 in favor of the home team.
This is Len’s first block in crunch time.
Young initially defends in a manner that makes Holiday work to get the ball (looks a bit similar to the Goodwin play). Holiday has to make multiple efforts to get the ball in DHO action.
Atlanta wants Holiday to dribble into the middle and force a tough shot. It appears they don’t believe he can make the necessary reads and passes to create optimal shots for his team.
Turner, a 37% three point shooter, is by himself on on the perimeter, but Holiday drives right into Len and has his shot blocked.
This is Young’s critical bucket to make it a two possession game with less than 90 seconds to play. It may look as if Young simply beats Holiday here, but there is a lot more to this play to break down.
Notice how Len, defended by Turner, sets up in the strong side corner. A rule of thumb in the NBA is that you don’t help from the strong side corner. This takes the Pacers’ best rim protector out of the play.
Also, notice how Carter, defended by Sabonis, sets up above the three point break while Hunter settles in the corner. The keeps the other Indiana big man away from the rim.
Warren (and perhaps Sabonis) makes an error in judgement in setting up for this play. Notice the communication between he and Sabonis, there is no reason that the two don’t end up in the reverse positions here as defensive responsibilities dictate that the (eventual) help at the rim should come from the weak side corner.
However, this possession is taking place right in front of the Pacers’ bench. Visiting coaches almost always opt to have their defenses playing in the second half in front of their bench for the purpose of getting to vocally coach their teams through a possession such as this. So, it could be (maybe likely is) that this is how McMillan wanted his team set up for this play.
They might have felt that Warren gave them the best chance to help at the rim and get back onto the perimeter to chase a shooter off of the three point line.
After Young gets around Holiday, he scores despite Warren’s best effort to help at the rim.
After winning two of their last three games, the Hawks will be “rewarded” with two tough homes games this week.
The Denver Nuggets will arrive on Monday looking to avenge their November loss at home to Atlanta. From there, the Houston Rockets will come into State Farm Arena on Wednesday looking to complete a season sweep.