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Defense sinks Hawks in home loss to Nuggets

Atlanta just couldn’t generate stops.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks entered Monday evening’s match-up against the Denver Nuggets on a positive trajectory. On Saturday night, the Hawks picked up their second win in three games with a strong overall performance against the Indiana Pacers and, with John Collins and Cam Reddish set to return from injury-related absences, there was reason for tangible optimism in advance of the season series finale against the Nuggets. In the end, however, the Hawks failed to stop the Nuggets on a consistent basis and the end result was a 123-115 defeat.

At the outset, the Hawks were firing on all cylinders offensively, especially in the case of Trae Young. The star lead guard scored 11 points in the first quarter, burying a trio of three-pointers and Young helped to keep the offensive alive in a big way.

The “moment” of the first quarter also emanated from Young, who found Alex Len on a nutmeg pass that deservedly made the national rounds.

Still, the Hawks led by only two points after 12 minutes as a result of shaky defense. Nikola Jokic exploded for 18 first-quarter points and, in general, Atlanta struggled mightily to get stops.

That trend continued in the second quarter, as the Nuggets used an 18-6 opening run to take a 10-point lead. While defense was clearly a problem during that stretch, the offense also gave out, scoring only three points in a five-minute period, and that put the Hawks behind the eight-ball for the remainder of the half.

Atlanta did engineer a response, though, using a 13-4 run to climb within just a one-point margin.

At the half, however, the Hawks trailed by an eight-point margin and Atlanta let go of the rope a bit in the final minutes. Atlanta posted an unsightly 128 defensive rating and, despite the work of a quality overall offense (including 26 three-point attempts hoisted in efficient fashion), the Hawks faced an uphill battle as the second half began.

The early portion of the third quarter was ugly on both ends, but the officiating made an unfortunate appearance with a foul call against Collins. Already operating with three fouls, Collins was matched up against Jokic and got called for his fourth. Lloyd Pierce swiftly challenged the play, but he was unsuccessful and Collins was forced to the bench.

Fortunately, the Hawks had a run coming from Kevin Huerter, who knocked down three consecutive three-point attempts to cut a nine-point margin down to two.

The rest of the third quarter was largely an officiating-based slog.

“Tough fight by our guys,” Pierce said after the game. “I thought our guys competed. The fourth quarter execution was a little tough down the stretch. It’s tough. Jokic is a good player, but it’s tough when you don’t get a call. I thought our guys were banging and battling just as much as he was, and we were on the other end of the whistle on all of them. It’s hard to tell our guys what to do.”

Pierce earned a technical foul for his (rightful) complaints but, after the Hawks responded from an 8-2 run by Denver to cut the margin to just five as the fourth quarter arrived, Atlanta was still in a decent position.

At the outset of the fourth quarter, the Hawks went small with Collins at the center position and it was an effective maneuver. Atlanta cut into the lead and, when Young delivered a magnificent highlight, the Hawks were within two.

In fact, the home team had the ball down by one point but, after a series of unfortunate events, the Nuggets buried a three-pointer and Atlanta was forced to call timeout with a six-point deficit at 6:54 to play. The Hawks wouldn’t go quietly, though, with the defense (finally) generating three consecutive stops and Young knocking down a deep three to slash the margin to 108-106 with 4:24 to go.

The closing minutes were less kind to the Hawks, with the team’s inability to create defensive stops popping up at a suboptimal time. Denver scored on seven (yes, seven) consecutive possessions in crunch time and, even with reasonable offense from Atlanta, the recipe for a victory didn’t materialize.

“I think our guys are doing a great job competing,” Pierce said when prompted about defensive hiccups. “There are going to be lapses. We were 18-for-39 (from three). They had lapses. There are going to be lapses in every NBA game. You can’t come out of a 123-115 game and there aren’t lapses. That’s just the nature of it. Just trying to keep the game on the court was the biggest issue. I thought our guys were really competing and fighting. We got beat on a couple of back cuts. We had them in some trouble situations late in the shot clock. They got some second-chance points. Those are the things you want a team to do; play late into the shot clock and take tough shots. We gave up a couple of those at the wrong time.”

Young finished the night with 29 points and 12 assists in 40 minutes of play, with Huerter adding 22 points and tying his career high with six three-pointers. Collins (17 points) and Hunter (16 points) also contributed positive offensive performances.

“I thought we were great offensively,” Pierce said. “It was good to see Kevin (Huerter), Trae (Young) and De’Andre (Hunter) really balance it out. 18 for 39 from three. John (Collins) in the pick and roll. We had the looks we wanted. We knew what we were doing offensively.”

Atlanta did allow Denver to shoot 51 percent from the floor and the Nuggets’ 20 second-chance points also proved pivotal. The visitors posted a full-game offensive rating of 127.6, Will Barton scored 28 points in a supporting role, and Jokic posted a new career-high with 47 points.

Even still, there was an ere of consternation surrounding the way the game was officiated and how it affected Atlanta’s defense, both through foul trouble and schematic adjustments.

“Just trying to get a stop down the stretch and trying to get a whistle down the stretch was hard for us tonight,” Pierce said. “You guys know I don’t say that much, but that was bothersome to really just try and figure out how to guard and be physical without being on the bad end of it every single time. And it was literally every single time.”

Five observations

  1. The trio of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins performed well when deployed together and, given the infrequency of the trio being available this season, that was an unquestioned positive. “It’s nice have all of our guys,” Pierce said. “It’s pretty much that simple. What are we at now, 85 total minutes with John, Kevin and Trae on the floor together for the year?” Young was both explosive and efficient, Collins was productive amid difficult circumstances and Huerter put together one of his best offensive showings of the season.
  2. In general, the Hawks did a reasonable job on the offensive glass. Atlanta gathered 81 percent of the available defensive rebounds and, when compared to the league-wide baseline, that is a strong figure. When the Hawks did allow second-chance opportunities, though, the results were devastating. Denver shot 9 of 12 in those situations, producing 20 points and generally breaking the back of the defense.
  3. Atlanta’s rotation was both interesting and noteworthy. Pierce deployed 12 players in rotational fashion, with each appearing in both halves. It is possible that Damian Jones (6:26 of playing time) may not have featured without foul issues for the team’s other big men, but Brandon Goodwin provided physicality in his brief minutes and the bench was pushed throughout the game.
  4. The conclusion of the game did show some of Atlanta’s warts. Denver’s flourish of seven buckets in seven possessions was the most glaring stretch of the game but, in the same breath, the Hawks were simply unable to generate consistent stops. Pierce’s officiating qualms were well-founded in that the Hawks simply had no other answer for what seemed to be a favorable whistle for Jokic and the Nuggets. “Jokic is definitely a very skilled player. I feel like he got to the line a lot tonight, which kind of gave him a little bit of a boost,” said Collins. “I still feel like down the stretch, in the fourth quarter, we did a solid job on him and just tried to make him get tough shots. Like I said, we did the best we could.” With that said, Denver did whatever it wanted to do in crunch time (and held a 58-34 advantage in points in the paint), with that stint serving as a reminder that the Hawks have a long way to go when playing against a quality team in a pressure situation defensively.
  5. It is brutal to see the Hawks lose a game in which they converted 18 of 39 from three-point range. Denver is the superior team in this match-up but, considering Atlanta scored at a rate of 119.3 points per 100 possessions (an elite figure), landing on the negative end of the scoreboard is particularly unfortunate. Still, the Nuggets entered the game as a top-12 defense in the NBA on a per-possession basis, and the Hawks were quite effective on the offensive end.

The Hawks will return to the floor on Wednesday with a home game against the Houston Rockets.

Stay tuned.