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Hawks show fight but miss opportunity to steal game in loss to Rockets

The Hawks made it a game but could not get over the hump.

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks wrapped up their three-game homestand on Wednesday night but could not wrap it up with a victory as they fell short in their efforts against the Houston Rockets (playing without Russell Westbrook, the Hawks without Jabari Parker and Bruno Fernando), 122-115.

Trae Young and James Harden made history as they became the first opponents to register a 40-point triple-double in the same game, Young scoring 42 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out 10 assists while Harden scored 41 points (including 22 in the first quarter), to go along with 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Let’s talk about this one, shall we?

Falling away, hanging around, coming back, missing opportunities

Heading into this game, there was no doubt as to who the favorite was and in the first half, it definitely threatened to be over before halftime as the Rockets ran away in a hurry.

The Hawks started this game well and had some highlight plays but that’s really all it was for the Hawks in the first quarter as the Rockets poured out 45 first quarter points, led by Harden’s 22 points, hitting 6-of-9 from the field in the full 12 minutes to go along with seven free throws and six assists.

Harden benefited from a number of matchups where he was guarded by Trae Young, and that’s just a matchup the Hawks can’t allow because it’s just suicide.

Here, the Hawks just allow Young to matchup on Harden, who does not have to work hard to free himself into a three-pointer:

After a stop, Young is faced with Harden coming back down the floor, and again Young is matched with Harden and the result is the same:

Look, the entire league struggles to guard James Harden but you can’t allow this to happen if you’re the Hawks because the result is as you see above — that was one reason why Harden and the Rockets scored as many points as they did in the first quarter.

A quick spurt to begin the second quarter for the Rockets put them up by as many as 23 points points and even toward the end of the half this game still was not looking fantastic, but the Hawks hit a number of threes inside the last to minutes (two from Allen Crabbe — one of those coming at the buzzer — and one from Brandon Goodwin) to cut the lead to 15 points at the half to give the Hawks some life heading into the third quarter.

“Yes. For sure (it was a big deal),” said Young of cutting the lead to 15 heading into the locker room. “They were beating us really bad, especially in transition. You could tell by the score it was getting out of hand early on. The way we finished out the half was good.”

The Hawks did indeed cut further into the lead in the third quarter, quickly cutting the lead to single digits and there was life to be had from the home team. An Allen Crabbe three-pointer — his third of the night — cut the once 23 point lead to just four points, leading to a Rockets timeout.

However, following that timeout came one of the most important stretches of the game as the Rockets responded with a 12-2 run to re-establish a double-digit lead heading into the fourth quarter.

James Harden gets the run started as he takes advantage of a favorable matchup with Brandon Goodwin — who had just checked in for Young — and Harden knocks down the three in the one-on-one matchup:

Again, James Harden creates havoc as he gets by Kevin Huerter, collapses the defense, finds Austin Rivers in the corner, Rivers finds Ben McLemore who hits the three:

Good rotation from the Hawks here defensively, the first from Brandon Goodwin and then Kevin Huerter on McLemore, but all of a sudden the Hawks are now trailing by 10 points again.

And there was no letup from the Rockets, as Eric Gordon takes advantage of a potentially illegal (moving) screen from P.J. Tucker to free Gordon from Goodwin for three:

After De’Andre Hunter got on the board for two points to break the 9-0 Rockets run, the Rockets struck again from beyond the arc as a bit of a broken play leads to decent ball movement from the Rockets and leads to another Ben McLemore three-pointer:

All of a sudden, a four point deficit was turned into a 14 point lead heading into the final period. It also probably wouldn’t surprise you that Young was on the bench during that 12-2 run (sitting the rest of the quarter after that Rockets timeout when Crabbe’s three cut the lead to four).

“I thought we dropped it in the end of the third quarter,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. “I think we go down 14, 13, 14. We were down three and climbed right back in and we outscored them 30-23 in the fourth so I don’t say we lost it in the fourth tonight. I thought we dug a hole at the end of the third.

“You’re playing guys heavy minutes and you’re trying to get good rotation,” Pierce continued. “You’re trying to keep fresh energy and fresh bodies. We’re trying to defend. I thought DeAndre’ Bembry only played eight minutes, and he had five fouls. But I think he really affected and impacted James with those fouls. And that’s part of how you rotate guys in and you keep fresh bodies and you’re physical. But it was the end of the third quarter that hurt us tonight.”

In saying that, the Hawks, again, rallied in the final quarter and, again, cut the lead to three points after a Brandon Goodwin floater with five minutes to go:

The Hawks had chances after this to further cut this lead.

Kevin Huerter, arguably, missed the worst of the bunch as he takes the ball in transition and, faced with James Harden, cannot convert the layup and doesn’t draw contact/free throws:

All Huerter needed to do was just lean into Harden, create that contact and he can get to the line and also put himself in a better position to convert this shot for a potential three-point play. Huerter had help arriving but I don’t have an issue with him taking this shot — he just didn’t maximize the opportunity.

The Hawks get another opportunity as Young runs the pick-and-roll with John Collins, gets inside but Young’s floater is short. Collins gets a couple of bites at the cherry on two offensive rebounds but cannot convert on either, and the Hawks’ chance to cut the lead to one/tie the game goes a-begging:

The first of Collins’ attempts is probably the one you look at more so than the second attempt...

After a Clint Capela layup was cancelled out by two free throws from Young, the Hawks, again, have a chance to cut the lead to one/tie with a three-pointer with under four minutes to play.

A missed Eric Gordon three returns possession to the Hawks, and this time Young finds Hunter in the corner who cannot hit the corner three:

At the end of that play, you can see Collins get caught up with P.J. Tucker and Collins is called for a loose-ball foul with the Rockets in the bonus. Now, there didn’t look like a ton from Collins (unless it’s on the rebound?) but with the Hawks only having one timeout remaining with over three minutes remaining, it puts a lot of pressure on the Hawks to get the coach’s challenge right — if they lose the challenge, they’re out of timeout with over three minutes to play. If the Hawks had an extra timeout, I think it’s possible Lloyd Pierce potentially uses his coach’s challenge, as a successful challenge would prevent Tucker from subsequently heading to the free throw line, where he knocks down both free throws to put the Rockets up by five points.

Huerter’s pull-up jumper reels the Hawks back within three but Eric Gordon replies immediately to put the Rockets up six points:

You can see Pierce at the end of that clip and he’s not overly pleased with what just happened — I think the rotation from Huerter was good because Hunter was done, Harden had shed him. John Collins was the one who showed a slight hesitation on his closeout and could’ve got himself a little close — though it was a good rotation from Collins — and I’d wager that was the aspect that was tough for Pierce.

In fact, this play (this three from Gordon) was referenced multiple times postgame. Here’s what Pierce had to say about it.

“...The biggest three was Eric Gordon’s late (in the clock/fourth quarter) ... it’s not an automatic, it’s a read,” Pierce said. “He’s into his move... We say ‘hit’ and ‘hit’ means ‘anybody but,’ ‘anybody but’ James is going to take that shot and so at the end of the shot clock you’re trying to say ‘anybody but’ James. You know it’s coming. Kevin makes the read, and at that point the clock is your extra defender. If we get Eric to put it on the floor, make an extra pass and there’s only three seconds left on the shot clock, we’ve done our job. On the closeout, we closed out short. We need to make him think, we need to run him off of the three-point line, we need to make him put it on the floor and maybe he thinks an extra pass and we get a shot clock violation.”

“At the end of the day, if James hits two of those threes at the end and he’s got the ball and he’s dancing, we’re all going to say ‘Why would you let James shoot?’ We want to send someone to get it out of the obvious and we have to make plays behind it.”

This basically confirms what I kind of eluded to above in that Collins was a little hesitant/short on his closeout of Gordon rather than Huerter’s defense of the play. Again, I think Huerter was absolutely in the right to do what he did — Hunter was done.

After that three, Young tries to reply immediately but when his shot falls short on the rim, you just felt that the game was almost over:

I’m not huge on hero-ball shots, and that’s what this is — there’s still time left for the Hawks on the game and a ton of time on the shot clock to work something. Instead, no one else touches the ball and Young hoists a 33 footer with 20 seconds on the shot clock:

Yes, Young has hit these shots in the past — that does not make it a good shot. Now, the justifiable aspect of it is that the Hawks are trailing by six points but there’s probably time to work something better than this.

And to wrap this game up, P.J. Tucker back-door cuts on Collins for the layup to put the Rockets up eight points with 1:29 remaining:

The Hawks played three good quarters — in fact, they won the final three quarters — but ultimately they had too much to overcome in a game they never led (and that’ll happen when you concede 45 points in the first quarter). They had chances to cut the lead to one/tie the game but these chances passed the Hawks by.

Their second half turnaround was certainly helped by the Rockets — and James Harden — really cooling off. Harden shot 3-of-25 from the field and 1-of-15 from three after his 22 point first quarter, while the Rockets shot 35.7% from the field from that point onwards (just further highlights that the Hawks were, arguably, the better team for a lot of this game).

This was one of the pleasing aspects for Pierce postgame.

“What do you say? Great effort for our guys to come back a couple times in the second half,” said Pierce in his opening statement. “First quarter, they shoot it well. James gets to the foul line at will and has a James Harden quarter. I think our guys from there did a really good job. Three for 20 something (after) that first quarter for James. Credit to our guys and adjusting the game plan and getting organized and just making it hard for him on that end.

“We missed a lot of opportunities in the first quarter with some open looks. Obviously, Cam missed a ton, but just in general, we had a lot of clean looks, open looks in that first quarter. It’s a high-scoring game both ways. We couldn’t keep up because we missed some of those opportunities. We outscore them in the second (quarter) and the second half.”

The Hawks’ loss in Houston earlier this season was one of the worst losses for the organization ever (losing by 58 points), so for the Hawks to take them down to the wire — and their improved defense of James Harden — shows growth to Pierce.

“I’m proud of our guys, I just think they’re competing. I really do,” continued Pierce. “I think they’re competing. I think De’Andre (Hunter) played 12 minutes in the fourth quarter. He did an outstanding job defending James. To come back from what he had to go through in Houston defending him, shows the growth we’re looking for with these young guys. Playing him (Harden) one time is going to be tough, how do you adjust the second time? Now you have a little bit of a game plan going into it the third and the fourth time. I think sometimes those things get overlooked.

“I think it’s the maturation process. Sometimes the second time is the one where you really learn. Sometimes you get burned the second time you go against a guy like that. It’s understanding, it’s having a game plan. I ask guys all the time, ‘What’s your game plan tonight in iso? How are you going to defend James’ and a lot of guys don’t have answers and I think we’re starting to figure out answers to some of the questions I’m trying to ask these guys going into it, when they play them the second and third times ... I thought our game plan from the first quarter on was really good and that’s why we were back in the game.”

This will be a game that the Hawks and the coaching staff can use to highlight their growth. ‘No moral victories’ is obviously something you hear tossed about the league but I think it’s true in this sense because the Hawks were so bad in Houston first time around that they can use this game to highlight. Now, part of that was down to the schedule but nonetheless, the Hawks played a much better game in Atlanta and were probably the better team for a majority of the night but the Rockets’ response to end the third quarter and the Hawks conceding 45 points in the first quarter...that’s going to be tough to overcome and, ultimately, the Hawks never did.

Rapid fire points

These are minor points/notes on the game that’ll come quick and fast...

  • Pierce referenced Cam Reddish and how he missed a lot of shots. More specifically, Reddish missed a lot of three-pointers, and even more specifically than that, corner threes. The Rockets were more than happy to let Reddish just fire away from the corner, refusing to rotate or even contest — none better summed up by this airball three in the corner:

Reddish finished with seven points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field and 1-if-om three in just 18 minutes. Now, I wouldn’t say Reddish had an awful game — defensively he was fun to watch to begin the game but the Rockets just did not care if Reddish shot a three-pointer... and the rookie showed them why.

  • Paul Watson was signed to a 10-day contract this week and last night he made his debut. However, Watson didn’t really get a chance to show his capabilities — scoreless on one shot in four minutes of play. As this became a closer game, it was going to be tougher to include Watson in the second half but hopefully we (collectively) get to see a little more Watson, just to see what’s there.
  • The Rockets basically ran a seven-man rotation in this game (Isaiah Hartenstein playing just four minutes), five of those scoring in double-digits. The Hawks only enjoyed four double-digit efforts, and for a the majority of this game it was just Young and Collins in double-digit scoring. Reddish’s shooting we’ve already talked about but De’Andre Hunter did not enjoy a good game offensively, shooting 2-of-8 from the field.
  • Young attempted 18 free throws in this game, one shy off of his career-high in attempts (attempting 19 in a matchup against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this season. There were plenty of Young-Harden comparisons in this game but Harden was not to be undone, attempting 23 free throws on the game.
  • Speaking of Young, he was obviously great offensively (even though the shooting percentages dipped in the fourth quarter to sub 40% from the field (3-of-11 in the fourth quarter) but what was as impressive to me was that Young only committed three turnovers on the night whilst having 10 assists on the game. Turnovers have been obviously a big issue this season for Young, and it’s encouraging when he has nights like this where turnovers are kept to a minimum. Harden had 8 turnovers on the game, but did sport a usage rate of 51% (part of that comes down to Houston’s rotation/Westbrook missing out) compared to Young’s 38% usage.

The Hawks (8-30) travel to Washington D.C. for their first meeting of the season against their division rivals, the Washington Wizards — a game that could literally go in any direction.

Should be fun.

Until next time...