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Hawks search for rhythm, continuity in preseason opening loss to Magic

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks finally played a real NBA basketball game for the first time in 275 days when they kicked off the 2020-21 preseason against the Orlando Magic Friday evening. As expected going into any season, but especially with an extended nine-month layoff, Atlanta was quite rusty in the loss.

Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, Tony Snell and Onyeka Okongwu did not suit up for the Hawks Friday evening, as they are all nursing some sort of injury heading into the season. None of these injuries seem overly serious, perhaps the team just airing on the side of caution in the cases of Rondo and Dunn, while we have known about Okongwu’s injury since he was drafted last month.

Orlando was missing Mo Bamba, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jonathon Issac and James Ennis III.

Shooting just 37% overall and 31% from behind the arc, shot-making wasn’t a bright spot last night as several new Hawk additions tried to get comfortable in their new home gym. Defensively, there was also little to be desired at times as the Hawks allowed 31 points in the first quarter to a depleted Magic lineup, They would however rally to be tied 52-52 at the half after trailing 31-23 at the end of the first. The Hawks trailed 19-9 after an extremely slow start to the game, but managed to settle in and claw back by the break.

De’Andre Hunter paced all Atlanta scorers with 18 points (5-for-10 from the floor, 2-for-5 from three) in 26 minutes, while John Collins and Danilo Gallinari each added 14 points.

Clint Capela tallied eight points and 14 rebounds in just 20 minutes.

Said Lloyd Pierce of Capela and his presence inside, “We know what we have and we’re all excited to see that.”

Trae Young (2-for-9) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (3-for-10) both struggled from the floor across their ~20 minute preseason debuts.

Cam Reddish had 13 points, eight rebounds and three assists across his 22 minutes, showing flashes at both ends of the floor despite committing six turnovers as well.

Kevin Huerter had eight points and three assists across his 21 minutes, going 2-for-5 from three point range.

Brandon Goodwin and Bruno Fernando each played 17 minutes in their preseason debut, with newcomer Solomon Hill playing 15 minutes. Rookies Nathan Knight and Skylar Mays each played five minutes.

As to be expected in a preseason game, all 13 active guys saw the floor, with no one playing more than 26 minutes. Drawing actual takeaways from a preseason game should be done with a grain of salt, as any team with this many new additions over one offseason needs time to gel and grow together. Young played more of passive role, allowing others to attempt to find their rhythm as he took just nine shots and didn’t dominate the ball like he has for the most part so far in his career. It’s certainly likely his on-ball usage could drop on the improved roster this season, but making overzealous predictions at this stage would not be wise.

When the games start counting, we should still expect Young’s usual numbers and impact to be present. He’s still the unquestioned best player on the roster, and the show will run through him when he’s on the floor.

Another potential subplot was De’Andre Hunter drawing the start over Cam Reddish. Not to say this was a surprise, but many seemed to project Reddish as the starting 3 after it was announced Gallinari would be coming off of the bench behind Collins and Capela. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, for all we know Reddish draws the start on Sunday, but the only game in the last 276 days we have to go on featured De’Andre Hunter as the starting small forward. Do what you wish with that information.

Some positive takeaways despite the loss to an under-handed Orlando group that was missing several key contributors were the fact that Atlanta was +12 on the glass (+9 on the O-glass) and got to the free throw line 41 times, making 34 of those. On the negative side, Atlanta’s turnover problem from last season reared its head as the Hawks committed 23 turnovers. For now, we will chalk this up to rust but it could be something to monitor given the turnover issues that have plagued Atlanta over the past couple years. It’s hard to get too high or too low after an exhibition game where the best players on the team played half of the game or less, but obviously it would be beneficial for the Hawks to find some sort of groove offensively before heading to Chicago for their Dec. 23 season opener vs. the Bulls.

Defensively, Atlanta struggled to slow down the Magic starting lineup, with every starter besides Bogdanovic having a negative plus-minus.

Nikola Vucevic scored 18 points in 25 minutes for the Magic, continuing his always stellar play vs. Atlanta. Aaron Gordon tallied 12 points, six assists and three rebounds in his 16 minutes. Dwayne Bacon (6-for-9, 14 points) and Evan Fournier (5-for-9, 13 points) both had efficient shooting nights for head coach Steve Clifford and helped the Magic maintain a lead throughout most of the contest. Markelle Fultz was cooking at times as well, adding 10 points, four assists and three rebounds across 25 minutes.

Orlando struggled as a team from three (12-for-42, 28.6% from deep), but made up for it on the interior. The Magic had 26 assists compared to just 15 turnovers despite playing 15 different guys. They were the better team when the starters were on the floor, with all five of their starters having a positive +/-, and four of the starters being +11 or higher. Despite being without several rotation mainstays, Fultz, Gordon, Vucevic and Fournier bring over chemistry from last season, something Atlanta doesn’t have the luxury of doing with all of their recent transactions.

Overall, not much should be taken away from this one game, the first game for Atlanta in nine months. Rust was to be expected, with or without the plethora of new key players. Mixing in so many new guys on top of the layoff was a recipe to be out of sync, and Lloyd Pierce and his staff will be tasked with trying to get this team on the same page by Dec. 23. While that may be a tall task, they have three more games to play with lineups and see what works. After that, the games will obviously start counting and the expectations of winning will be present.

Atlanta and Orlando will be back in action from State Farm Arena Sunday evening at 5 PM ET for the second of four preseason games. Following this matchup, Atlanta will travel to Memphis for two exhibition games vs. the Grizzlies before opening the season in Chicago just 11 days from now. Stay tuned.