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Hawks shine offensively, succumb defensively in road loss to Magic

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Though Sunday evening’s result was a positive one for the Atlanta Hawks, the team was forced to exert additional energy to hold off the New York Knicks in a double-overtime victory. With four starters forced to play 48 minutes or more, things didn’t exactly align for an optimal situation for Atlanta on Monday evening, as the Hawks took on the Orlando Magic on the road with tip-off less than 24 hours after the final buzz at State Farm Arena on Sunday. To their credit, the Hawks performed admirably for much of the night against the Magic but, in the end, the team let go of the rope in the fourth quarter on the way to a 135-126 defeat.

“We’ve had some poor back-to-backs on the year. It’s been really an Achilles heel for us,” said Lloyd Pierce, via Fox Sports Southeast. “After playing a double-overtime game last night and really fighting and scrapping and a lot of guys playing heavy minutes, I thought our guys came out and competed tonight, which was encouraging. There was nothing we could do. We didn’t have enough pressure on their passers and their shooters got hot tonight. That’s tough. We try to preach Seattle pressure — that’s the term we use — and try and make them do something else. Terrence Ross gets going and Fournier gets going and Vucevic gets going. Credit to those guys, because I know they’ve been struggling to really put some points up, and they got going in that third and fourth quarter, coming out of halftime, and just really shot the ball extremely well.”

With the loss, the Hawks fall to 1-9 on the second night of a back-to-back set this season but, on the offensive side of the ball, Atlanta was actually tremendous against an Orlando defense that is usually quite stout. The Magic did operate without Jonathan Isaac and, in short, the talented big man has given the Hawks fits in the last couple of seasons. Still, Atlanta’s offensive numbers were nothing to sneeze at.

The Hawks finished the evening with a 53 percent shooting clip from the floor and a 43 percent mark from three-point range. Those stellar numbers, coupled with 16 of 17 at the free throw line, allowed Atlanta to post a 66 percent true shooting. From there, the Hawks moved the ball effectively, compiling 33 assists, and the visitors managed to avoid turnovers, issuing only 12 giveaways in the 48-minute battle. All told, the Hawks posted a 125.9 offensive rating and, against an Orlando team that has issues on the offensive side of the floor, that figure projected to be more than enough to secure a win.

In the end, though, defense was the issue for the Hawks in the final three quarters of action. For the full game, the Magic converted 53 percent of their field goal attempts and buried 47 percent from three-point distance. Those numbers include a slow start, though, with Orlando ratcheting things up in the final 36 minutes, shooting 57 percent from the floor and an unbelievable 18 of 33 from three-point range.

Intuitively, one might assume that a tired Hawks team simply wouldn’t have presented resistance but, in the mind of Pierce, energy wasn’t the issue.

“I didn’t think it was energy,” Pierce said. “They hit some tough shots. They put us in some scramble situations…. Again, we didn’t have enough pressure on the ball and we fell asleep on a couple of them. They hit some contested shots. Like anything in this sport, a guy hits a shot, the basket seems a little bit bigger. Now they’re running ATO’s for him and he’s coming out looking for it. I think they hit four or five straight threes. That’s just pure confidence after that point.”

In addition to Orlando’s scalding-hot shooting, the Magic gave the Hawks fits on the offensive glass. Atlanta’s defensive rebounding has been an issue throughout the season but, against the likes of Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, the Hawks mounted little resistance. In fact, the Magic rebounded 34.1 percent of their own misses — generating 14 offensive rebounds — and that out-paced Atlanta’s ability to balance the possession battle.

Ultimately, the Hawks likely played better defensively than the numbers indicate and, well, that is sometimes the story of the NBA. Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have all enjoyed success Atlanta in the recent past, and the calvary arrived to buoy Orlando to a 79-point output after halftime.

Even on a night in which the Hawks nearly lost by double-figures (and narrowly failed to cover the spread), there were plenty of bright spots. As noted above, the team-wide offensive production was tremendous and the usual suspects were quite productive.

Trae Young scored 29 points and dished out nine assists, using his uncanny ability to generate free throws as the impetus to maintain efficiency. John Collins, who has struggled against the Magic in his career, broke out of that with 22 points and eight rebounds in his own right.

Still, it was Atlanta’s bench that did the majority of the damage and that was a stark change from much of the 2019-20 season. Jeff Teague enjoyed a strong outing, producing eight points and 11 assists in 16 minutes of action, Vince Carter converted a trio of three-pointers, and Cam Reddish returned from a four-game absence with stellar defensive contributions and a badly-needed outburst of 11 points in the third quarter.

Perhaps the biggest key was Dewayne Dedmon, with the veteran center fitting right in after a (brief) hiatus in Sacramento. The big man finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots and a game-best +22 in 28 minutes of action, already providing exactly what the Hawks wanted him to bring to the table upon arrival

“Our team has been energized by Dewayne,” Pierce said. “There’s no doubt about it. And that’s important. With a bunch of young guys, having that type of energy, that type of communication, that type of commitment on the floor where he’s helping guys and he’s trying to communicate with them and be in the right spots. It’s contagious, like I said, and that’s what he’s brought in just the two games he’s played with us.”

Monday night’s roster represented an uptick for the Hawks when compared to the recent past, headlined by Reddish’s return. Still, Atlanta isn’t quite fully formed as they await Clint Capela, Skal Labissiere and even the return of DeAndre’ Bembry to provide wing depth. In addition, there are parts of the rotation — namely the team’s starting center on Monday — that need to be excised in an optimal scenario, and that reality appears to be quickly approaching. In the end, though, there was no great shame in what became a nine-point defeat, especially given the circumstances.

As a reminder, the rest of the 2019-20 campaign should be viewed through a future-facing lens, simply because the Hawks now boast a 15-40 record on the campaign. Through that prism, there were plenty of positives to focus on against Orlando, with a legitimately entertaining brand of offense, real contributions from key young pieces and a well-documented infusion of leadership and effective play from Dedmon.

Stay tuned.