February basketball has arrived and sometimes in the NBA that is not always the best news for lovers of the on-court product. A break (in the form of All-Star weekend) is around the corner and players could be forgiven if they look ahead a bit when the calendar is turned over from the month of January. And although it varies by player, team and situation, another noteworthy event is on the horizon that could serve as, possibly, an even bigger distraction. The league’s trade deadline is Thursday at 3:00 pm ET.
Regardless, an NBA game was scheduled to take place on Saturday evening between the Atlanta Hawks and the Dallas Mavericks. In the end, that’s what happened in American Airlines Arena... at least I think it counts as one.
The home team was playing without its two best players. Luka Doncic, who will make his first all-star game appearance in Chicago in a few weeks, and Kristaps Porzingis did not suit up. Doncic has an ankle injury that will keep him out of action for another week or two. Porzingis is being managed by the Mavericks athletic training and medical staff as he returns after missing all of least season with knee injury. Dallas was playing on the second night of back-to-back games and Porzingis was ruled out for the purpose of proactively managing the health of the knee.
The visitors were without the services of two of their rookies acquired in the 2019 NBA Draft. De’Andre Hunter did not play due to a left ankle sprain that occurred in Thursday’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Bruno Fernando missed his third straight game with a left calf strain.
The challenge became bigger as play progressed during the game on Saturday evening, as both Cam Reddish and Trae Young, separately, exited with injuries and were unable to return. That left Atlanta with an even shorter rotation than was planned coming into the game. That is not explicitly why they eventually fell in a 123-100 loss, but the roster played a part.
The Hawks struggled to get organized on defense from the start of the game. This issue may have been masked for the first several minutes of play as Atlanta used a hot offensive start (mostly in the form of Kevin Huerter shot making) to jump out to a lead. With that said, Atlanta’s issues getting organized eventually lead to a 36-point opening quarter for Dallas.
From there, the Mavericks maintained a double-digit lead for most of the rest of the game. Each time the Hawks threatened to get the game back to a single digit margin, it seemed that Dallas would create and knock down open shots from beyond the three point line.
The Mavericks weren’t running anything special on offense. They consistently moved the basketball and took advantage of defensive breakdowns by their opponent. They also were just hot from the perimeter, making a barrage of three-pointers, but that can’t just be chalked up to luck when a team is playing sound fundamental basketball to create those shots.
Dallas converted a whopping 20 of their 39 attempts from the arc. They are one of the better shooting teams (ninth in three-point percentage, second in three-point makes per game) in the league, so as much as that may look like an aberration, a team has to prepare to chase their shooters off of the three point line.
In unusual fashion, the Hawks ended up with the edge in points in the paint, second-chance points (where Dallas ranks second best in the league) and fast break points. So, the shooting performance from the Mavericks does, mathematically, explain most of the scoring delta in this game.
But, again, the Mavericks were the team playing on the second of consecutive nights.
When it comes to getting lineups to perform when they are made up of players filling roles they are unaccustomed to or groups of players not used to sharing the court together, continuity matters. Of the players that, respectively, made up each team’s nine man rotation in this game, Dallas had six players that were on the team prior to this season while the Hawks had just four.
As is usually the case, though, excuses are not allowed.
“I thought we weren’t mentally tough tonight,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the game. “We had a lot of mental lapses defensively in the first half. I thought we were impatient offensively in the first half.”
“Then the physical stuff started,” he continued. “Cam (Reddish) gets knocked. Trae (Young) gets hurt. And, we are already down bodies. But, we just weren’t mentally tough to start the game. A team playing on a back-to-back, second night. They played a lot of fresh guys… guys that got an opportunity to play more. They were spirited. They moved the basketball well.”
“We weren’t mentally prepared to take advantage of a team in those opportunities because we’ve seen that happen to us on the other end,” Pierce said in conclusion.
“I definitely is (frustrating), but that’s the point of the season that we are in. Everybody doesn’t have a healthy team,” said Kevin Huerter in post-game comments. “It’s really no excuse on our end.”
Atlanta was using its familiar high pick and roll action for most of the first half in an attempt to create offense. And the action is what allowed the tom stay within a somewhat reasonable distance.
But, after a mini-run of sorts for the Hawks offense, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had his team begin to defend the action aggressively by blitzing Young at the point of attack and committing help defenders to defend the rim.
It was a calculated decision of sorts. They left Atlanta shooters open at the three point line while being firm in the choice (by way of solid execution) that Young and the Hawks big men would not be allowed to generate offensive production. A 10 for 33 performance by the visiting team at the three point line seemed to seal the outcome of the game.
John Collins posted 26 points and 11 rebounds, five on the offensive glass. He had 20 or more field goal attempts for just he fourth time this season (a mark he hit six times last year). He converted 11 of the 20 in the game including knocking down one of this two attempts from the arc.
Using just 12 shooting possessions, Kevin Huerter generated 20 points (ore more) for the fourth time this season. He was six of ten on three point attempts (tying a career-high for makes) and one of two inside the three point line. He also had three assists.
In just more than 26 minutes of play, Young had 12 points and just one assist.
Damian Jones, a member of the starting lineup, had eight points and 12 rebounds. In reserve play, Brandon Goodwin had 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Vince Carter, playing his last game in front of a home Mavericks crowd, had ten points and five rebounds, Jeff Teague had six points and eight assists.
Jalen Brunson, a second round pick in the 2018 draft, stepped in to man the point guard position in the absence of Doncic for the Mavericks, He had a season high 27 points to go along with eight assists.
Dorian Finney-Smith had a career high 22 points to go along with seven rebounds, four assists and two steals. Maxi Kleber knocked down a number of timely shots from the three point line for Dallas. He finished with 18 points, ten rebounds and four blocked shots.
Playing on the Dallas second unit, Seth Curry had 15 points and Justin Jackson had 10 points.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
As noted, Huerter helped Atlanta get off to a quick start. On an early possession, Collins helps free him up for a shot attempt by creating traffic in quasi-transition for the Dallas defenders.
Huerter subtly dribbles left to right as Collins forces a hesitation from Brunson. It’s all the room the second-year shooter needs.
To start the game for some reason, in the half court, Mavericks defenders were going under screens for Huerter. That’s not the best idea.
On this possession, Huerter knocks down another three point attempt in a play designed during a timeout (after timeout or ATO).
The Hawks use pistol-like action which produces two screens for Huerter as he lifts in dribble hand off (DHO) action.
Dallas is switching on this play in an effort to scrap the Atlanta ATO. Note that a primary goal of switching is to avoid having to go over or under ball screens. Former Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr gets caught on the second screen (from Collins). The second screen is the key to making the pistol-like action successful as it is here.
This play is representative of the Hawks’ struggles to get organized on defense. Delon Wright is working with Kleber in the pick and roll.
Jones in communicating with Goodwin that he needs to account for Kleber as a shooter. As you can see, it doesn’t happen and Kleber benefits with a wide open look from the three point line.
If correctly executed, this is what that coverage should have looked like.
Jones and Teague, in this example, successfully execute the play which initially produces a missed shot attempt.
But Atlanta’s inability to secure a rebound allows Seth Curry a shot of his own from the three point line.
This play depicts why Carlisle would eventually go away from this type of pick and roll coverage to outright blitzing Young.
Kleber “shows” on the ball screen but is unable to recover back to Jones before the ball can be delivered by Young on what would end up being his only assist of the game.
This also highlights a couple of other things. Despite his value as a perimeter shooter and a rim protector, Kleber is playing fewer than 25 minutes per game. He simply lacks the mobility to execute some of the basic pick and roll coverages used in the league.
Also, Dallas traded for Willie Cauley-Stein because (despite offensive limitations) he has all of the defensive mobility one could want in a big man.
The Dallas defensive adjustment can be seen here. With Cauley-Stein in the game, they opt to trap Young. When Collins rolls toward the rim Finney-Smith pull in from the weak side corner to cut him off.
Carter is not able to knock down the open look from the perimeter.
This is one more example of the adjusted coverage. This time, Teague gets the open look when Brunson helps on Collins. Another miss.
It is interesting that Atlanta never tried having Collins operate in “short roll” action (receiving a short slip pass Young and then attacking four-on-three with a dribble). It seems inevitable they will have to explore that in time unless they eventually stock roster full of knock down shooters.
Dallas did not have to worry about such a decision when Young was not on the court. The Hawks were able to put Kleber back into pick and roll action as a result.
Here, Huerter gets a switch on to Kleber and subsequently knocks down a three point attempt.
Atlanta will host the Boston Celtics on Monday evening (7:30 PM ET) at State Farm Arena. The active roster each team will bring into the game is fluid at this point and could remain so up until game time.
Kemba Walker is expected to miss the game for Boston. The status of Young, Hunter, Reddish, Bembry and Fernando will be updated here at Peachtree Hoops as information becomes available.