It’s a tough stretch in a weird season for the Atlanta Hawks, but losing is hard on everyone.
The Hawks faced one of the best defensive teams in the league on Friday night and came up on the losing end in Utah. On Saturday evening, Atlanta faced a schedule disadvantage, as they would be playing on the second night of a road back-to-back. However, they would be matching up with the one of the worst defensive squads in the league and one that lost their starting center to injury earlier in the week.
So, despite recent shooting woes, maybe there was reason for optimism that the visitors could produce enough points to have a shot at a much needed win. That premise seemed possible after the Hawks posted 66 points in the first half. But, on tired legs and playing short-handed again, they seemed to run out of steam in the final two quarters en route to a 112-106 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
After a promising start, Atlanta has now lost six of their last seven games. They have what would appear to be a manageable week of action coming up and seem poised to have an opportunity to get back on track. But to do so, they will need their best player to figure his way out of what is probably the worst offensive funk he’s experienced since the early stages of his rookie season.
Trae Young was coming off of a four-point performance in Utah on Friday evening, and he was back to a reasonably productive level of play, in general, in this contest. The All-Star guard scored 26 points, generated 11 assists and grabbed seven rebounds, but a good majority of that came in the first half (17 points, eight assists).
As the game went into the final possessions, the Hawks, naturally, looked to Young to create offense. Time and time again, however, he couldn’t consistently get important shots to fall.
Some fans are likely to want to generate blame on the Atlanta coaching staff again, but what are coaches to do when their teams shoots 1-of-15 from the three-point line in the second half on the second night of a road back-to-back? Especially when their team played with good effort throughout the game and even fought hard to get it back to a one-possession game in the final minute?
For a team that has been missing, perhaps, their two best shooters in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and that has shot at an 11 for 58 mark from the arc the last few games, what’s the solution?
“Just hit on the points that are important,” Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the game when asked about how to talk to his team after games such as these. “I’m encouraged by our ability to play high-level basketball on a second night. To be on the road, as we’ve been, and to come on here and to play against a team with high-level scorers. They had a great shooting group on the floor in the second half. They were able to climb back in with some timely and big threes. But I’m encouraged by our guys, I think we have an ability to play high-level basketball against anyone.”
“But in order to get over the top we’ve got to execute better.” he continued. “We’ve got to be able to manage the game better. We did some good things defensively to climb back into it. I thought we had some opportunities offensively and we turned it over two or three times. And we just didn’t get the quality shots that we needed, and the ball movement that we needed down the stretch.”
The Hawks have now reached seven games that have included minutes that meet clutch criteria per NBA.com/stats and they are shooting just 17.6% from the three point line in those minutes. Additionally, they are shooting a league worst 33.3% on field goal attempts.
It’s a bit wild to think they are at this point with their play late in close games considering how they closed games earlier this season against Memphis (10-point win) and Detroit (eight-point win). In both of those games they looked like the team with the best player on the court when it mattered most.
Young is now a cumulative -23 (box plus-minus) in 24 clutch minutes of play with a mark of 0 for six from the three-point line.
It has to get better. Regardless of the criticism that can sometimes come his way it’s not really doubted that Young is one of the very best offensive players in the league even at age 22. He has a famously strong work ethic and plays with an aggressive mentality.
He has more responsibility this year than he’s ever had and it could be that he is still adjusting to that.
“A couple of turnovers late I think just really hurt us,” said Young about the team’s second half play. “I put a lot of that on me, just late in the game taking care of the ball.”
“There were a lot of possessions there where they were kind of giving me lanes and I was looking to find an open shooter,” he further commented. “And that was just bad reads for me. I just have to be more aggressive if they’re going to give me lanes like that.”
Portland has a gaping hole in the middle of their defense, as starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a broken wrist earlier this week. The Hawks went to work early on Portland’s areas of weakness. They generated a good volume of shots at the rim early in the game and amassed 36 points in the paint by halftime.
Clint Capela was on a trajectory for a potential career game by the half, having produced 17 points and eight rebounds. With that said, Portland used sheer effort and defensive activity to basically cut that in half in the final two periods. They found a way to force Atlanta, as they fatigued down the stretch, to generate shots away from the paint and it worked out well for the home team.
The Hawks managed just 20 points in both the third and fourth quarters, 15 of which came at the free throw line. In the second half, Atlanta made just 12 field goals and committed 10 turnovers, a ratio that no team is looking to generate.
The Hawks had to make another change to the starting lineup after Cam Reddish was scratched not long before the team took the floor. Kevin Huerter stepped into the starting lineup for the first time this season.
Huerter has been playing very effectively on Atlanta’s second unit this season, but the Hawks would miss the ability of Reddish to defend at the point of attack in a game where they needed to be prepared to deal with both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
McCollum would not play in the second half after leaving the game with a foot injury. Lillard would play the entire second half and largely control the game for Portland down the stretch.
Let’s take a look at the final minute of the game as the Hawks were able to force it back to a one-possession contest.
Young is able to draw out a mismatch on Portland center Enes Kanter. He is able to work near the baseline in isolation and makes a pretty tough runner to make it a two-point game.
On the subsequent possession, John Collins hangs tough on Lillard and eventually gets some help from De’Andre Hunter as to contain him. They force a pass to Carmelo Anthony, who is defended by Young.
Anthony has to put up a tough mid-range shot that he misses after getting away with a push off on Young (check the NBA last-two-minute report on Sunday).
Young then gets into transition only to launch an errant three-point attempt. Surely this is one he’d like to have back as to make a different decision with the ball.
Kevin Huerter salvages the possession by battling Derrick Jones Jr for the rebound which goes out of bounds off of Jones.
After an officials review the plays stands.
You could never convince me that Lillard wasn’t still sliding leftward when the contact with Young occurs. But it’s a close play, and the review always leans to the call on the floor.
From there, Lillard make each of four free throw attempts to secure the win for Portland.
“They said he wasn’t moving,” Pierce responded when asked after the game what he heard from the officials on the court about the call. “They said he was out of the restricted area. It wasn’t a challenge. They were able to review it. They confirmed to me that he was out of the restricted area and that the defender wasn’t moving.”
In the stat book, Capela ended up with a 25-point, 15-rebound performance. Hunter had 15 points and six rebounds while Collins had just eight points and six rebounds.
It was a bit surprising that Brandon Goodwin wasn’t used, even if briefly, in the fourth quarter where he played just seven seconds of a final defensive possession where Atlanta needed to force a turnover. He had nine points and two steals and was reasonably effective defending Lillard while the starters were off of the court resting.
If you blinked, in the late hours the game was played, you may have missed him, but Trent huge for his team in the fourth quarter. While Lillard wasn’t really looking to create his own shots, Trent had 10 points on seven shooting possessions. He ended up leading all bench scorers in the game with 18 points.
Kanter managed 12 points and 15 rebounds. But it was his four of five blocked shots that came in the second half that restored order for Portland’s interior defense that made the biggest impact.
Lillard did the heavy lifting for Portland and had 36 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. He is widely considered a legitimate superstar in the league for a reason, which was on full display in this game.
Let’s take a look at some more of the action from this one.
Young was able to get a couple of his trademarked floaters to fall in the game, including this one:
On both of his makes, he was able to navigate a straight-line drive, which looks more like his attempts last season.
Caplea was active early running the floor and getting prime position in front of the rim:
Portland really had no solution for him in the first half.
As seen on this possession, Atlanta was “hard hedging” if not outright doubling Lillard and McCollum ball screens (from the beginning of the game):
Here, they are able to force a missed shot from Jones, but Kanter is starting to make an impact on the offensive glass.
As an adjustment, Lillard, being the smart, resourceful player that he is, starts jumping the defensive scheme and splitting the defense before the screen even arrives:
He is able to generate a bucket and an attempt at a three-point play on this possession. He used this technique off and on throughout the game to keep the Atlanta defense on its toes.
McCollum starts doing the same thing:
He gets the shot to fall here but unfortunately is stepped on by Capela. This is the injury that would force McCollum to miss the second half.
This Huerter make from the right corner generated some optimism that it might a different night for the Hawks shooting the ball from the perimeter:
But it wasn’t to be.
In the category of silver linings, Young and Capela appear to be continuing to build an increasing amount of chemistry in the pick-and-roll:
More silver linings here as Snell makes a three-pointer for a second consecutive game:
The Hawks need all the shooting they can get right now.
The battle between Collins and Anthony was a (mostly) fun game-within-the-game to watch throughout this contest:
Collins once again did well in the post and in face-up opportunities but might just need more touches as Capela gets a good number of the reps he normally got in past seasons in the pick-and-roll.
On this possession, the end zone view offers a look at the first half issues Portland had in defending the Hawks pick-and-roll that they were able to clean up in the second half:
On this play, Lillard would typically be expected to come to the paint to help on Capela.
As you can see, Lillard communicating with Trent in the opposite corner the Blazers were wanting to pull help from the “low man” on the side of the court that had two shooters instead of one... which would have called for Trent to help at the rim here.
And this is a look at a possession in the second half where the help at the restricted circle comes from the side of the floor with the two shooters instead of one:
It’s noticeable how much more defensive traffic there was in the paint here.
From this point, it got harder for the Hawks to produce points in the paint, and they couldn’t get their perimeter shots to fall.
“It’s the nature of the sport,” Pierce said after the game about the shooting woes. “It’s not lack of court time, we’ve gotten an opportunity to be in the gym and we’ve gotten shots from guys that we want shooting the basketball. Trae, Solo (Hill) and Kevin (Huerter) have been shooting it well. De’Andre (Hunter) has been shooting it well all year. We’ve just got to get these guys going again.”
Martin Luther King Jr Day is a special day in Atlanta and is uniquely celebrated when the Hawks get to host a home game. Things will surely look a little different this year, but the Hawks are scheduled to host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday at 2:30 pm ET at State Farm Arena.