The Atlanta Hawks took the Brooklyn Nets to the brink on Wednesday evening before ultimately falling by a 132-128 margin in overtime. In the grand scheme, a performance at that level could be seen as a positive, particularly on the second night of a back-to-back set, but Atlanta also came within a bounce of the ball from escaping with what would have been a meaningful victory.
“Tough game. Tough loss. I thought our guys competed,” head coach Lloyd Pierce said in his opening statement postgame. “It’s a tough team, down the stretch. Trying to figure out how to guard some of their guys... You’ve got five shooters. Jeff Green hit probably the biggest three of the night as we’re trying to scramble. That’s playoff basketball. Needing a rebound down the stretch. Not turning it over. Keeping them out of transition in overtime. That’s a good test for our guys against a really good team, and a team that’s going to be there at the end at some point. It’s a good learning lesson for our guys to value every possession, and I thought we were there. We had a couple miscues that we’ll learn from.”
As Pierce notes, every possession was key in this particular match-up, with 21 lead changes, 15 ties and neither team leading by more than seven points at any stage in the 53-minute battle. That is especially true in crunch time, with the Hawks holding a 114-112 late in regulation, only to need a Cam Reddish layup in the final minute to force the extra frame.
From there, Brooklyn’s James Harden missed a contested step-back three, keeping the game knotted, and Atlanta had the opportunity for a lob with 0.3 seconds remaining. Though the design worked to a reasonable degree, the execution was lacking, and the two sides played five extra minutes.
In the overtime, the Nets took control, with Kyrie Irving scoring first and, after a mid-court turnover from the Hawks, Brooklyn produced a dunk to take a 120-116 advantage. Though Atlanta did a credible job in pre-switching actions to allow Trae Young to avoid mismatches, Brooklyn continued to put the pressure on offensively, deploying a virtually unguardable attack led by three elite scorers.
Reddish and John Collins combined for five points to help the Hawks cut the margin to 122-121 but, after a three-pointer from Jeff Green to give the Nets a four-point edge, Atlanta committed a costly turnover. That allowed Brooklyn to push the lead to six with fewer than three minutes remaining and placed the Hawks behind the eight-ball.
To their credit, Atlanta clawed back and, with 33 seconds, the home team did have a corner three-point attempt from De’Andre Hunter to tie the game. The shot went begging, however, and that was the Hawks’ final and best attempt to keep the game going. Brooklyn failed to score on what could have been the clinching possession but, after a long rebound caromed into their hands, the result was sealed.
Much of the attention post-game was paid to the fact that the Hawks deployed the same lineup — Young, Huerter, Reddish, Hunter and Collins — for the end of the fourth quarter and the entire overtime. Brooklyn’s approach was to use a “five-out” scheme featuring the three stars, another perimeter player (Joe Harris until he fouled out), and Green in the middle as the de facto center. As such, the Hawks may have wanted to shy away from their traditional two-big alignments, but Pierce also indicated post-game that fatigue was a concern, at least at the end of the fourth period.
“I think it’s growth,” Pierce said when prompted on the team’s effort on the second night of the back-to-back. “We’ve gotten to a point where I think we’re in pretty good shape. Using back-to-backs in this climate is good for us... We’re not practicing much. So we’ve gotten ourselves in shape through the games. I thought our guys were tremendous.”
“Clint (Capela) got tired late in that fourth quarter,” Pierce continued. “We had a great run with him out there. He was really fatigued because he’s defending nothing but a small lineup. We were able to bring John back, but I thought our guys have been tremendous with their effort and their energy. A back-to-back, I didn’t really think about that, and I don’t think any of those guys thought about it tonight.”
After a follow-up question on the lineup decision, Pierce recounted Capela’s situation, mentioning that Brooklyn’s perimeter-based attack was a factor.
“Clint was tired when we subbed him out,” Pierce said. “John was out for a stretch, and we had our four smalls.... We made a nice run with the group, and all of the action was playing through Clint on the offensive end. Just using him in the trail, and trying to get some movement and some pace. We kind of went back and forth, offense and defense. Both teams were scoring, but we got ourselves back in the game. He’s chasing Jeff Green and some of those other guys around, so by the time he got fatigued, we brought John back in. I think it was three or four minutes, and the next thing you know, we were in overtime.”
Ultimately, this is a bang-bang call and, because of the negative result for Atlanta, it isn’t a surprise to see some voice displeasure with the choice to leave Capela sidelined. The big man did play 65 minutes in two days — all while being listed as questionable on the injury report in advance of both contests — but Capela remains the team’s best rebounder and defensive anchor, as well as a quality finisher near the rim offensively.
The decision-making reflects the age-old question of whether a team should react to their opponent — in this case with Brooklyn’s small-ball approach — or whether the team should simply do what they do. Arguments exist on both sides, particularly given that Capela is one of the team’s five best players, but Brooklyn’s offensive firepower presents issues that few teams can generate. In addition, Capela’s strengths could also be mitigated when forced to defend a three-point shooter with regularity, and the Hawks held the Nets to just 1-of-7 from three-point range while deploying the smaller lineup.
Among the positive stories of the night was the play of Reddish, who emerged from something of a funk to make a sizable impact. The second-year wing missed four of the previous six contests with injury and, in the two games in which he took the floor, Reddish shot just 4-of-18 from the floor, falling to 36 percent shooting on the season.
On this night, however, Reddish scored 14 points in the first half and ended with 24 points (on 9-of-17 shooting) and six rebounds in 36 minutes off the bench.
“Cam was great,” Pierce said. “We needed what he brought tonight. A downhill attacking mentality. He hits the first three in the corner. I thought he played solid. I didn’t think he forced anything. I thought he had an ability to get by guys, and he did that.”
“Defensively, he’s always been a guy that we want to try and use on some of their elite players. (Durant) was his primary match-up. Just making him work. The only thing you gotta do is make him work, try and deny some of his catches, and make him work for everything.”
Confidence is often difficult to quantify, especially from the outside, but from the first time Reddish checked into Wednesday’s game, he was assertive and aggressive.
“He had that mojo, that swag, that Cam swag that we’re used to,” Collins said of his teammate. “He had it going tonight. That’s what we want to see. That’s what we hope he can bring every night, or he can get that feeling every night. He’s hard to stop, and he gives our team another dynamic.”
Reddish’s return was also key for the defense, even while acknowledging that the Hawks had all kinds of difficulty slowing Brooklyn’s attack. Each member of the Nets’ leading trio scored at least 26 points, with the team shooting 53 percent and generating 29 assists. Though it is virtually impossible to stop the Nets, the Hawks did fall short in an overall sense, allowing Brooklyn to score more than 1.3 points per possession in the 53-minute affair.
“It was tough before. It makes it a little tougher now with three high-caliber guys, high-caliber scorers on the team,” Collins said. “I feel like match up against them well but, at the end of the day, guarding them is a different story. Valiant effort but, like I always say, there’s stuff we’ve gotta clean up and kudos to them.”
Offensively, Atlanta was up to the task, taking full advantage of a questionable Brooklyn defense and keeping pace with arguably the best offensive team in the NBA on the other side of the floor. The Hawks shot 48 percent from the floor, 39 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free throw line, all while committing only 11 turnovers and generating 29 assists.
In addition to Reddish’s standout showing, Young fought through shooting struggles to the tune of 28 points and 14 assists, leaning heavily on 11-of-12 from the free throw line.
“I think we played really hard,” Young said. “I think, for us, we’ve played these guys three times now. Obviously they’re different, but we’ve played them really close. I think that’s the best thing for us. We were in the game in every one of them. A lot of people think that they’re one of, if not the top team in the East. For us, just using that as kind of a measuring stick. Just coming out and playing hard and competing with them.”
Collins (21 points) and Hunter (21 points) both excelled at various moments, with Capela, Gallinari and Huerter also flashing at times. Six players scored in double figures and, on a night in which defending the opposition was at the forefront of everyone’s mind, the Hawks did an excellent job in producing efficient and effective offense.
In some ways, Wednesday’s game was a return to the preseason expectations of some, as Atlanta scored almost at will against a quality opponent but also failed to generate defensive stops. While much has changed since then, headlined by the Hawks producing at a top-10 level defensively, this was also an entertaining and impressive performance and, as Collins put it, a “valiant effort” for Atlanta, even if it did not end in a victory.
The Hawks will return to the floor on Friday evening in the nation’s capital, as Atlanta takes on a division rival in the Washington Wizards.