The NBA season is full of ups and downs for every organization except for, maybe, the very best team(s) in the league. And while fans of the Atlanta Hawks seem quite excited about their team — at least they did before the end of Atlanta’s match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday evening — it’s probably safe to say it would be premature to consider them in the running for the very best team in the association.
The Hawks picked up a very nice win in Friday night in Brooklyn over Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Nets basketball team. They traveled home for a match-up with Cleveland on a dreaded second night of a back-to-back.
Expectations aren’t too lofty for the Cavaliers this season. It’s probably fair to say that they are about where they were for Atlanta the last couple of seasons. But, apart from the teams with the very best talent, we really don’t yet know how good these teams are.
As such, it’s hard, for me at least, to try to characterize the Hawks eventual 96-91 loss to Cleveland as being terribly bad. There is no doubt that a good number of fans disagree with me. And that’s OK.
Let’s put this into some context. Atlanta came in with the top-rated offense in the league. And they scored an entire 35 points in the second half. The Cavaliers brought back mostly the same roster they had last season when they were dead last in defensive rating.
That might be the very definition of the word anomaly.
This was this year’s best (on a small sample size) against last year’s worst defense.
The Hawks entered the game leading the league in free throw attempts and shot just twice from the foul line in the second half.
It’s true that Atlanta missed a decent number of shots that they probably normally make — a John Collins dunk in crunch time being at the top of that list. Still, the offensive formula that they put to work with great success in their first five games just eluded them in this contest.
It’s probably fair to call this a game that the Hawks should have won, even if they played without key players — Rajon Rondo and Danilo Gallinari missed this game due to respective injuries — intended to provided critical depth for games like this. But they were coming off of likely the team’s biggest win in the Trae Young era and, I think it’s safe to say, the team was running on fumes physically and emotionally.
“Stay together. We mentality. Stay together,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce shared when asked what he wanted his team to learn from the loss. “We need everybody. We need everybody to bring it. And we need everybody to support each other. It’s really that.”
“When you’re on a back-to-back, you’re going to assume that some guys may be tired,” he continued. “It’s no excuse but it’s just a reality.”
The Hawks took a 12-point lead into the halftime break and looked like a team that would maintain control as the game progressed. But Pierce expressed not being satisfied with the performance in the first half despite the margin.
“In the first half, we weren’t competitive tonight,” he said. “We got off to a good start. I think some of the shots went down. But we didn’t have the same competitive drive.”
“And you could feel it,” Pierce continued. “I thought we should have been up 20 at the half. For them to be down (12) was really our inability to push. And that was just kind of a lack of competition that we needed in a game like this.”
Down the stretch, especially when they had a hard time making shots and maybe even more so when they couldn’t get defensive stops they desperately needed they looked like a team that has made their harder job harder than it needed to be.
Starting center Clint Capela kept it simple in his post game comments.
“We had control of this game,” he said. “We just lost control of it.”
Let’s get it over and take a look at how this one slipped away in the final minutes.
With fewer than five minutes remaining, it was anyone’s game. As the Hawks offensive struggles continued, Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton settled into a comfortable rhythm of his own.
He works a side pick and roll and finds a sweet spot in the Hawks defense for a jumper to put Cleveland up by three points:
A few possession later, Huerter misses a fairly comfortable look and rolls his ankle on his landing:
He would leave the game and not return.
Huerter’s loss was unfortunate as he had made a couple of big shots earlier in the quarter when the Hawks were needing any points they could get. Bogdan Bogdanovic would replace him on the floor.
This play captures the frustrating and futile attempts Young had in trying to create offense late in the game:
He creates space for what looks like an easy lob to Capela but leaves it short. Then, he gets the ricochet and misses a put back of sorts that he usually makes.
Later, Bogdanovic gets hit with a rare five-second back down violation while he and Capela were unable to work out who should be where:
On the previous defensive possession, Capela created a steal and turnover and was beating his counterpart, Andre Drummond, down the court. Bogdanovic didn’t show much interest in pushing the ball in transition.
Then, at the least opportune time, down three points with fewer than 90 seconds to play, Young got caught not getting the ball across half court quickly enough and had an eight second violation.
.”In the same game you get a five second backdown and a half court violation,” Pierce said of the self-inflicted mishaps. “We didn’t really have any mojo. Those are two plays where we are just playing slow and doing things that are uncharacteristic. I don’t know if that was fatigue. We were just out of sorts.”
But the game was still very much in reach.
In the final minutes, the Hawks are down three points and go, as they did often in this game, to De’Andre Hunter in the post against a Cleveland guard.
He makes a nice skip pass to Bogdanovic who hits the three-point attempt to tie the game:
On the subsequent possession, Atlanta held up well defensively and forced the Cavaliers to find a shot as the final ticks of the 24-second shot clock are expiring.
Bogdanovic, ideally, would be all over Sexton here knowing his man is going to have to urgently create a shot, but puts up but a modest contest:
Cleveland goes up by three as a result.
After a timeout, the Hawks decide to attack for a quick two as opposed to working for a three-pointer to potentially tie the game.
Young works inside in short order and delivers the ball to Collins diving toward the rim. And Collins misses the dunk:
And that possession just about captures the futility of the Hawks second half offense. What are the odds that perhaps the most prolific dunker in the league misses that at this point of a close game?
Cleveland controlled the game from there, making five of six free throw attempts to secure the win.
The Hawks fall to 4-2, a fine start on the young season but it feels a bit unsatisfying because of how they lost this one.
In the good news column, there was the play of Capela and Hunter.
After missing the first two games of the season, Capela returned as the Hawks starter at center. He will be needed especially in match ups like this one in which the opposing team throws big, athletic fives at you in Andre Drummond and Javale McGee.
Capela also looked a little lacking in the game shape department in his first two games. He was solid in the basic areas but seemed to be struggling switching ends of the court. And he wasn’t doing the rim running that we are accustomed to seeing him do.
In this back-to-back, he logged 60 total minutes of play and after posting 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in the win over Brooklyn on Friday he managed 16 points, 16 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots.
Atlanta struggled to defend the paint and the defensive glass while he was off the court in this contest.
“He’s getting better every game,” his head coach said of his performance. “We’re seeing his activity, eight offensive rebounds. It was just pure effort.”
An example of Capela’s work on the offensive glass:
A glimpse of his defensive effort and his willingness and ability to sprint in the open court:
Always tough when it happens in a close loss, the Hawks struggled at the free throw line. They made just ten of their 19 attempts. Capela missed on each of his five tries.
When he was acquired, it was well understood that Capela is not even a league average free throw shooter, but they need better from him than that.
Hunter led all Atlanta scorers with 17 points on 14 shooting possessions. He worked frequently in the post and made good use of it.
For the second game in a row, he made plays when his team needed them. Opposing teams seem to be willing to let him function as a creator, an understandable strategy given Young’s presence on the roster. And, to put it simply, Hunter is scoring well at all three levels.
If you let him, he will confidently dribble into a three-point attempt:
He’s made four of his seven off-the-dribble attempts from the arc this season after connecting on just eight of 43 last year.
It’s a small sample size, five games and all, but the confidence is noteworthy.
You know the confidence of a young shooter is present when his hands go up when the opposing defense doesn’t get matched up and he’s unaccounted for:
He also continues to attack close out defenders with his dribble and an ability to use his length at the rim:
Elsewhere in the Hawks stat book, Collins had 10 points, connecting on just three of his ten field goal attempts. He was solid on the defensive end again but looked like a shooter and leaper that didn’t have his normal, reliable legs.
Reddish struggled offensively in this one. His play on that end has been up and down this season (he’s still very young). He managed just two points and had one of the uglier turnovers in the fourth quarter.
On the second unit, Huerter had 13 points and ten rebounds while Bogdanovic had 11 points and two assists.
The really missed Huerter’s presence as a secondary creator in crunch time.
It was a bit surprising that Bruno Fernando played just more than ten minutes considering the number of physical bigs that the Cavaliers roll out throughout the game. But he struggled to match the physicality of his counterparts.
In their first five games, Atlanta’s second unit nearly matched the starters in producing in a reliable way. On this night, they just couldn’t string successful offensive possessions together in the third quarter when the Cavaliers mounted a come back and went on to make it competitive the rest of the way.
On the Cleveland side, Sexton was dynamic and put up a game best 27 points on 20 shooting possessions. He also had three assists and three steals. By all appearances, he’s blossoming into a challenging player to defend.
McGee had as much to do with the trajectory of this game in the second half as any player. He had 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes of play. He was a game best +13 when he was on the court. All Pierce could do with his roster was try to get Capela back on the floor without playing him a dangerous number of minutes.
“We’re not going to pout about losing to Cleveland,” Pierce stated when asked about the ugly loss following the win over Brooklyn. “We’re going to take a day off and come back ready to go.”
“We’ve got a game on Monday,” he continued. “And that’s just how the flow is. It wasn’t celebrating Brooklyn last night and it won’t be too angry about Cleveland tonight. It’s a long season. You’ve got to continually get better. You learn some things in a game like this and you learn some things in a game like last night. But you don’t hang your (head). You’ve got to keep moving forward. We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ve said that from start to finish.”
The Hawks will presumably play another game in which they will be favored to win when they host the New York Knicks on Monday at State Farm Arena. The game tips at 7:30 pm ET.
During play in Saturday’s game, it was announced that Gallinari would miss at least two more weeks with his injured ankle. The status of other key players may not be known until Monday, but stay tuned here for updates.