A team that has lost six games in a row and eight of their last nine often looks like a team that is losing any grasp of a plan that might help them find some success. And some of the recent winless stretch has looked that way at times for the Atlanta Hawks.
But, despite ultimately falling to the Denver Nuggets in a 105-96 loss, Atlanta showed some fight, especially in the second half, and made important corrections to give themselves a chance to stay close enough to have some sort of shot late in the game.
But they just couldn’t make shots.
After committing seven turnovers in the first half and allowing 36 points in the paint, Atlanta suffered just a single turnover in the final two quarters and limited Denver to half as many points in the lane. Evidence of more focused execution on both ends of the court.
But the Nuggets were +18 from the the three-point-line after the mid-point of the game while shooting 8-for-17 from the arc as compared to the Hawks converting just two makes on an equal number of attempts.
And that, really, was the game.
Atlanta, playing at altitude in the final game of a west coach road trip that feels like it was longer than just four games, couldn’t get shots to fall. They are not the first team to endure that outcome.
“We had some open looks,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan after the game. “We had them in scramble situations. But could not knock down shots. When it comes to the fourth quarter, there are timely possessions that you need to score. We didn’t and they did.”
“I though there was urgency tonight,” he continued. “The thing was we just couldn’t knock down shots.”
One adjustment made by McMillan in this game was to get John Collins time playing at center with a second unit that has been struggling offensively all season. It was a productive move.
In uncommon fashion, Atlanta actually made progress on the scoreboard while they had mostly reserve lineups on the floor.
Around the league more teams are playing smaller lineups when their starters go to the bench and configuring Collins to get time playing at center for those stretches could be helpful, especially offensively.
“I wanted to try to get John more minutes with a smaller group,” said McMillan when asked about the tactic. “Teams are playing much smaller and we can play him at the five with Gallo with that second group. So, I changed the rotation to give us that.”
Collins easily had a season high in field goal attempts, with 22, His previous high was 16. He converted 10-of-16 shots from inside the arc and had ample opportunity to attack the paint and the rim.
Perhaps the team found something to continue as they move forward despite the loss in this game.
The Hawks wing play, a strength during their late season run last year, was a struggle again. The combination of De’Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, and Cam Reddish managed 22 points on an ugly shooting performance. They were 9-for-32 from the field including make just 1-of-15 attempts from the three-point line.
To make matters worse, Danilo Gallinari struggled shooting the ball again.
One can see how much heavy lifting there was for Collins and Trae Young to do just to avoid a full on blow out.
They are going to get better play from their players at the shooting guard and small forward positions. The only direction that area of play can go from here is up.
But Hawks players appeared, understandably, frustrated, after the game.
“A team that underachieved,” answered Collins when asked what he saw in his group looking back at the road trip. “That definitely didn’t fulfill what we came on this trip to do. And that was just win games. Or at least go .500 on this trip.”
“We’ve got to go home and make up some ground,” declared McMillan. “It’s just as simple as that.”
The home team featured the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, who posted 22 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists while being his team’s offensive engine.
Denver continues to play without Jamal Murray as he continues to work a lengthy return from an ACL injury. The workload seems so huge for the Nuggets starting center in Murray’s absence. But he’s the MVP for a reason and that was clear for all to see in this contest.
Aaron Gordon used an outlier shooting performance to post 23 points to go along with four assists. He dealt with quite the workload himself as he drew the assignment of shadowing Young for a bulk of the game. He has become a valuable defensive player for Denver since joining the team after a trade at the deadline last season.
Jeff Green added 16 points for the winner on just nine shooting possessions. He’s a steady veteran whose presence in the front court allows Gordon to play the small forward position in games like this, which frees him up to defend the opposing team’s best guard.
For Atlanta, Young had 30 points, on 21 shooting possessions, and nine assists. He had numerous costly turnovers in the first half that led to easy points for the Nuggets but was otherwise him normal dynamic self.
Collins posted 26 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots. He was the only Hawks starter to post a positive plus-minus in the box score.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Clint Capela got off to a good offensive start:
Perhaps another piece of encouragement to take from the game. He led all Atlanta scorers with eight points in the opening frame.
His ability to help create shots at the rim when the opposing team throws max defensive pressure on Young is critical. He simply needs to convert at a higher percentage than he has so far this season.
Atlanta was unorganized getting back in transition on an early possession:
Even after a made basket a team must respect what Jokic can do as a ball handler and passer. This turned into an easy score for Denver.
Another easy basket for the Nuggets as Hunter loses track of Gordon on this cut to the rim from the weak side:
You just can’t have a defensive start like that, especially against a good team.
Capela’s early rim running and finishing was good to see.
As mentioned, Young had several costly turnovers early:
It’s easy to see how many defensive bodies end up in the paint as Young and Collins try to execute the pick and roll.
Young would make the adjustment and start hitting teammates spotting up in the corner as opposed to trying these passes in tight space.
Denver had to scramble quite a bit more on defense when Young moved the initiation of the pick and roll horizontally:
The side or “slot” pick and roll creates more confusion regarding defensive responsibilities.
Collins offered nice rim protection, also, when playing at the five with the second unit:
Collins works a pick-and-roll with Delon Wright in the second quarter:
This is actually impressive defense from Denver here. With rookie Bones Hyland in the weak side corner, on Gallinari, Will Barton recognizes the need to “tag” on Collins from the free throw line. He gets there in time but still can’t prevent the Collins bucket.
Here is a look at Young, once again, collapsing the entire Denver defense as he attacks with the dribble from the left corner:
He makes the right pass but Hunter can’t get the perimeter shot to fall.
Jokic is such a prolific passer that opposing defenders have to get up on him when he has the ball, even on the perimeter. Jokic counters with dribble penetration:
The way Atlanta typically defends this calls for a help defender to show up at the front of the restricted circle. Reddish seems to be in the position to be that help defender but freezes after taking a half step in the right direction.
The defensive execution got better in the second half for Atlanta:
Despite the Will Barton make, the help defenders are on on time and in the right spots.
Bogdanovic lets Barton get too much separation after the ball screen. But that’s always going to be a defensive limitation for him.
Here is Young using the slot pick and roll again to collapse the Nuggets defense:
And the skip pass to the left corner to Collins for the open three.
A miss (one of many) on a wide open three for Huerter:
A team can’t generate better shots than that.
Collins continued giving the second unit offense some punch in the second half:
Hawks run a beautiful after timeout (ATO) play as they try to maintain some contact with Denver:
They set up a back screen by Young to let him give the look like he’s going to get into some “Spain”-like action, but he cuts to the corner instead of the top of the key.
That’s leads to a “hammer” set up with Capela screening for Huerter on the weak side.
But Young takes the sure points on the lay up.
Then they come back with true “Spain” action:
Jokic has to drop to try to ready himself for the back screen from Huerter. That gives Young plenty of space for the floater.
From their the Nuggets just kept making shots and the Hawks kept missing except for the ones they were able to generate in the paint.
It’s a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals when Atlanta will face the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday. The game is scheduled to tip off at 6:00 PM ET.
The Bucks are off to a bit of a slow start on the season and will enter with a record of 6-7. Giannis Anentokounmpo did not play on Friday evening in Milwaukee’s loss to the Boston Celtics. His status for the game is unclear.