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Hawks unable to maintain lead in narrow loss to Suns

Atlanta Hawks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks’ play had been up and down across a ten game stretch to open the 2021-2022 NBA season. As they have headed into a tough four game road stretch they would need to play more consistently good basketball to get a few wins before returning home.

The play on both ends was improved but Atlanta was unable to hold on to a lead across the fourth quarter as the Phoenix Suns mounted a late comeback to secure a 121-117 victory.

It was a tail of two quarters. The Hawks dominated the third quarter by a score of 40-27 as Trae Young amassed a robust 14 points and six assists, while playing the entire 12 minutes. But Atlanta couldn’t get the offense back on track in the final period even after Young returned. The Suns outscored the Hawks 35-19 in the final frame to work their way to a four-point win.

There was officiating drama as the Suns seemed to benefit from a series of non-calls down the stretch. The most egregious being Chris Paul’s “defense” on De’Andre Hunter on this possession:

Pretty rough. Even more damaging when this was followed by a technical foul being assessed to Young for arguing as to presumably stick up for his teammate.

But the Hawks made mistake after mistake as the game went down the stretch. So, there is plenty to improve upon before even considering what might have been if an call or two would have gone their way.

Head coach Nate McMillan used two timeouts in the final minute to set up for a a sequence of key offensive possessions. And in both cases, Cam Reddish was on the floor as opposed to either Danilo Gallinari or Kevin Huerter.

They were still up a point with less than a minute to play after missing three shots on a single possession. On the subsequent defensive possession they lost track of Frank Kaminsky who cut down the lane and caught a pass that set him up for a completely uncontested dunk.

On the next offensive possession Young missed a three-point attempt that would have given Atlanta a two-point lead. Young looked to be trying to take a foul to stop a Suns runs out opportunity. Otherwise only two Hawks players got back in transition defense and Phoenix got another easy bucket to go up three points.

From there Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a three-point attempt on the next possession and the Hawks had to play the foul game in hopes of getting another shot, which never came to fruition.

The outcome of the game was undoubtedly frustrating for Hawks fans. But Atlanta played better basketball than they have of recent for the majority of the game. They had more ball movement and consistently generated good shots on the offensive end.

“Overall, we played a really good game,” said Bogdanovic in postgame comments. “We were more aggressive. We were more locked in what we want, how we want to play. We were faster and more decisive as a team. I think from this point we can only play better.”

Defensively, they were switching with less frequency, which allowed Clint Capela to remain anchored to the interior on more possessions which allowed the Hawks to stay more connected. The bigger defensive issues in this game were on the trips that followed turnovers which led to transition opportunities for Phoenix.

The Suns are an excellent team and the Hawks represented themselves solidly in half court defense.

Another silver lining was the shooting performance of Young. He converted four of his nine attempts from the arc and got quality looks from two-point range across the game.

McMillan will still be looking for a way, it seems, to help his team perform better when the reserves are on the court. In this game Young and John Collins played the entire third quarter which allowed them to avoid digging a hole heading to the final period.

But the reserves were unable to extend the lead and the offense ultimately came to a rough stretch again. The lead had slimmed from 12 to seven by the time Young re-entered the game. But the Suns, playing at home, were gaining control.

Delon Wright was out of the rotation for the third straight game as Lou Williams once again got the back up minutes as the point guard spot. Something to keep an eye on especially if Williams continues to struggle.

“We just lost our poise,” said McMillan when asked about the final minutes of the game. “The fourth quarter we talk about the three C’s. Being calm. Being clear about what you need to do. And being connected. And we just lost our poise.”

“We started to rush,” he continued. “We got caught up in the officiating again. That became a distraction. Basically, you are not clear about what you need to do out there. It was just poor execution I think on both ends of the floor that fourth quarter. And these are things we know we have to improve on. Finishing games.”

Collins echoed some of the comments made by his head coach. “It comes down to our late game execution,” he said. “We have to take care of the ball. We have to take the best shots possible. We have to put ourselves in the best possible position, possession to possession, to win. And that’s really it.”

So mixed news in this one. There was better overall play but poor execution when it mattered most.

In the stat book, Young led all Atlanta scorers with 31 points, on 27 shooting possessions. He also had 13 assists. After controlling the third quarter he tried to wrestle things back from Paul in the final period but just couldn’t quite pull it off.

Collins continued his excellent play with 26 points and 10 rebounds. He closed the game at center and put a ton of pressure on the Suns defense in the process.

Young’s backcourt mate, Bogdanovic had 18 points and 7 rebounds but had his struggles defensively. The duo of Paul and Devin Booker are as tough as it gets for any opposing set of guards.

Before being pulled down the stretch Capela posted nine points and 13 boards. In reserve play Gallinari and Reddish each added 10 points. Huerter contributed an efficient seven points and six rebounds.

For the winners, Booker led all scorers with a whopping 38 points on just 25 shooting possessions. He added six rebounds and four assists.

The veteran Paul had 16 points and 13 assists and was a robust +26 in the box score. Jae Crowder added 15 points and eight rebounds.

Let’s take a look at some of the action.

Booker set up in the left corner all game while the Suns worked to put either Young or Bogdanovic, or both, into the pick and roll as to stress the rest of the Hawks defense:

Hunter has to venture all the way to the rim to help on Kaminsky rolling through the paint, which opens the shot opportunity for Booker.

It was as if Phoenix knew what was coming on every Hawks after timeout (ATO) play:

The Hawks are trying to sync high pick and roll action with Young and Collins with exit action for Bogdanovic facilitated by Capela.

The Suns threw it all out of rhythm but Atlanta still managed three points on the Bogdanovic shot from the corner.

In recent days, Young had been expressing an interest in playing faster. This possession offers a look at some execution in this area:

The difficulty Phoenix had in keeping Collins off of the rim early in the game presumably led to the decision to play him at center down the stretch later in the game.

Huerter continues to have success creating a shot with a dribble, especially when getting to the middle off of a ball screen and working through the nail:

Gallinari gets a shot to go from half court to give the Hawks a lead at the end of the first quarter:

Huerter also continues to demonstrate growth attacking close outs:

Phoenix continuously worked to attack the defense of Gallinari:

Gallinari and Reddish aren’t connected on this play. Either Gallinari has to track Kaminsky to the rim or Reddish, as “low man” has to tag him.

Once more:

Reddish gets to the rim in better shape this time but they still can’t prevent the score.

This possession offers an excellent look at how the ball movement and pace picked up in the third quarter:

They get the exit action synced up this time for Bogdanovic and eventually work him free for the open three.

Young starts getting into the gaps of the Suns defense at will:

This one leads to an easy bucket for Capela.

Young really starts getting loose in the offensive half court:

Fun basketball.

Young executes some perfect two-for-one basketball. Part one:

He sinks a three with 33 seconds on the game clock and should get a shot coming back.

Part two:

Hawks are in good shape at this point.

As the fourth quarter progress, the Hawks are finding just enough offense to keep a lead:

Another easy bucket for Collins and the three-point play with the converted free throw.

Booker ties the game with a couple of minutes to play:

Young can’t get an important shot to fall:

And somehow Collins can’t get a foul call as he works for the rebound!

And the Suns put the game away from there.

Up Next

Atlanta will head to the bay area to face a red hot Golden State Warriors team on Monday evening. The game is scheduled to tip at 10:00 PM ET.