The Atlanta Hawks are back to a .500 record after taking a home loss on Friday evening to the Brooklyn Nets by a score of 113-105.
It was a tight game the whole way until Brooklyn ramped up their defensive execution in the fourth quarter, in part by putting Kevin Durant on Trae Young, and the Hawks started turning the ball over and stopped making shots.
Atlanta took a 91-89 lead into the fourth quarter but managed just six made fields goals on 22 attempts, while turning the ball over five times in the final frame. They scored but three points in the final 3:35 of the game, eventually finding themselves down multiple possessions with little time to recover.
And recover they did not.
Brooklyn boasts the best record in the Eastern Conference and has one of the single best players in the league and a bonafide MVP candidate in Durant. Of course, they also have James Harden, a former MVP in his own right.
Harden isn’t having an MVP season by any stretch, but he’s still an incredibly difficult cover, especially when he’s sharing the court with Durant.
The Nets, though, are winning games these days with their defensive play, which is exactly what happened in Friday’s contest.
“Their switching defense gave us problems,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan when asked about his team’s fourth quarter play. “Basically, that’s what they do. They’re one of the top defensive teams. They force you into an isolation game. And we knew that.”
“I thought we were doing a good job the first three quarters attacking their switches,” he continued. “But the fourth quarter, we just started to stand. I thought we settled in that fourth quarter really in the second half against their switches. That’s something we have to do a better job playing against. We are going to see that. The better teams can switch one through five and force you into isolation basketball.”
McMillan added, “You can’t turn the ball over against a good team like this. You can’t give them extra attempts. Those were killers.”
“We had turnovers in big moments,” said Kevin Huerter, echoing McMillan’s remarks. “I had two in a row that you can’t have in the fourth quarter. It’s something we obviously have to clean up.”
In post game comments Young also pointed the finger at himself in terms of needing to clean up turnovers, especially late in the game.
In addition to the key contributions from Durant and Harden, Brooklyn got important production at the center position. LaMarcus Aldridge played significant minutes during the first three quarters and helped keep the offense clicking. The Nets then turned to Nic Claxton in the second half who had a significant impact, especially on the defensive end.
Aldridge had 15 points through three quarters of play and then didn’t see the floor in the fourth quarter. Claxton played exclusively in the second half.
Brooklyn closed the game with Claxton at center and James Johnson at power forward, which seemed to present their most effective and switchable lineup on defense.
Rookie Cam Thomas was also a part of the closing lineup for the visitors and was individually +14 in box score in the fourth quarter despite not scoring.
Durant led the winners in scoring with 31 points while adding six assists, five rebounds, and three blocks. Harden posted 20 points and 11 assists while turning the ball over six times.
In reserve play, Bruce Brown 15 point and five rebounds while Thomas had 11 points and six rebounds.
For Atlanta, Young matched Durant’s scoring output with 31 points to go along with 10 assists. He committed seven turnovers with five of them coming in the second half.
John Collins had 20 points, on 15 shooting possessions. while adding six rebounds and three assists.
The Hawks got an efficient shooting performance from Huerter who had 19 points on just 11 shooting possessions. Capela had 14 points, 16 rebounds, and two blocked shots and two steals.
In summary, Atlanta played even basketball with the team with the best record in the conference until the fourth quarter where they were outscored 24-14.
Let take a look at some of the action.
The Hawks first offensive possession results in an open corner three for Huerter, but it provides a look at what Brooklyn was prioritizing on defense:
They “tag” Caplea both at the nail and at the rim, which frees Aldridge to step directly into the path of Young.
An early possession by the Nets demonstrates the challenge of defending Harden and Durant:
Capela and Huerter appear to be “icing” the side pick and roll. But it seems Capela is expecting a third defender to help on the baseline side as he works back toward Aldridge.
The conundrum? That help defender would be Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot, who is matched on Durant. Should he abandon Durant to help on Harden here?
Atlanta catches Harden matched up on Collins and attacks him in the pick and roll immediately:
Who knows what Harden is thinking here? He doesn’t drop, then sort of blitzes Young near the nail. The result, despite the clear defensive principles is an easy lob to Collins for the score.
The Hawks were working to load the paint defensively on an Durant post touches:
Even with Huerter on the attack, Aldridge drops right into the path of the ball handler and relies on help from teammates on Capela:
Huerter continues to excel in the mid range.
Mills gets a block from behind on Huerter which leads to a transition opportunity:
Brooklyn outscored Atlanta 16-7 in fast break points in the game.
Hawks, of recent, are increasingly starting to use this “pistol” set up to create perimeter shots for Gallinari:
Instead of Lou Williams lifting fully to the dribble handoff (DHO) with Collins, he exits toward the paint to get a bit of a seal screen on Gallinari’s defender.
Brooklyn deploys a switch scheme coming out of a timeout:
Young is able to get past the bigger defender and force the attention of a second defender, which frees Gallinari for another three-point attempt.
On the last possession of the first half Young is able to find Huerter freed up on the wing for an open look from three:
The Nets start freeing Aldridge for shots from the elbow:
Hawks begin to initiate possession with Young off ball:
The ‘pistol” action sets him up for space to make the floater.
Harden and Durant miscommunicate on a potential switch:
Huerter takes advantage with the open three.
Atlanta makes a business decision to start helping off of Brown, a 32% shooter from three-point range this season:
Seems you one has to live with those results.
With Claxton on the floor at this point, Brooklyn fully commits to switching on defense:
Gallinari gets the mismatch on this possession and gets the bucket.
Down six points the turnovers start to show up:
Young pulls Durant to near mid court to provide space for Huerter to work. But he’s not able to find a way to get past Harden and badly misjudges a pass intended for Capela.
Young often wants to attack with a step back after drawing a big man via a defensive switch:
However, out of a timeout the team is probably looking for something better than that.
Later Young gets past Claxton for the lay up to pull the game to a one-point margin:
This was probably the ugliest moment and the point after which it was next to impossible for Atlanta to recover mentally in the game:
From there, perhaps Young starts trying to do too much himself:
Brooklyn would seal the game from there.
The Hawks will host the Houston Rockets at State Farm Arena on Monday. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 PM ET.