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Hawks unable to survive Rockets’ fourth quarter ignition, suffer fifth straight home loss

A disastrous fourth quarter doomed the hosts on Monday night.

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks suffered their fifth straight loss at home at the hands of the rejuvenated Houston Rockets at State Farm Arena on Monday night, 132-126.

For the Hawks, Trae Young’s 41 points were not enough to carry the Hawks to victory, while John Collins added 14 points.

For the Rockets, their veterans brought them home in the fourth quarter as Eric Gordon led the way with a season-high 32 points while DJ Augustin added 22 points off of the bench.

Where to start with this one...

The Hawks entered the fourth quarter with a 13 point lead. Sure, they hadn’t played fantastic defensively (and the lead was, at one stage, 19 points) but they had scored 30 or more points in all three quarters up to that point and looked the team in relative control of proceedings. Even for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter they led by double-digits.

Then Augustin got hot.

Let’s just jump into it, let’s look at some of Houston’s 44 fourth quarter points (outscoring the Hawks 44-25 in the final period), how they took it to the Hawks down the stretch, and we’ll go from there,

Early in the fourth quarter — the Hawks still holding a double-digit lead — having just made a three, Augustin connects on his second three of the quarter as he hits the contested three on Clint Capela after the screen from Alperen Sengun on Collins:

Nothing massively out of the ordinary here: a good shot by Augustin.

However, the next three Augustin would hit — on the following Rockets possession after a missed three from Cam Reddish — does leave something to be desired. It’s a very simple play as Augustin gives it to David Nwaba, the screen at the top comes from Sengun, Nwaba gives it back to Augustin and he hits the three:

Perhaps Reddish should expect the screen here but I’d look more at Capela’s part on this defensive play and he does very little to (a) help Reddish on a call-out that Sengun is setting a screen or (b) show any desire to perhaps step up — since his man, Sengun, is setting the screen — and contest the three. In any case, a very easy three-points for Houston on the most basic of actions.

For Houston’s next three — of the eight they made in the final quarter — Josh Christopher has Young on his back and pounds his way into the paint before firing the ball to the corner where David Nwaba converts the three:

Again, you could make the case that Capela should be aware of the defender in the corner and leave Collins to protect the inside (especially with Sengun not in the paint but on the perimeter) but at the same time I can’t help but think Lou Williams is guarding the wrong man on this possession. Sengun is on the perimeter but is a 33% shooter on 1.2 attempts from three a game and had missed his two three-point attempts in this game. If he was open and he made the three, I think you could probably live with it. Williams looked a little lost defensively here.

Once Houston found that early momentum, they were clearly energized as they continued to close the gap and that energy, that hope was highlighted on this possession where they just outworked the Hawks on the offensive glass to score:

Gordon and Augustin will take most of the plaudits here for the Rockets’ victory but Nwaba’s efforts in the fourth quarter deserve mention too. Here, Nwaba — with Young attempting to box-out — grabs the offensive rebound and scores the second chance opportunity:

Not the greatest defensive challenge by Danilo Gallinari there but alas..

Nwaba would find himself on the scoresheet again after a missed shot from Gallinari begins a Rockets fastbreak. Nwaba receives the ball up the court and drives to the rim:

The Hawks’ transition defense here is poor; they could certainly stand to hustle back a tad harder and they only seem to realize that when the ball is zipped to Nwaba and by the time he begins his drive and they’ve realized, it’s too late.

This next three is one you can live with if you’re the Hawks. Sure, Gallinari drifts inside a tad on the Gordon drive and it’s a relatively easy shot for Kenyon Martin Jr. in the corner but he’s a 29% three-point shooter on 1.4 attempts and was 0-of-2 when attempting this three:

If it’s a three that isn’t coming from Augustin or Gordon, it’s a three you can live with — to a certain extent — if you’re the Hawks.

However, the Hawks were not well pleased with this three from Gordon as Sengun appears to knock over the scrambling Reddish:

You can actually see that Reddish actually trips over his own left foot and the minimal contact from Sengun’s arms had very little, if anything, to do with Reddish falling over. Gordon’s successful conversion brings the Rockets within three points.

After a missed three from Collins, the Rockets bring the gap to one point as Young turns his back on Augustin who makes the cut, is found by Sengun, and scores the layup:

Young mentioned postgame that this play — and the Nwaba offensive rebound — were plays he wished he could have back; he expressed his regret at how those two plays went.

The Hawks are unable to respond as — not for the first time — a Young alley-oop is broken up and the Rockets push hard in transition and Nwaba finds Augustin for three to give Houston the lead:

I sympathize a bit here with the Hawks because seemingly no matter what they did, something was going to be given up. Reddish has to stay in front of Nwaba and if Huerter doesn’t feint in the direction of Martin Jr. towards the rim, the ball goes directly to him for an easy two at the rim. Huerter is at least able to take that option away in the moment and he still gets a good contest on Augustin’s shot.

If you wanted to clutch at straws, perhaps Collins could go to the ball-handler instead of run alongside him as he makes his way to his basket to potentially block Martin Jr. on the catch, maybe take the transition foul (though, Collins was already on four fouls so this wasn’t really an option) but I honestly think the Hawks were left in a tough spot here and Houston executed this well in transition.

The Hawks had more than a few chances after this basket to tie the game and reclaim the lead.

The first one coming from Young as his layup at the rim is missed with the left-hand:

One of two shots Young missed in the final period, shooting 5-of-7.

After a Huerter three-point attempt is missed (you won’t see it due to broadcasting but the play-by-play lists a three-point attempt from Huerter), Reddish collects the offensive rebound and gives to Collins in the paint but his shot near the rim is blocked by Martin Jr.:

Capela would then draw a foul from Sengun but would miss both free throws, costly free throws as Gordon responds for the Rockets to extend the lead as he gets the margin on Huerter and hits the close-range floater:

While Young would respond for his 37th point, the Hawks still couldn’t find a stop as Gordon hits the contested three at the end of the shotclock to extend the Rockets’ lead:

Just an insane shot from Gordon, just have to give him his due there.

The Hawks just couldn’t hit shots down the stretch outside of Young, this fadeaway from Huerter rolls agonizingly off the rim:

The Hawks would later catch a break as an offensive foul from Collins was successfully challenged by Hawks head coach Nate McMillan (who sat patiently on his challenge when he could have used it earlier in the game for a nonsense call on Gallinari) and converted into a blocking foul on the Rockets, sending Collins to the line. However, he splits the free throws and instead of it being a one possession game (down three points), it’s a two possession game down four points.

This would prove very costly as the Hawks — trailing by two possessions — went for two-point baskets thereafter, had to play the foul game with the clock under 24 and each time the Rockets sank two free throws it put them up by four points, giving the Hawks no hope of tying the game with a three. Augustin and Gordon iced the game at the line and Reddish’s missed three-pointer — trailing by four points — at the end was of little consequence and Jae’Saun Tate puts the exclamation on the game with a reverse dunk to consign the Hawks to the 132-126 home defeat.

Obviously a very disappointing loss for the Hawks but the Rockets deserve credit for some hot shooting: 16-of-25 in the final quarter for 64% and 8-of-11 from three (Augustin shooting 4-of-5 from three en route to 16 fourth quarter points).

Postgame, McMillan — like many, I’m sure — was left somewhat lost for words as to the Hawks’ fourth quarter before saying his side were simply ‘outworked’ on Monday night.

“They did what we knew they could do,” said McMillan of the Rockets’ fourth quarter. “They’re going to scrap, they’re going to play hard for 48 minutes. That’s what they did. I thought they outworked us in that fourth quarter. When we did force misses they were able to get second, third opportunities. 44 points in a quarter is... I mean... You just... I can’t explain that. That’s just getting outworked, that’s no defense. When that game is on the line going down the fourth, we’ve talked about our finishes, it’s not just the offensive end of the floor it’s both ends of the floor. We flat just got outworked in that fourth quarter.”

“We let them score too easily on a lot of occasions and they hit some tough contested shots and layups in the paint,” said Young. “It’s a little bit of both. We’ve got to be better on the defensive end and we’re not doing it. We’ve got to be better on both sides.”

After a tough loss, what was McMillan’s message to his side? It’s been a similarly preached message on the season.

“You’ve got to finish,” said McMillan on his message to the team postgame. “I think a lot of times we’re concerned about the offensive end of the floor. It’s both ends of the floor that you have to play and you have to execute. We’ve talked about finishing games here lately and there’s been some games where offensively we haven’t been able to score and there’s some games where defensively we can’t get stops. You need to do both to win games. That was the message: you’ve got to finish games. It certainly starts with getting stops on the defensive end of the floor.”

McMillan would further highlight the Hawks’ need to finish games when he was asked if he felt the Hawks let their foot off the gas towards the end of the third quarter where they led by 16 points with 32 seconds remaining in the third.

“I don’t know why you would do that. I’d have to look at the tape—I don’t feel that,” said McMillan “We talked about finishing the game. Even though there were maybe two minutes in the quarter you were talking about... We talked about finishing quarters and I thought we had a turnover, we had a quick shot and that led to them going down and getting a couple of easy baskets in that quarter. Those are the things we’ve been talking about: finishing quarters and finishing the fourth (quarter).”

McMillan also believes the Hawks have struggled with playing against speed and the Rockets were no exception in this regard with their small/predominantly guard dominant lineups.

“I think speed has been something we’ve had trouble with,” said McMillan. “They put a small lineup out there and basically just weaving, playing with four guards, looking to attack and when they shot the ball they sent four guys to the boards. They just outworked us. They were quicker to the ball and we didn’t finish, it’s as simple as that.”

Speaking of sending players to the glass, the Rockets secured 12 offensive rebounds but maximized those second/third chances and converted them to 20 second chance points: an excellent return for the visitors on that front.

“They really came out aggressive, especially on second chance points,” said Capela of the Rockets’ fourth quarter. “I felt that every shot they were shooting they were all going to the offensive glass to try to give them the second chance. I feel, energy-wise, they doubled us, their energy was twice better than ours.”

When Capela was asked about the Hawks’ energy after that answer, he highlighted that the Rockets’ belief fuelled their energy in the fourth quarter.

“Probably belief,” Capela elaborated on the energy. “I think our energy wasn’t there. In the fourth quarter, when it’s the toughest moment of the game — because we’re all tired, we’re drained — their energy, the belief was better than ours tonight.”

One of the criticisms floating around was that McMillan should have had Young inserted into the game to start the fourth quarter — when the Hawks were up by 13 points — and tuck the game away perhaps with a quick burst to begin the fourth quarter rather than allow the Rockets to work their way back into the game before Young was reinserted. Young returned at the 8:31 mark, by that point the Rockets had cut the lead to seven points and their belief that they could continue their fightback on the road only continued to grow as they eventually wrestled this game away from the Hawks down the stretch.

“Your belief about the game has to be the best at the end of the game when everyone is tired, when they don’t call fouls, cheap fouls, they go to the offensive glass harder and start pushing, shoving, they didn’t call it,” Capela would go on to say about belief. “We just didn’t match it. Once you don’t match it and they feed off of it, they get really excited. I feel they had the belief that we hadn’t.”

Collins was the last Hawk to speak postgame and he offered, by far, the most candid interview postgame. As he sat down at the podium, he looked a little shellshocked in the aftermath of a bad loss and pissed off in the same vain: he was very clearly unhappy with not only what had just unfolded but the continuing nature of how it was unfolding in the same ways.

“We’ve got to guard, we’ve got to take smart shots, we’ve got to stop turning the ball over, simple as that,” said Collins postgame. “I don’t know what else to say. We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to execute down the stretch and not keep dwindling the game on like we’ve been doing. It’s like beating a dead horse.”

“Every loss is frustrating,” added Collins. “But it’s the way we’re losing, the same way we’re losing is frustrating me. I would much rather lose in a different way than for us to keep giving the game away. I feel like that’s what we’re doing. We’re not getting beat.”

Collins believes that the Hawks’ struggles are not mental issues — he firmly believes that everyone on the team has the burning desire to win games — but execution issues, that the Hawks just aren’t putting into practise what they are working on and speak about.

“I definitely don’t think it’s a mental thing,” said Collins. “I definitely feel like all of our guys on team are better and want to win but it’s not more about the mental it’s about the execution. Just not going out there and doing it. We all want it, we wouldn’t be in the NBA if we didn’t want it badder than 99% more than everyone else who wants our job. We’ve got to go out there and do what we practise and what we preach. Everything.”

Fourth quarters have been a problem for the Hawks this season and it reared its ugly head in the worst way last night. The stats on the season tell a morbid picture for a team with lofty aspirations.

In fourth quarters this season, the Hawks are dead last in offensive rating, 20th in defensive rating and 28th in net rating, as well as averaging -2.3 in fourth quarter plus/minus. With a -19 to add after last night’s 44-25 fourth quarter disparity in the Rockets’ favor, the Hawks, in total, are -61 in fourth quarters (28th in the league).

In addition to that — and something Glen Willis of Peachtree Hoops noted on Twitter last weekend — the Hawks are also dead last in offensive rating in clutch games (i.e. the last five minutes of a game when a team is leading or trailing by five points or fewer), 23rd in defensive rating and 29th in net rating with -37.2.

None of those are good places to rank and highlight the offensive woes the Hawks have faced in the fourth quarter, however, when teams are facing the Hawks in clutch situations, they’re shooting 50% from the field which is far too high.

In short — for whatever reason — it’s not working on either end of the floor in the fourth quarter.

“It’s just really a matter understanding the moment,” said Collins of the fourth quarter. “Valuing what the fourth quarter is, valuing that guys are playing harder, valuing the moment. I feel like that’s where we’re not there yet completely in understanding what is needed in each moment. I feel like it’s making it harder for us to execute down the stretch. We’ve got to be more aware.”

When Sarah Spencer of the AJC followed up and asked if this was about making the right play at the right time, Collins responded, “Hell yeah. Whether it be a pass, shot, whether it be getting guys back out, set, whatever the hell, it can be anything. It could be pushing in transition, attacking a 3-on-2 break. It could be anything. It’s just a matter of trying to slow down, understand, analyze and execute. That’s been tough as hell for us in the fourth quarter for us going down the stretch. Like I said, beating a dead horse.”

Both Collins and Capela were asked about physicality and both tended to draw toward the officiating (Capela was asked specifically about the officiating), which neither were particularly pleased with; Collins put it eloquently, Capela already alluded to it with the pushing and shoving on rebounds in an earlier answer.

“I definitely think when you say physicality I feel like it’s associated with the referees,” said Collins when asked if physicality and speed played a role. “I definitely feel like we’re having a difficult time trying to let certain things be physical and let other things not be, if I’m saying that the nicest way I can. But beating a smaller team shouldn’t affect us at all, we should be able to talk that out. We play small teams, small lineups every night. It is what it is tonight. I’m sorry, I’m at a loss for words really. It’s frustrating.”

The officiating wasn’t great last night — perhaps highlighted by a phantom foul called on Gallinari in the first half — but it’s been a theme this season that Hawks haven’t really gotten on with the officiating and it doesn’t look like that isn’t going to change.

Make no mistake, the Hawks were lacking in a major way in the fourth quarter. Their offensive execution down the stretch was not good, no one outside of Young could make shots in the fourth quarter (outside of Young, the Hawks shot 4-of-15 in the fourth quarter) and the defense was sorely lacking in execution too. A number of Hawks struggled in general last night.

That said, the Rockets got hot, hit some tough shots, executed in transition well and made the most of their second chance opportunities. Gordon, Augustin, Nwaba and Sengun were huge in the fourth quarter for the Rockets, give them credit.

Should the Hawks have been able to seal this one? Absolutely, but the Rockets did well to wrestle the lead back off of the Hawks having trailed for most of the game and make the Hawks chase their newly found lead, force them to make shots and free throws down the stretch to re-take the lead and the Hawks never did.

I’ve included a lot of quotes today and not a ton of analysis, so apologies for that but I really think the postgame comments stood out last night (particularly from Collins).

Say what you will about his game last night — 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting from the field (1-of-4 in the fourth quarter, which he played the entirety of) in a limited 25 minutes thanks to foul issues — but Collins genuinely looked pissed off about the situation postgame and spoke as though he was fed up of the Hawks losing in this manner (which he is)...his transparency/authenticity on the situation was encouraging, encouraging that it can be made right.

Collins just spoke candidly about the situation, was clearly frustrated, and wasn’t afraid to say it or show it, which I can really appreciate it. He genuinely gives a sh*t, and it was the same last year when the Hawks struggled (even though some perceived it more as Collins wanting to play more in a contract year) and I hope others will appreciate that too in retrospect, that he cares just as much now as he did when he was an impending restricted free agent.

Is this the worst loss of the season? I initially thought the Hornets loss at home was worse but having gone through the fourth quarter again I’m not sure. While I certainly think many underrated the Rockets’ turnaround in form — having won seven of their last nine games prior to this game — they lack the quality that the Hornets had available to them that night in the form of Miles Bridges.

On the basis of that — as well as how ghastly that fourth quarter really was — this loss against the Rockets is probably the worse of the two.

The Hawks (13-14) have a very tough schedule coming up at the end of the year which extends into the new year: this stretch they’re on right now is full of winnable games and they let a prime one go. Injuries aside, the Hawks need a big response on Wednesday night on the road in Orlando against the 5-23 Magic.

“We’ve got to do better,” stated Collins. “From top to bottom, myself, everyone. We’ve got to come and figure this out. Now.”