The Atlanta Hawks played on Christmas Day for the first time since 1989 on Saturday, a reward for their special run to the Eastern Conference playoffs a season ago. They went on the road to face the team they knocked out in five games in the first round of the playoffs but lost for the second time this season to the New York Knicks, this one by a score of 101-87.
It’s getting a bit tiresome at this point to reiterate how many players Atlanta, and many other teams, are playing without as COVID continues to wreak havoc on the NBA and other sports leagues.
Most notably, the Hawks were without Trae Young, their best and most important player and the one who makes everything work on offense. Among the other absences were Kevin Huerter, Onyeka Okongwu, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari. And, of course, they continue to play without the services of De’Andre Hunter.
New York got out to a fast start in this contest shooting the ball from the perimeter. They made seven of 14 shots from the three-point line in the first quarter which propelled them to a nine point lead after 12 minutes of play. They would make only a third of their tries from the arc the rest of the way (13/36) but it was enough to maintain a double digit lead for much of the remainder of the game and keep a safe distance when the Atlanta would make the occasional modest most run.
The biggest struggle for the Hawks right now is that they just don’t have enough players capable of running the offense. Delon Wright has played but 38% of his minutes at the point guard position this season, according to basketball reference, but started there in this contest and logged 34 minutes. There was no plan B really as the Hawks played without Young, Williams, and even the rookie Sharife Cooper.
Wright did what he could in posting 20 points on 13 shooting possessions. He had just two assists however as the Knicks, as they always do, packed the paint and forced the ball into the hands of Atlanta’s secondary creators. He did great work on the defensive end of the court, but is not naturally skilled to run the pick and roll, for which the Hawks roster is built.
John Collins had 20 points of his own but it was a consistent struggle for him as he had to work to create his own shot, which he is increasingly capable of doing. But it’s obvious that it’s heavier lifting while playing with a revolving door of teammates. He was but four of 13 on two-point attempts.
Making shots inside the arc was a struggle for the entire Atlanta team. They were 20-for-49 on two-point attempts. On the season, they average 50.8%, but rely on a heavy dose of shots at the rim by way of Young operating in the pick and roll.
Atlanta managed to convert just half of their shots at the rim (15-for-30) with Cam Reddish and Skylar Mays doing the team’s best work in that area. Collins and Clint Capela combined to shoot five for 14 inside the restricted area.
Mitchell Robinson is not the most well rounded big man in the league. But the Knicks fourth year center is extremely capable as an interior defender. Absent Gallinari, and viable options at the power forward position that would enable them to play Collins at center. the Hawks were unable to form any lineups that would help them get Robinson (five blocked shots) away from the rim.
New York maximizes bodies in the paint on defense anyway. When they can keep Robinson anchored to the rim it becomes a serious chore for opposing teams to generate easy shots.
In their current form, the Hawks need a lot offensively from Cam Reddish, who struggled overall in the game. He had just 10 points on 18 shooting possessions.
Skylar Mays helped in reserve minutes with 11 points, two assists and two steals.
For the winners, Julius Randle led all scorers. He managed 25 points and 12 rebounds, He made six of his nine shots attempts from the three-point line. Considering he came into the game shooting 33% from the arc, Atlanta seemed mostly accepting of Randle generating long distance shots off of the dribble. But it worked out for the home team.
Evan Fournier posted 15 points while making half of his shot attempts. Kemba Walker had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists, despite an unimpressive shooting performance.
The play of New York’s second unit was pivotal in the game. They got 15 points from Quentin Grimes and 13 points from Obi Toppin.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
The Hawks run a nicely designed set on their first offensive possession:
Reddish would normally lift through the screens of Collins and Wright on this play. Instead, he surprises his defender, RJ Barrett, with a baseline cut to the basket.
Another wrinkle of the same set can be seen on this possession:
Reddish uses the first screen but then exits for the paint. It leads to a Collins jumper off of the Wright screen, but he is unable to connect.
Walker easily works by Bogdan Bogdanovic for a lay up in the early going:
Bogdanovic, playing just his third game after having missed eight straight due to injury, is visibly struggling to contain ball handlers.
The possession offers a look at how the Knicks defensively prioritized defending the rim:
Two missed shots at point blank range but both heavily contested.
On this play, Atlanta takes advantage of the extra focus on paint defense:
After Walker helps off of Wright deep into the lane, the Hawks end up with two shooters on the weak side and just one New York defender.
One wonders if Atlanta missed an opportunity to play Gorgui Dieng more in this game:
His ability to pass from above the free throw line may have helped open the paint up a bit. Dieng led all Hawks players with five assists.
Reddish is able to work through traffic and get to the rim on this play:
He seems to be improving at understanding when he’s working with an occupied strong side corner as to navigate the defense.
A nice pocket pass from Wright leads to a Collins lay up:
And the mystery continues as to why Collins can’t get seemingly obvious calls.
The New York defense on this possession is about as sound as it gets:
The Knicks generate another corner three:
From there the Knicks controlled it the rest of the way.
Atlanta managed just 15 fourth quarter points. Quite obviously not enough to power a comeback.
The Hawks are scheduled to play the Chicago Bulls at State Farm Arena on Monday evening with 7:30 PM ET tip.
It was announced on Sunday that both Collins and rookie Jalen Johnson are now in COVID protocols.
It should be noted, however, that the Hawks had 11 active players versus the Knicks and only need eight available players to take the court on Monday. One or more players could clear the protocol between now and when they take the court versus the Bulls.