The Atlanta Hawks returned to action on Wednesday night for the second game of a ‘home-and-home’ slate against the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls took care of business at United Center, edging the visitors 131-117.
The Hawks — without John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Onyeka Okongwu, Delon Wright, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Gorgui Dieng, Jalen Johnson, Sharife Cooper, De’Andre Hunter and Solomon Hill — were led by Trae Young’s 26 points and 11 assists, while Clint Capela added 18 points and 15 rebounds.
For the Bulls — who were without Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Tony Bradley, Marko Simonovic, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Patrick Williams — Zach LaVine led the way with 25 points while DeMar DeRozan added 20 points.
Obviously heading into this contest, the Hawks were up against it from the start. While they had a select few of their normal rotation members in Young, Capela and Cam Reddish (plus Skylar Mays), the rest of the Hawks’ rotation was exclusively made up of hardship players. Coming up against a Bulls side who have had a number of their players return from protocol, it was always going to be an uphill battle in the Windy City. Still, the Hawks were pretty competitive in the first quarter and even by the mid-point of the second quarter still trailed by just two points.
However, a dry patch down the stretch of the second quarter for the Hawks on offense — as well as a 16-0 run — lifted the hosts 21 points ahead at the half and clear of any threat in the second half. The Bulls shot 70% from the field in the first half and racked up 74 points. For the game, the Bulls scored 131 points on 61% shooting to go along with 62 points in the paint and 31 fastbreak points.
The Hawks obviously have somewhat of a patchwork roster at the moment and this was exploited defensively as the Bulls took advantage of the Hawks’ (expected) lack of communication, chemistry and synergy.
On the drive from Coby White, he’s able to get to the rim with ease and finish with ease on the weakside as Chaundee Brown Jr. is late with his rotation:
One of the Bulls’ many scoring opportunities in transition comes here as LaVine beats the Hawks down the floor and finishes at the rim:
With the Hawks lacking size and Vucevic’s ability to stretch the floor, it allows additional opportunities inside. With Capela reluctant to sit in the paint with Nikola Vucevic looming, DeRozan’s mouth probably watered as he saw Mays alone in inside the paint for the taking and he hits the leaning jumper as the help arrives too late:
Off of a missed three, the Bulls attack in transition and Reddish’s and Mays’ transition defense/effort leaves a little to be desired as Javonte Green scores at the rim:
LaVine’s tough drive inside means he is forced to pass to the cutting Green, who is allowed to escape the clutches of Capela:
These are just from the first quarter, there are countless examples of these types of plays in this game — it’s not to lambast the Hawks in a tough spot: there was just a clear difference on quality last night and this is where it showed last night on the game.
“Some automatism I have with other guys that I don’t have them or the reaction is not right,” said Capela on adjustments defensively. “We have to try adjust as good as we can.”
There has been frustration from the fanbase that the Hawks’ haven’t had any additional games postponed in light of their recent additions to the protocol.
Postgame, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan did not want to get drawn into the matter but instead highlighted the conditioning issues facing some of the returning Hawks (and the heavy minutes Reddish has had to play).
“We’ve got to play the guys we have but I’m not going to go there with that,” said McMillan when asked about having to play through this predicament. “I thought our guys tonight were gassed. Clint is coming out of the protocol, I thought his conditioning— Cam has been playing heavy minutes, really didn’t have any legs. This is Trae’s second game back. I thought those guys had heavy legs. We want to try compete and win the game but at the same time you’ve got to be careful with losing those guys that we do have.”
Young was a little more vocal on the matter and his full answer on the subject is certainly worth listening to:
For full tone and context, here's the video clip. Seemed like a diplomatic pitch overall. pic.twitter.com/8lRcp0jKS2— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) December 30, 2021
The upshot is is that the game wasn’t postponed and the Hawks have to go through this and through the challenges of playing with an almost entirely new team.
“I came to shootaround today not knowing most of my teammates,” commented Young.
The Hawks are attempting to integrate nearly a roster’s worth of players midseason with limited time to practise and McMillan described the challenges of navigating such a scenario.
“It’s a big-time challenge to put guys in a game and they don’t know your system,” said McMillan. “You don’t have time to really give them anything because you can’t practise. We’ve been in the protocol and we’ve had to distance ourselves and try to be really cautious with being together because we’re losing guys daily. Even though we’ve had guys come in the last two days we couldn’t practise one of those days because we needed to stay away from each other and try to keep as many bodies healthy as possible. It’s a challenge I’ve never experienced.”
With only 11 bodies available and four of those roster members (three, if you exclude Mays’ two-way contract), McMillan revealed postgame he attempted to keep at least one regular member of the Hawks on the floor to get the Hawks into their offense.
“We do know what these guys are capable of doing it’s just they’re coming into a situation that’s difficult for them as well as us,” said McMillan. “Trying to keep at least one guy that knows the system out there on the floor is damn near impossible when you only have four roster guys playing. I tried to keep Cam, or Skylar, or Trae out on the floor so they could at least get us into our offense. That’s just the challenge with the number of healthy bodies we have.”
The Hawks did manage to score 117 points on 47.8% shooting and 42% from three and received solid contributions from Brown Jr. and Malcolm Hill, but it’s obviously still not an ideal scenario as the existing ball-handlers — primarily Young — have to figure out players’ tendencies and strengths.
“It’s like starting over,” said Young of not knowing his new teammates’ capabilities. “Playing preseason basketball. Not having any type of chemistry, not knowing where each other is going to be; you don’t know. That’s the frustrating part because the games still matter. You lose, it goes to your record. You win, it goes to your record. That’s the frustrating part.”
Preseason basketball is a good way to put what the Hawks are going through right now but instead of a meaningless game in early October, it’s Game 34 of the regular season and counting but things won’t ease up as the Hawks continue their six game road trip to start the new year.
Even when players do eventually return, conditioning will be a concern as well as overcoming any symptoms that may be lingering. Capela commented postgame on how he has been struggling.
“It’s hard breathing, coughing a lot,” Capela noted. “Breathing was hard.”
Being Game 34 of the season and the Hawks facing a difficult stretch, you could be forgiven for being concerned for the Hawks’ somewhat floundering season. However, while the Hawks slip to 15-19 and sit 12th in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks aren’t panicking yet.
“There’s still a lot of season left,” said McMillan. “We will get our guys back. This is a situation where the timing is bad; you lose your guys at the start of the six-game road trip. Even when they come back they’re going to have challenges to condition themselves and to play themselves into shape. We’re going to try rebuild the chemistry that you were trying to build from the start of the season. It’s going to be a challenge but there’s a lot of basketball to be played.”
“I ain’t worried about the playoff picture slipping away,” added Young. “We started off 14-20 last year and won games eight straight. This league is all about runs. It’s all about runs and who’s hot and you can get hot at the right moment. I ain’t worried.”
The Hawks (15-19) are back in action on Friday night in Cleveland to take on the (20-14) Cavaliers.
Until next time...