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Hawks let down by defense in disappointing home loss to Hornets

Shorthanded, the Hornets came into State Farm Arena and scored 130 points and emerged with an impressive victory.

Charlotte Hornets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks returned to action on Sunday evening against a shorthanded Charlotte Hornets side that were missing LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels but could not return to winning ways as the Hornets scored 130 points at State Farm Arena in spite of those absences, the visitors winning the game 130-125.

The Hawks were led by John Collins’ season-high 31 points and a tied season-high from Kevin Huerter, who hit a career-best seven three-pointers en route to 28 points which also matched a season-high. For the Hornets, Miles Bridges scored 32 points as he took over proceedings in the fourth quarter, while Kelly Oubre Jr. added 28 points.

With the Hornets missing the personnel they were, the Hawks entered this game as considerable favorites despite missing Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. However, the Hornets and Hawks came out trading blows offensively as it became the theme of the night, and what appeared to be the Hawks perhaps not taking their opponents seriously out of the gate turned into themes all game long: the Hawks lacked urgency in transition and they didn’t put a lot of pressure on the ball.

On this play for instance, there’s no pressure put on the ball in transition for starters and then Collins appears to be unsure of his man in transition (being Oubre) and the pass from Bridges leads to a three:

In transition with Ish Smith this time, there is zero urgency from the Hawks to get back and Trae Young is left floundering as Smith switches gears and scores at the rim:

Gordon Hayward doesn’t operate at a super-fast pace but as he brings the ball up the floor, the mismatch with Young is clear to see all the way, yet the Hawks do nothing to prevent it, nor hustle to prevent it. Sure, Clint Capela comes over but is extremely ineffective in actually affecting the play as Hayward turns around and scores:

Plays like this set the standard for most of the evening as the Hawks fell behind by double-digits in the second quarter before the Hornets totalled 68 points on 53% shooting from the field and hit 10 threes for the first half.

It looked as though the Hawks had got the message at halftime as they reeled a quick run behind a flurry of threes to get back into the game and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Hawks had finally woken up in this game. In reality, they made a few shots but they still struggled to get any sort of consistency stopping the ball, and while the Hawks did retake the lead in the third quarter the Hornets would not only retake that but run the lead back up to double-digits before the third quarter was said and done.

Despite that, the Hawks — in a game of runs — overturned that deficit and took a five point lead once again in the fourth before the Hornets wrestled that away as Miles Bridges took over. Bridges scored 13 points on a perfect 4-of-4 from the field and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. He had help from Oubre, who scored eight points in the final period on 3-of-3 shooting from the field and two three-pointers.

I thought the Hornets’ two big baskets in deciding this game in the fourth said a lot about how things unfolded in the fourth quarter.

This first one from Bridges — a jumpshot over Collins — highlighted just how fantastic he was in the final quarter:

Huerter hit a clutch three after this basket to keep the Hawks in it but the hosts were truly up against it once this dunk from PJ Washington was thrown down:

Between those two Hornets baskets, it summed up matters well: 1) Bridges was fantastic and carried the Hornets home and 2) the Hawks’ defense was what truly let them down.

In a game where the Hawks saw season highs from Collins, Huerter — and a career mark from Huerter in terms of three-point makes, hitting seven threes — and Young’s season-high 15 assists, the Hawks will be very disappointed to allow 130 points at home to a team missing its best player in Ball.

“They put a lot of pressure on your defense,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan. “They do a good job of getting the ball and running out the net off of made baskets with their speed. They put five guys out there that can shoot, pass and dribble, which puts a lot of pressure on your defense. We did a good job of keeping them in front of us but I thought we gave them a little too much space because they are guys that can shoot off the dribble, probably the best catch-and-shoot team in the league. They showed tonight their ability to create shots and shoot off of the dribble, all of them. They just kept pressure. Both halves they were able to score 60 points against us. We weren’t able to get stops when we needed to.”

“We’ve just got to do a better job staying in front of guys and that’s the bottom line,” added Collins.

When a team is missing key personnel and up against it as the Hornets were last night (with Ball averaging 20 points and eight assists, Rozier averaging 17.7 points per game) and the Hawks considerable favorites at home, the pressure is sometimes alleviated from the underdog and Young believed that the Hornets played with a liberating sense of freedom as a result.

“They played fast,” said Young on what went wrong defensively. “They played a lot of guards and they just played free. When people give you confidence and you have confidence in your game and you’re playing free that’s when play your best. Those guys were playing super-free. It’s hard to stop guys whenever they have confidence and they’re out there playing with nothing to lose and everybody knows who they have out. They’re just out there playing, guys are hitting shots and playing free. Just something that happens.”

“Pretty bad, plain and simple,” added Huerter on what stood out defensively. “Wasn’t good enough. 130 points, not going to win many games giving up that. Team defense — starts individually on the ball — but team defense-wise we’ve got to clean it up.”

Prior to last night’s contest, the Hawks were 11-3 when they scored 110 points or more in a game and 5-0 when they scored 120 or more points. Conversely, when opponents score 115 points or more, the Hawks are 0-7.

“We scored 127 points, that’s more than enough to win the game,” said McMillan. “It comes to down to defensively being able to stop them and we weren’t able to do that. Timothe was matched up with Hayward for most of the night, we wanted to keep some size and a guy pressuring the ball. Bridges was able to create some offense tonight for them. All of them. (Cody) Martin, Ish Smith had one of his better shooting nights tonight. We were never able to stop them and gain that momentum.”

When asked about his side’s intensity, McMillan said that while it was present it was not enough to win the Hawks this game.

“I think what we were trying to do was guard the best we could,” said McMillan. “They’ve got guys who can score. When you are out there, I can’t feel that for the players. Guys that they are guarding, you’re telling them to get up and pressure but you have to adapt to what you can do out there when you’re guarding certain individuals. There was some times where they blew by us. Was the intensity there? I think the intensity was there, it just wasn’t good enough.”

McMillan was later left bemused during the postgame press conference when the notion of if this game was necessary to have a ‘wake-up call’ when it pertains to defense and winning games was put to him

“I don’t understand that (question),” said McMillan. “It’s a wake up call? We don’t need a wake-up call. We know what we need to do out there. They were better tonight. We don’t need a wake-up call. This is a good team. They were missing a couple of players, so were we. Defensively we didn’t play well enough to get this win. One of those nights where they were hot and we just never got the stops we needed.”

Another odd notion put forward later to Young was early shotclock shot selection in the earlier stages of the fourth quarter. Young — rightly, for the night that was in it — dismissed this, and any idea that shot selection was what cost the Hawks this game as opposed to defense is bewildering. As McMillan said, 127 points is more than enough to win most NBA games and there were season high efforts by multiple Hawks.

There has been plenty said about the Hawks’ defense — and rightly so — but the Hornets did make shots, some tough shots too. Oubre caught fire, Bridges took over, Cody Martin’s plus-22 on the game tells a fairly accurate tale of how important he was (certainly no coincidence he was part of the multiple Hornets spurts) and Smith and Washington provided significant contributions too.

“They shot the ball pretty well tonight, which is tough to see a team shoot well,” said Collins. “Obviously I always feel like we could play better defensively but when a team is hitting shots it makes it a lot harder. We’ve got to go and watch film and regroup. Just got to figure out a way to get better shots and get stops, as simple as it sounds.”

However, while McMillan seemed intentional in his comments last night about not getting carried away with bigger picture questions that were posed to him (such as intensity and defense) and wouldn’t get drawn too far into those topics — that this was one game where the Hornets played well and the Hawks didn’t get stops — some of his players did share their opinions on some, perhaps, some worrying season trends.

“Games like this shine a spotlight on what we need to do the right way,” said Collins. “They didn’t have a couple of their better guys — their playmaker in LaMelo, a high-volume scorer in Terry (Rozier). We’ve just got to do a better job mentality-wise of coming out ready to play, not taking anybody lightly. I don’t think we try to do that but we execute that way. I think we need to take things seriously.”

I think Collins has hit the nail on the head: I don’t believe the Hawks intend to take opponents lightly but their actions and how they play the beginning of games sometimes suggest otherwise at times.

Huerter believed — no matter who is/isn’t playing — the Hawks have been hampered by defensive inconsistency.

“I think it’s game-to-game inconsistency,” said Huerter. “What that is I can’t put my finger on it. There’s been a lot of games we’ve had where defensively we’ve been sound and played well together defensively and other games we haven’t. It doesn’t seem to matter talent-wise, it’s just like I said, it’s inconsistent. Across the board, guarding the ball, it starts with that. They made tough shots, they hit a lot of jumpshots tonight. Those are usually shots we’re willing to give up but when a team gets hot like that we need to make adjustments and be better on the ball. Give them a lot of credit.”

To Huerter’s point, here are some of the Hawks’ last few games:

  • 99 points conceded against the New York Knicks
  • 111 against the Indiana Pacers
  • 98 against the Philadelphia 76ers
  • 130 last night against the Hornets.

Inconsistency personified.

I think much will be made of a, frankly, very poor defeat but the Hornets have been a problem team for the Hawks recently. Hornets head coach James Borrego is crafty (as Hawks fans saw last season with how his defensive schemes limited Young on multiple occasions) and creative in his lineups and it paid off last night.

I thought the Hornets were fortunate not to be punished more with the whistle and got away often with things like pushing Hawks ball-screeners so they couldn’t actually set screens but when it came down to it down the stretch, they were the better team and Bridges, as mentioned, was fantastic. Having scored 35 points last meeting — a career-high — he was allowed to excel again. The Hawks’ efforts seemed set on limiting Hayward than Bridges, and they were at least successful in that regard as Hayward shot just 5-of-15 from the field.

Offensively the Hawks played well and did more than enough to win this game (though, the three relatively — and in some cases, very — easy chances Capela missed proved costly and Lou Williams’ struggles weren’t ideal either). Not being able to call upon Reddish or Hunter hurts defensively, as will the loss of Solomon Hill, who was forced to exit the game with a hamstring injury and did not return.

The Hawks (12-12) won’t have time to lament too long on a game that got away from them as they are back in action tonight in Minnesota where the Timberwolves (11-12) have been waiting for them since Friday and will surely be favored on account of rest.

Until next time...