It is getting harder to feel optimistic about the current Atlanta Hawks season. It seems broadly understood that the team has encountered adversity. Bringing a host of new players into a season with a compressed schedule that makes it hard to practice, plus injuries causing constant change to the starting lineup... you’ve heard all of this.
But when a team is good enough to post workable leads in fourth quarters only to lose control of those games in the final period of play in a relatively consistent manner, it is hard for any fan base to find reasons, probably, to hang onto the optimism they had for the team at the start of the season. That is especially true after a 4-1 mark at the outset that drew positive headlines.
The team is now 7-14 since that encouraging start after taking a 125-113 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night. Beyond that, the Hawks don’t seem to be making progress at the moment.
I’m not going to overly judge them at this point in the season. Even if their play on Friday night against the Spurs warrants criticism — and that is not the only game when that’s been true — it’s a tough, weird season.
Still, it’s a tough, weird season for 30 teams. From there, any team in the league, under almost any circumstances, is going to face criticism when they consistently struggle to close out close games with any semblance of play that got them through the first 36 minutes of play in any given game.
It’s happened on the second night of a back-to-back, like it did in Saturday night’s game. It’s happened when they have played after a few days off, as happened in their road loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. If it hadn’t become a thing already, it might now be a thing.
But each one looks a little different from the other, which makes it hard to tease out any specific issues apart from untimely turnovers, which were a problem in this game.
The Hawks carried a three-point lead into the fourth quarter which they extended to eight points after Danilo Gallinari connected on a three-point shot with 10:16 to play. From there, Atlanta was outscored 39-22 while Indiana shot 11 for 14 from the field, four of six from the three-point line and 13 of 16 at the free throw line. That’s 39 points on just 22 shooting possessions.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, the Hawks couldn’t buy a shot, connecting on just seven of 21 field goal attempts including going four of 12 from the arc.
And it’s not as if the Pacers were generating meaningfully better looks in the offensive half court. If anything, Atlanta probably had more desirable shots, but they just couldn’t get them to go down at the worst point in the game.
The absolute killer was a Myles Turner three-pointer that gave Indiana a nine-point lead and all the momentum with 3:44 to play. There was plenty of time left in the game at that point, but the Pacers lead just seemed unsurmountable after that shot fell.
Despite the composite shot quality being what it was on both sides, the game didn’t come down to simple shotmaking variance.
In the fourth quarter, the Hawks had three turnovers that led to six Indiana points. The Pacers posted a 7-0 advantage in fast break points. And while those numbers may not seem significant, those plays buoyed the visiting team and appeared to give them some offensive confidence.
Those seemed to be the points Atlanta just couldn’t recover as they lost contact with Indiana in the final minutes of play.
“We didn’t make any shots down the stretch,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce after the game. “And they made every shot down the stretch. I thought we had great looks.”
“But from a shot making standpoint we didn’t capitalize on it tonight,” Pierce explained.
“I’m kind of going back in my head of what the shots looked like,” Pierce continued. “And they were wide open. Do you pass up the open shots with the shooters we had?”
“For us it was just a couple of shots that didn’t go down and they got good looks,” shared Hawks point guard Trae Young. “We couldn’t get a stop. They just kept scoring but also our shots kind of got them into long rebounds, got them into transition and got us kind of mismatched. And they were taking advantage of it.”
From a statistical standpoint, entering the game it seemed that, apart from random shot making, that the contest could be significantly shaped by where each team added points in the margins.
The Pacers entered the contest fifth in the league in points off of turnovers while Atlanta was fifth best in second chance points. In the eventual 12-point loss, Indiana managed 18 points off turnovers while the Hawks had just eight second chance points. The result being a not inconsequential 10 point edge for the visitors.
Indiana is typically quite vulnerable on their defensive glass but in this game each team matched the other with seven offensive rebounds.
The visitors posted a 41-point fourth quarter. This came after Atlanta saw Dallas put up 37 points in the final period against them on Wednesday evening when the Mavericks, one of the worst three point shooting teams in the league this season, converted seven of nine shots from the arc.
Overall, the Pacers shoot the ball well but their performance in the final period was an aberration to be sure.
“I thought our defensive effort was better. I thought they felt us for three quarters,” said Pierce about his team’s defense. “And just the inability to score and the flattening of our guys just kind of from an energy standpoint late in that fourth quarter, middle of that fourth quarter was the separation. It was a big separation for us.”
The home team was visibly better on defense as compared to their Friday night performance versus the San Antonio Spurs. But that was the lowest of low bars.
In this game, they did a better job of showing bodies in the path of ball handlers and helping in the right spots. But their point of attack defense wasn’t good enough until roughly midway through the second quarter, an effort which carried over to the third quarter when they limited Indiana to 22 points.
Atlanta misses De’Andre Hunter on both ends of the court, but his loss has really moved the needle in the wrong direction on the defensive end of the court. Despite the improved roster, the Hawks are still a little thin with defenders who can provide resistance at the point of attack. Hunter had been their de facto point guard defender before he sustained an injury.
He last played on Jan. 29. At that point, the Hawks had the tenth best defensive rating in the league. Since then, a seven game sample, they are 26th in the league defensively.
The second year forward is likely going to be out for a while and it is unknown when newcomer Kris Dunn might see his first action this season.
“It’s hard as hell to win in this league,” said Young about the team’s slide. “We’re not finding excuses with guys being out and things like that. We’ve still got to find a way to dig in, get some stops, hit some shots. And find a way to win.”
In the stat book, Clint Capela led all Atlanta scorers with 24 points. He added 10 rebounds but had to be replaced by Danilo Gallinari, who had 20 points in reserve play, in the final minutes after Atlanta fell behind and needed as much three-point shooting on the floor as they could get.
Young had 15 points and 14 assists on three of nine shooting from the floor. He didn’t take a single shot from beyond the three-point line.
In his best game in some time, Cam Reddish had 18 points. John Collins had 18 points as well and nine rebounds to boot. It wasn’t the power forward’s most efficient scoring performance. He needed 17 field goal attempts, of which he connected on seven of them.
Kevin Huerter matched a career best mark with 10 assists to go along with 10 points and five boards.
On the winning side, Doug McDermott led all scorers with 26 points on a solid shooting performance. Turner had 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Malcolm Brogdon put in his usual good work toward 18 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Damantas Sabonis posted 14 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.
Aaron Holiday put up 13 fourth quarter points at just the right time for his team after entering the final period with just five points.
TJ McConnell had 12 assists (six points) in reserve play. He might have been the most impactful player in the game creating reliable shots for his teammates and tracking Young for the entire fourth quarter.
McConnell played the entire final period on his way to an absurd +32 in the box score. Each of Atlanta’s three turnovers in the fourth were McConnel steals. They led to six points for the Pacers.
Indiana sought to significantly increase the pace when Gallinari was on the court as to take advantage of his lack of footspeed and agility. The Hawks reserve was -20 in the box score and it was often McConnell finding ways to put Gallinari in suboptimal defensive situations.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Maybe the Pacers first bucket of the game was an ominous sign:
McDermott gets a highly contested runner to fall over Capela.
Atlanta seemed intent on increasing their player and ball movement in the offensive half court. Here, Young sets a back screen to free up Reddish for a cut to the paint:
It wasn’t the cleanest of plays, but it seemed to help get Reddish going in the game.
After seeming to rush his play and being out of sync with Capela for much of Friday evening, Young slowed things down a bit and let Capela get into his dive toward the rim before attacking the middle of the defense in this game:
On this possession, he even uses a hang dribble to buy Capela some time which sets up the attack.
“I’m encouraged by our ball movement,” said Pierce about this area of his team’s play. “I’m encouraged by our movement overall. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t capitalize on it. But it’s a step for us to move forward playing the way we did and attacking the rim the way we did.”
Skylar Mays was the first wing off the bench for Atlanta in the game, coming off of a 20-point performance versus the Spurs on Friday evening. (Tony Snell was not available to play.)
On this possession, the resourceful Brogdon takes advantage of the rookie by convincing him he was heading toward Sabonis for a handoff-pitchback:
Capela can’t quite get there in time to impact the shot attempt.
Early in the game, Collins was using cutting and movement to often create mismatches for himself:
On this play, he was get to a squared up shot over his left shoulder over the smaller Jeremy Lamb.
McConnell starts to attack Gallinari in the half court on this possession:
It’s not the highest percentage shot in this case, but the plan was to go at Gallinari and, well, McConnell executes the plan.
Bruno Fernando played, in place of rookie Onyeka Okongwu, his first real rotation minutes in some time.
This play was a sight for sore eyes. Last season, he showed some passing promise when operating (especially) with Huerter in “pistol” and other strong-side action.
Here, he hits Huerter with the bounce pass to set him up for the score.
When they would catch Gallinari as the first Hawks defender back in transition, the Pacers would push the ball up the court and attack:
Former Hawks forward Justin Holiday gets past several defenders for the transition bucket.
Fascinating play design and manipulation by the Hawks here.
They set up to run “away” or “strong” action for Reddish who starts in the right corner and will presumably lift into successive screens from Brandon Goodwin and Capela.
Instead of starting the ball left of mid-court (normal set up), Young and Collins initiate a high pick-and-roll with no defensive help available on the left side where Collins sprints to the rim:
The Pacers have no obvious “tagger” on Collins and the result is an easy bucket.
Indiana was throwing a lot of defensive scheme variety at Young and the Hawks in this game. Here, they are in a box-and-one:
Reddish gets the shot from the left corner but this is where the Pacers started to show a real priority of keeping Young out of the middle of the court. And it eventually paid off.
After Mays first rotation went (very) poorly, Goodwin ended up getting some time alongside Young at the shooting guard spot.
Here, as Pacers deny Young the ball, Goodwin is able to use his creation skill to create an easy bucket for Capela:
Indiana’s first score of the second half seemed as unlikely as their first score in the first half:
Turner was one for five on the season on pull up threes before this shot:
Young’s 12th assist of the game came not even halfway through the third quarter on this baseline out of bounds (BLOB) play:
On the other end, the Hawks start really working hard to get maximum bodies in the paint en route to a 22-point defensive quarter:
From a process standpoint, this is a pretty solid possession:
After the switch, Huerter works hard to keep Turner away from the rim. Solomon Hill helps at the restricted circle then closes out on McConnell. Collins closes out on the other side versus Holiday.
In the fourth quarter, the Hawks are hoping to pull away. But a McConnell steal gets the Pacers a bit of momentum:
Aaron Holiday starts cooking:
McConnell at it again:
And the Hawks start missing open shots:
And lost contact with the Pacers.
Atlanta sits at 11-15 now tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference standings with the Miami Heat who has been on a nice streak picking up some wins against some of the less formidable teams in the league. (I know.)
Hunter’s return is nowhere in sight. Probably the same for Bogdanovic. Rajon Rondo has been in and out of the lineup all season.
It’s tough. But it’s tough for everybody.
The games are coming as fast as ever regardless of what your active roster looks like.
The Hawks travel to New York to face the Knicks on Monday, and Atlanta will look to avenge a Jan. 4 loss in which they led heading into the fourth quarter.
New York is one of the most physical teams in the league, but they will be playing without Mitchell Robinson (broken hand). It will be Atlanta’s first match-up with the Knicks since they re-acquired Derrick Rose. The game tips at 7:30 pm ET.