It’s been four weeks since the Atlanta Hawks posted back-to-back wins, but that is what the team was looking to do when they took the floor in Boston on Friday night. It would be a tall task of sorts despite the win they managed against the Celtics on Wednesday night. The home team returned to the lineup Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis, two starters from last year’s conference finals team, that didn’t play on Wednesday.
Entering halftime, the Hawks trailed by 25 points and it seemed all but certain that Atlanta wouldn’t be able to mount any sort of real threat. However, a unit comprised mostly of reserves, anchored by starting center Clint Capela and playing an effective zone defense, put together stop after stop in the fourth quarter that opened the door enough to make it look like there could be a possible path to an Atlanta victory.
The Hawks cut the margin to as few as nine points as the game hit the stretch with plenty of time to deal with that deficit. But a few possessions didn’t go their way at that point, and interim coach Nate McMillan pulled Capela in favor of a lineup that featured Danilo Gallinari.
It’s important to note that many (most?) NBA coaches pull a non-shooting big from the floor when their team is down double digits in the latter half of the fourth quarter as a means to get more three-point shooting on the court. Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce has done the exactly this pretty consistently this season.
This time, though, it didn’t work at all. Boston made a minor offensive adjustment that opened the door to uncontested lobs at the rim and offensive rebounds that kept the Hawks at arms length the rest of the way.
The optics were particularly bad for Gallinari, as he struggled to present any resistance at the rim and couldn’t get his hands on must-have rebounds. With that said, he’s never in the game because of his defense. The zone to which the Hawks were committed likely seemed like a safe enough defensive environment for the veteran big man, but safe it was not, in this case.
Boston generated easy points as to keep pressure on the visitors en route to a 121-109 victory over Atlanta.
There were woeful individually shooting performances for the Hawks. Gallinari was 2-of-14 from the field. John Collins was 3-of-13. And on and on. Atlanta shot 42.2 percent from the floor overall. That’s not a bad mark really, but this game came down to the ability to convert shots at the rim.
Both teams generated 90 field goal attempts. Boston made 50, while Atlanta converted just 38. The Hawks did make up ground at the free throw line, where they were plus-15 on attempts and plus-16 on makes when compared to the Celtics.
In addition to both teams generating the same number of shots overall, they managed the same number of shots in the paint, 50 a piece.
The Celtics converted seven more shots in the lane than did Atlanta, good for a 14-point edge in the eventual 12-point margin.
Throughout the game, Boston drove the ball to the rim. Walker was 5-of-6 on paint attempts and had two makes that led to and-one opportunities. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had solid but mixed results, but they helped put consistent pressure on the Atlanta defense.
Finally, Boston’s three centers, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams III and Theis combined to go 21-of-26. And that’s where the real damage was done.
It was especially Theis’ ten points in the fourth quarter, all of it after Capela went to the bench with 4:50 remaining to play, on five of five shooting that broke the spirit of Atlanta as they were trying to sustain an unlikely comeback attempt. Most of that came when Gallinari was trying to operate on the backline of the Hawks half court defense.
That’s kind of high school level stuff versus a 2-3 zone. A high-low attack from the middle of the zone.
Interestingly, the 2-3 is a zone configuration the Hawks haven’t used much this year. They much more frequently deploy a 1-2-2 zone when they go away from a man-to-man scheme.
“We mixed in some zone in the second half to try to break a rhythm and was able to force them to miss,” said McMillan of the decision to try the zone. “And was able to go down to score and make it somewhat of a game.”
“They ended up tonight with almost 70 points in the paint,” McMillan continued. “So they were aggressive attacking the paint. And we never established that we could keep this team in front of us which puts a lot of pressure on Clint (Capela) at the basket.”
I think I understand the spirit of the comment there but I would suggest that Capela wasn’t really the issue at the rim. It was his persistence in the fourth quarter, in addition to much better point of attack defense by reserve guards and wings, that got Atlanta back in the game.
It was frustrating to watch Capela go to the bench with less than five minutes remaining. But he had played the entire fourth quarter until that point and it would have been hard to expect more from him. They ask a lot of him, especially on night when they are not holding up defensively at the point of attack.
“I think our energy to start the game was off,” commented Solomon Hill after the game. “They came out and Kemba had a comfortable game just trying to find his rhythm and he set the tone. We found some energy too late in the game. We made a run but by that time it was too late.”
To start the game, the defense at the point of attack wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t good enough. The Hawks are a team trying to win games this year, and it seems they really do need to learn to start more consistently at the defensive end of the court.
Despite up and down play this year, Boston is a well-coached team, and they were ready to take the game to Atlanta. They put up 98 points through the first three quarters before the Atlanta reserves put the zone scheme to work as to slow them down.
“You have to expect a team to come out much more aggressive than they were in the last game,” said McMillan. “We just beat this team so we knew that they were going to come out aggressive. I didn’t think we responded to that physical defense that they put on us the first quarter.”
In the stat book, Trae Young led all scorers with 31 points. He had 11 assists to go along with six turnovers. He had another efficient game as a shooter going 10-of-16 from the floor, 3-of-7 from the arc and 8-of-9 from the free throw line.
Capela posted what seems like an ordinary box score entry for him at this point with 24 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. He was an individual -4 in the box score while all other Hawks starters were -23 or worse.
In reserve play, Hill had 12 points and four rebounds and was aggressive throughout his 18 minutes of play.
For Boston, it was a balanced scoring attack. Walker had 28 points on just 17 shooting possessions. Every starter had at least 14 points. Tatum had 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
This is the first defensive possession of the game:
It’s not an encouraging start, Young seems to be offering no communication to Cam Reddish that the back screen is coming. And then doesn’t help cover the passing lane on the back door cut.
Boston switches probably as much as any team in the league. As he did on Wednesday evening, Young looked for opportunities to draw mismatches on the Celtics bigs:
He connects on his first three-point attempt of the game.
After drawing another switch this time the ball goes inside to Capela:
With Theis on the perimeter, Capela can face up and go right at Thompson. He’s been really feeling his left hand shot of late.
Kevin Huerter rushes a read in the pick and roll.
Tatum really has nowhere to be as “low man” on the weak side until Capela dives toward the rim. The result is an old fashion three-point play for Walker.
This possession is a look at how the perimeter defense wasn’t embarrassing early in the game but also wasn’t good enough:
You’d prefer Reddish stay closer to Thompson there and for Young to show a little of himself toward Brown as he works back to his left to help close the game between Reddish and the shooter.
Another rough defensive possession in the first quarter:
Youngs show good engagement early as he faces up Walker but lets him get to the right. Gallinari’s dig (if that’s what it is?) from the strong side corner isn’t impactful. Collins needs to step up outside of the restricted area. He’s so deep he sort of leaves Hill in no man’s land as he contemplates helping down on Williams.
Before things went really south in the second quarter the Hawks show some better engagement on defense:
The activity and steal by Young leads to fast break points.
Walker really got cooking in the second quarter:
He had 20 points heading into the half.
As Boston started to ramp up the pressure on Young in the pick and roll, the Hawks run a little something for him where he starts off ball:
It creates a massive amount of space for him to work with which leads to points.
Now let’s look a few things Young was doing to deal with the pressure he was seeing from the Celtics defense at this point (volume up):
Now a look at the Hawks fourth quarter zone and how Boston worked to attack it (volume up):
(Apologies to Daniel Theis for the mispronunciation of his name. I blame Solomon Hill for saying it wrong — one time — during postgame media availability.)
After the Celtics cracked the zone defense, it ended any real opportunity Atlanta might have had to get back into the game.
The Hawks head back home to host the Denver Nuggets on Sunday evening at State Farm Arena. Tip-off is at 7:30 PM ET. It’s the last of a four game road trip for Denver, with the Nuggets coming off of a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night behind a 50-point performance by Jamal Murray.