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Defensive correction comes too late for Hawks in road loss to Thunder

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

These are the kind of games that make it hard on a fan base to be patient. Coming off of the team’s best win a in good while on Wednesday over the Boston Celtics, the Atlanta Hawks appeared primed to continue a modest bounce-back after winning three of their last five games following a string of seven losses in eight games.

The opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, came in with the least efficient offense in the league. And absent former Hawks center Al Horford, the Thunder were lacking a big man that seemed like a decent matchup with Atlanta’s current starting center, Clint Capela.

Regardless, a 14-18 team can’t take any game for granted, one would think, and that’s the way this contest seemed to lean a little past midway through the first quarter. After eight minutes of scrimmage, the Hawks led 23-14 and were dominating on the offensive glass. Then, it appeared they put the defense on cruise control. The Thunder posted a robust 48 points in the next 16 minutes of play and took control from there.

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Atlanta seemed to stabilize their defense, but it was too late. They held the Thunder to 22 points in the final frame but couldn’t string together enough successful offensive possessions to put the game in reach during the final minutes. Oklahoma City was steady enough down the stretch to beat the Hawks by a score of 118-109.

Atlanta posted the advantages expected of them. They grabbed a whopping 19 offensive rebounds on their way to 25 second-chance points. They also generated nine more field goal attempts than the Thunder and achieved small margins scoring in the paint and in transition.

However, Oklahoma City drove the ball into the paint the entire game with not enough resistance being managed by the Hawks despite the presence of Capela. The Thunder were a scalding 30 of 41 on shot attempts in the paint on the way to 60 points, headlined by 40 before halftime.

It looked like across the first quarter Atlanta became convinced that they were well on their way to an easy victory. But the home team kept playing hard and took advantage of a Hawks defense that seemed to be caught flat-footed.

It can be hard to want to dig in and do some analysis after a game like this where it looked like effort was the major issue. Still, there is some logic as to how up and down the Hawks defense is playing absent De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, who both missed this game due to injury.

Oklahoma City attacks through their point guards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Theo Maldeon, and both are members of the starting lineup. Hunter and Reddish are Atlanta’s primary point guard defenders, and Atlanta struggled to contain the ball, especially on drives.

In the three recent games with the Celtics, the Hawks won the two games in which Kemba Walker didn’t play and lost the game in which he did. Cleveland’s best player is their lead guard Collin Sexton. They are at the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency but put up 112 points in their win over Atlanta earlier this week.

Looking back across the game results since Hunter went down with a knee injury, the theme is relatively evident. The Hawks miss their lead guard defenders. Veteran wings Tony Snell and Solomon Hill have something to offer in matchups against teams that create through their wings, but they don’t help so much against opposing point guards.

That was a factor in this game, but it’s hard to say it is the sole reason they lost.

“We all know that we cannot allow teams to score 30 points a quarter,” said Capela after the game, “We just put ourselves in a bad position doing that.”

“(Communication) was definitely missing,” Capela continued. “It wasn’t a game where I was obviously under the (rim) every time. It was just a different set up. The big was over the top so I didn’t get to talk to my guys from behind. So we had to adjust. I had to do a better job guarding the ball at the three-point line. Someone had to do my job being able to talk from behind. We didn’t do a good job about that.”

On the season, the Hawks are about league-average defending shots inside the restricted area, allowing 61% on 31.8 attempts per game. In this contest, the Thunder converted 27 of 35 shots (77%) at the rim despite four blocked shots by Capela.

Head coach Lloyd Pierce even put them into a zone at one point in the second quarter and it didn’t change the results:

The communication between Capela and fellow veteran Solomon Hill was just a little late in the drive by Kenrich Williams.

When they went back to a man-to-man defense, the results looked the same:

To Capela’s point, the communication on the back line is lacking while he is pulled up to the top of the play by Mike Muscala.

“We were beat off the dribble,” explained Pierce. “We didn’t bring help. We didn’t put guys in bad positions. We were a step slow. And it’s unacceptable.”

“I thought we could have done anything we wanted tonight the way we started the game,” he added. “And then they turned it up and then we didn’t respond. Really unfortunate.”

“There’s never a let down in terms of how hard you have to play,” Pierce continued when asked about a pattern of losing games his team is expected to beat. “And it’s understanding that. I think the more that we’re in this situation the more guys are realizing how hard it is to win in the NBA. You have a great game the other night. It doesn’t carry over unless you bring the same type of effort, unless you bring the same type of one-more mentality, offensively and defensively.”

So, there were the defensive issues, and then there was also a down shooting game from Trae Young.

It’s part of being the cornerstone player in a franchise looking to make noise in the league by winning games. But a major part of the formula for winning games is to have an efficient scoring night by Young.

He had 17 points and eight assists on a 7-of-21 performance from the field and he didn’t attempt a free throw, which is out of character for one of the league’s leading foul drawers. The latter suggests how seldom he attacked the paint.

There were a couple of likely reasons. First, he was being defended by Luguentz Dort. It’s important to note that last year when the Thunder used Dort to match up with Young the Hawks used Hunter to attack a point guard, the result of the cross match. Of course, there was no Hunter available in this game.

Second, Young wasn’t physically 100% in the game. In post game comments, he mentioned pain in his foot from an incident that took place in the first quarter and an issue with his groin from a fourth quarter misstep.

It’s hard for Atlanta, especially playing without several key offensive pieces, to put together a successful offensive game on the back of a poor shooting night for Young.

Elsewhere in the stat sheet for Atlanta, John Collins had 25 points and eight rebounds. Capela had 17 points and 21 rebounds to go with his four blocks. Kevin Huerter had 15 points, six rebounds and four assist on a modest shooting performance (5-of-14 from the field, 3-of-9 from the arc).

The Hawks got a decent scoring punch from the bench. Rajon Rondo had 10 points and five assists, but also had four costly turnovers. Skylar Mays had 10 points while Danilo Gallinari had eight.

Gilgeous-Alexander had 24 points for the victors on 18 shooting possessions. The stats, while impressive, don’t convey the amount of stress he put on the opponent in the game with a constant barrage of dribble-drive attacks.

Dort had 19 points including a three-pointer in the final minutes that put the Thunder lead back to nine points after the Hawks had cut it to six.

Second-year power forward Darius Bazely had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Maledon had 13 points and 12 assists and was impressively precise in his drive and kick game.

Despite the poor shooting mark from Young, the Hawks basically hit all of their marks in this game. They used their usually strong effort on the offensive glass to create extra possessions. The only turned the ball over ten times, and they were mostly solid in transition defense.

In the end, though, they were unable to protect the rim.

Let’s take a look at more of the action.

From very early in the game, the Thunder used pick and roll action in an effort to get Gilgeous-Alexander matched up on Young:

With Capela pulled to the wing, there is little resistance at the rim.

Capela was rim running early in the game:

Young connects with a hit-ahead pass. In the first few minutes, it looked as if the Hawks would be easily dominant scoring at the rim in the game.

Young connected on an early pull up three, suggesting maybe he was picking up where he was in the Wednesday win at home.

Atlanta continues to show more versatile action in their organic double drag screen game:

On this play, Capela is the first of the two screens (not the normal sequence) and Collins darts behind the defense instead of following through with the second screen.

His athleticism is a little understated at times, but Maledon shows some of his two-way play making in this sequence:

He comes in from the weak side corner to contest a Capela catch (!!) and operates in the open floor to create an easy score.

More simple ball screen action from the Thunder to isolate Gilgeous-Alexander on Young:

Collins and Capela are late to sort out who should help at the rim.

By normal principles, Collins should be the rim helper here. But it looks like he hands that responsibility off to Capela, a reasonable decision on-the-fly if they can execute it.

Things still seemed in a relatively good place when Hill hit this three in transition:

When they could put together a good defensive possession, it typically led to good things on the other end. Here, Collins and Hill work well together to contain the ball and resist the shot and it leads to points on the fast break.

To me, this looks like the possession on which Young may have injured the foot:

It’s not the most impressive transition possession for Oklahoma City, but they managed to get the points. It’s uncharacteristic to see the Hawks defenders with no hands up at the rim.

As has been the case, when opponents have opportunities to isolate Gallinari on defense good things have happened for them:

Williams gets the easy score.

Huerter with the best dunk of his young career:

This was sneaky action. The Hawks usually bring Huerter all the way to the ball on this set for a ball screen, but here, he curls to the paint and catches the Thunder defense off guard.

More points on a Gilgeous-Alexander drive:

This is another curious defensive possession by the Hawks. It seems that Snell and Capela had a chance to exchange responsibilities when Williams cuts to the dunker spot. But they don’t and Capela is left on the wing where he can’t help at the rim.

To start the second half, the Hawks go into the way-back machine and use an ATO from previous seasons:

(Warning: The Thunder made a wardrobe change at the half)

They ran this a million times for Taurean Prince in Pierce’s first season as coach and a good number of times last season for Hunter and Reddish. Here, Huerter gets some love with the play for him.

(I’m guessing this is maybe the second time we’ve seen them use it this year.)

Atlanta starts showing more cohesiveness on defense in the third quarter:

Then. the bad stuff returns. I don’t know what this defensive coverage is supposed to be from Gallinari and Snell:

Then when the Hawks start to make some offensive progress, Rondo decides to gamble on defense:

Young decides to try to help from the strong side corner (a no-no):

After an offensive rebound by Hill leads to a Young three, the Hawks climb to within six points:

But on the next possession, Dort knocks down a corner three to put the Thunder lead right back to nine points:

And from there, Atlanta never got the game back to within two possessions of the lead.

The defensive execution versus the Celtics on Wednesday evening might have been the best it has been all year for Atlanta. It’s disappointing to see how much negative regression there was in that area in this game.

Up Next

The Hawks travel to Miami next where they will play the first of consecutive games against the Heat on Sunday and Tuesday.

Miami has won five in a row and will be coming off maybe their most impressive victory of the year over the Utah Jazz on Friday evening.

These will be important games. Atlanta currently sits behind the Heat by two games in the Eastern Conference standings.