Coming off an ugly defensive performance in which they gave up 131 points to a league-average offense in the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday evening, the Atlanta Hawks needed to find some confidence on that end of the court. Even though Atlanta was extremely undermanned in the frontcourt in Wednesday’s defeat, a game in which they simply could not find a defensive solution, a game like that can serious do damage to a team’s confidence.
Then on Friday, Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine came along and put up a whopping 39 points on them by halftime, even though Atlanta’s best defender, Clint Capela, was back on the floor after having missed the contest against Memphis.
Capela was playing well, though, and there was no doubt about it. On their way to a 66-point first half performance, the Bulls connected on only 9 of 20 shots in the paint. At the same time, LaVine was knocking down shots from all over the place, including connecting on seven of nine from the three-point line.
It didn’t look good for the home team as they entered the half having given up 130 points in their last 48 minutes of play. Thanks to the Bulls being wildly unimpressive on defense themselves, Capela and Trae Young scored at will, largely by way of the pick and roll, and kept Atlanta in range despite the 13-point halftime deficit.
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan had tried basically every wing defender at his disposal in the first half in an effort to slow LaVine. Solomon Hill probably had the best results, but he had the benefit of watching his teammates attempting numerous different techniques to no avail. But by the time Hill had his turn, it seemed as if the coaching staff had empowered him to ignore any defensive responsibility other than staying attached to LaVine.
Atlanta also started doubling LaVine in ball screens after a timeout roughly midway through the second quarter. After the half, the Hawks dedicated a second defender to Chicago’s All-Star guard essentially as soon as he crossed mid-court.
Finally, they were able to force the ball out of the hands of LaVine and challenge Chicago’s secondary playmakers to produce.
And it worked.
Chicago managed just 42 points in the second half, while the Hawks received consistent offense from Young and Danillo Gallinari to take control down the stretch on their way to a 12I-108 victory.
“I feel like we were able to come back in this game because of our defense,” commented Capela after the game, keeping it simple.
“Really what we needed to do is get stops and score on the other end,” Young added. “I think we did that in the third quarter, and it got us back in the game with the momentum more on our side at that point.”
Atlanta continues to play without injured players that were intended to provide defensive resistance at the point of attack. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish haven’t played in a good while and Kris Dunn has yet to make his first appearance on the season.
The situation could also be worsening, as Tony Snell left this game in the second half with an ankle injury.
As such, holding up defensively requires a consistent team effort. It’s nice to have a big man that can clean things up at the rim, but even the best rim protectors need teammates to contain things to some degree on the perimeter. Atlanta was eventually able to figure that out in this game.
“We just stayed together,” said McMillan in postgame comments. “And that was something that I put up on the board at the beginning of the game. I thought in our last game, Memphis did a good job of pressuring us and really making it hard for us to score. They established their tempo. And I thought we kind of separated in the second half of that game. And the games that we’re going to be playing from here on out, they’re going to be tough games. It’s going to be like this, I think, the rest of the way. And certainly, if we are fortunate enough to get into the playoffs you’re going to have this type of intensity.”
Chicago acquired an All-Star center at the trade deadline when they made a deal for Nikola Vucevic, no doubt one of the most gifted offensive big men in the league. He’s a capable team defender, but he’s not the rim presence some of his peers in the league are. And in that area, the Bulls have a few things to sort out.
Atlanta was 40 for 57 on two-point attempts in the game and a scalding 31 for 42 on shots in the lane. The points at the rim were available throughout the game for the Hawks and they took advantage.
When Young or Lou Williams worked in the traditional high pick and roll, it simply seemed that Chicago was content to drop back and invite floaters and other midrange attempts.
When Atlanta threw a second screener in the mix, the Bulls just had no ability to contain the ball nor the big man diving to the rim.
On a per-game basis, Chicago allows the fourth most points in the paint to opponents, and the Hawks seized upon and maximized those opportunities in this game.
Young had maybe his best offensive game of the season, producing 42 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds. He was a scalding 15 for 25 on field goal attempts despite connecting on just one of his six three point attempts.
Elsewhere in the stat book for Atlanta, Capela had 22 points (on just 14 shooting possessions), 10 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots. Kevin Huerter had 11 points and five assists while Bogdan Bogdanovic contributed 10 points.
Gallinari helped Young close the game strong on the offensive end and managed 20 points and six rebounds. Williams had nine points and five assists in continued solid play off of the bench.
LaVine used a garbage time dunk to get his 49th and 50th points, and why not? He needed just 35 shooting possessions to post the first 50-point performance of his career. He also had eight rebounds and five assists.
Vucevic had an effortless 25 points and ten rebounds but couldn’t get enough shots to fall late in the game.
Tomas Satoransky had one of the odder stat lines of the season in this game, going scoreless but producing 10 assists.
Coby White showed some pluckiness off the bench for the Bulls in the second half and managed 11 points and four assists overall.
In the end, the Hawks simply deployed better and more functional lineups with a second unit bolstered by veterans.
Lets take a look at some of the action:
The Hawks started with Huerter defending LaVine but the Bulls guard wastes no time getting started:
He gets separation and knocks down the three.
Chicago’s defensive issues are visible from the get-go:
Chicago doesn’t track Capela all the way to the rim as his dives in the pick and roll and the result is easy points.
It’s the same result as Huerter and Capela work together:
As Huerter snakes to the middle of the lane, Capela is able to get to the baseline side with no defensive help available.
After the first timeout of the game, Chicago decides to try switching on Atlanta pick and rolls for a bit:
Huerter gets the lay up to go over Vucevic.
This possession offers a look at how comfortably Young was getting to his floater versus the Bulls drop coverage against middle pick and rolls:
He is able to make a straight line drive to through the center of the lane.
When Chicago starts dripping on side action as to cut off the path of the big man diving to the rim, Young finds easy mid range jumpers available:
To start the second quarter, the Hawks use their “stack” set to get Williams into a double-drag pick and roll:
He manages to find a comfortable jumper at the top of the key for three points.
Next possession, same action:
This time, Chicago steps up toward Williams but lose track of Okongwu diving through the paint.
On this trip, the Bulls really load up in the middle, so Williams just attacks the paint in a straight line, which opens up another lob to Okongwu.
I mean, this is how you keep an opposing team in the game while you have a player putting up 39 points in a half:
Meanwhile, LaVine is still cooking even though the Hawks are starting to bring their defensive big up to the level of the screen for support:
Next, it’s Hill’s turn:
But what’s anyone supposed to do with that?
Chicago initiates the pick and roll higher in the half court:
Capela responds by venturing further from the paint. But it doesn’t matter on this possession.
Chicago smartly starts the third quarter with LaVine off the ball:
Atlanta seemed prepared for him to lift into another dribble handoff (DHO), so he cuts back door and gets the easy score.
Sensing the extra attention about to come his way, LaVine tries to attack before Atlanta can get its defense set:
It’s still easy to see how many defenders Atlanta is willing to allocate to him.
Meanwhile, Young is still finding easy floaters:
The defensive double becomes an outright trap when LaVine, for some reason, works toward the sideline:
Things start to come with more difficulty for LaVine.
Atlanta even doubles LaVine on the DHO:
On this possession, the Bulls are able to turn it into points at the rim.
But with a player like LaVine, in a game like this where he really has it going as a scorer, a good team is going to make him do this more than once and see if he has the resolve to make the right play time and time again.
From there, he starts rushing up the floor looking to head off the double team and creates shots without ever getting him team into their desired sets:
This is where White starts to get aggressive:
Williams gets to a floater:
Because he can run the same action Young can operate, the change to Williams at back up point guard has helped them from the standpoint of offensive continuity significantly.
Atlanta continues to double LaVine and White keeps up his aggressiveness:
But if they are honest about it, the Hawks live with this.
As LaVine cools, Gallinari heats up:
And, hey look at Young and Gallinari working together off the ball to create a shot!
LaVine tries to assert himself once more:
But Capela shows up at the rim and rejects the shot attempt.
From there, the Hawks took control.
At the end of play on Friday, the Hawks were tied for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with the Charlotte Hornets. However, the Hornets have already clinched the tie breaker.
Atlanta and Charlotte are a half game ahead of the Miami Heat and a full game up on the Boston Celtics.
The Hawks travel to Charlotte to face the Hornets in a Sunday matinee. It’s a crucially pivotal game given how these teams are fighting for their respective places in the standings. Tip off is scheduled for 1:00 pm ET.