The Atlanta Hawks took the floor again for the second time in as many nights on Wednesday night in a contest against the Memphis Grizzlies and one that the Hawks ultimately fell short in a 131-113 at State Farm Arena.
The Hawks — already operating without John Collins, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish — were dealt a setback before the game started as both Danilo Gallinari (left ankle soreness) and Clint Capela (left Achilles soreness) were ruled out. While the Grizzlies weren’t without their own absences (missing Justise Winslow, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr.), the visitors were marginal favorites ahead of tip-off.
Bogdan Bogdanovic led the Hawks in scoring with 24 shots on 9-of-20 shooting from the field and 4-of-8 from three, while Trae Young added 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the field to go along with 11 assists.
The Grizzlies were led by Grayson Allen’s season-high 30 points, while Jonas Valanciunas and Ja Morant both added 19 points.
With both teams on the second night of a back-to-back, it was the Hawks who looked far superior in the first quarter, racing to a quick 14 point lead in the first quarter before the Grizzlies fought back to bring the figure to single digits heading into the second quarter.
The Hawks’ evening began to unravel slightly as they committed three turnovers inside the first two minutes of the second quarter, the Grizzlies punishing the Hawks on each occasion to take the lead.
Heading into the second half, the Hawks trailed the Grizzlies by just three points with all to play for and a fifth straight win on the table. However... it was a ghastly third quarter, one where Memphis outscored the Hawks 43-23 put any hopes of a fifth straight win firmly to bed as the Grizzlies quickly ran rampant.
What the Grizzlies did particularly well was push off of the Hawks misses.
Off of the Bogdanovic and Onyeka Okongwu misses, the Grizzlies get in the open court with Morant, who was a little slow to get going in this game but got going in a hurry in the third quarter, starting right here:
Off of a miss from Young, Allen pushes in transition, hesitates before driving toward the rim, taking the contact and hitting the shot for the ‘and-1’:
This got Allen started in the third as he scored 18 points in the third quarter alone.
After another Young miss, Morant collects the rebound and easily beats Okongwu with the step inside to score at the rim:
Morant (14 points) and Allen (18 points) scored 32 of the Grizzlies’ 43 third quarter points and they had already built up a 10 point lead before Young had cut it back to eight points. The Grizzlies established their separation with an 8-2 run, beginning with Morant restoring the Grizzlies’ double-digit lead with this tough push shot coming off of the screen just before Okongwu can get there:
Young was tasked with guarding Allen from the start of this game, with Kevin Huerter taking on the assignment of Morant. Here, Young gets somewhat stuck on a pin-down screen but shows a lack of urgency to recover and really contest Allen, who hits the three-pointer after the Valanciunas hand-off:
After a tip-in from Solomon Hill brought two points back for the Hawks, at the beginning of this clip (you may have to pause it/watch it a few times), you can see Young pointing over towards the weakside corner before relocating weakside. The Grizzlies walk into an open three, essentially, as Allen receives the ball and hits the three:
A real blunder by Young defensively, because at no point is there an immediate threat here from the Grizzlies coming down the court. Huerter has Morant in his view, Bogdanovic has Dillon Brooks, Hill has Anderson and Okongwu covers Valanciunas. I have zero idea what Young is looking at or worried about defensively weakside that would cause him to leave Allen like this and while both Huerter and Hill try to deter Allen, it’s an open three and probably to the surprise of no one, Nate McMillan called for timeout as the Hawks now trail by 14 points.
Coming out of the timeout, the Hawks are unable to get back on the scoresheet and the Grizzlies continue their push with Allen, who receives the ball in transition after the Hawks turn the ball over and Allen hits his third three of the quarter:
Matchups matter a little less in transition because it’s just about getting in front of the ball and halting the ball but, again, Huerter is expected to come over and bail Young out, who very easily could pick up Allen here and guards air instead. In Young’s half defense this time, I can perhaps understand that maybe he was worried about Kyle Anderson getting toward the rim with no defender at the rim but that might be a stretch...
Young tries to immediately respond with a deep three-pointer, misses, the Grizzlies rebound and immediately outlet to the streaking Allen, who scores easily at the rim (not for the first time in this fashion last night):
That basket marked 11 straight points for the Grizzlies scored by Allen.
To put the icing on the cake for the Grizzlies, Young’s pass is telegraphed by Anderson, who whips out the showtime alley-oop to Morant for the highlight play, a 21 point Grizzlies lead and a Hawks timeout:
The game basically ended here for the Hawks. While they got the lead to under 20 points in the fourth quarter, the lead never fell below 17 points in the fourth quarter. McMillan eventually waved the white flag with just over four minutes to go, but could have given this one up much sooner than that on the second night of a back-to-back.
Just as the third quarter was where the Hawks won Tuesday night’s game against the Pelicans, it was lost against the Grizzlies, who scored 43 points on 65% shooting from the field and 55% from three (hitting 5-of-9). The Grizzlies racked up 111 points through three quarters, the Hawks scored 113 for the game itself.
Postgame, McMillan believed the Grizzlies were more physical than the Hawks and did a much better job establishing themselves on the court.
“I thought they were the more physical team tonight,” said McMillan. “I thought they established their tempo right from the start being physical with us on the offensive end of the floor. Defensively we didn’t do a good job of keeping the ball in front of us, they were able to break our defense down and get into the paint and pretty much get what they want. Points in the paint, kick-outs for threes. We never really established ourselves on the defensive end of the floor.”
McMillan, believing his side brought the requisite effort, described the game as one similar to the playoffs in terms pf physicality, saying that as the season continues and the playoffs draw closer that the Hawks can expect to see more of these types of games.
“No, not at all,” said McMillan was asked if he would question the Hawks’ effort last night on both ends of the floor. “One of the things we should take from this game, I thought it was a playoff-type of atmosphere in the sense of how physical Memphis played us. They made us work for everything that we got in this game. They were scrapping, they were holding, they were very physical on the ball. I thought it became a distraction for us and we started chatting to the officials. That’s playoff basketball, that’s what we’re going to see. That is coming. The closer we get with this race trying to get into the playoffs, you’re going to see teams play with that type of effort, that type of physicality and every possession counts. Tonight, I thought they came out and were physical right from the start, they made us work to get whatever we got offensively. Then defensively, they had us on our heels, they were attacking us in the paint. I don’t question my team’s effort. I thought they gave the effort, tonight Memphis was the stronger team.”
Hill echoed his coach’s statement, believing that the Grizzlies wanted this win more and were the more ‘desperate’ team last night.
“Honestly, Memphis just wanted it more,” said Hill postgame. “They were the more desperate team. They’re number one in the league in steals, which produces fast break opportunities for them, from which they took advantage of tonight. Whether it was getting downhill and getting to the free throw line with a mix of ‘and-1’s’ or getting to the paint and finding their shooters. They did a really good job of putting it together tonight. They shot 50% from the field, 40% from three and 80 from the free throw line. They were the aggressors tonight.”
Hill also went on to agree with McMillan’s comments on a playoff-like game, speaking about the adjustments that the playoffs would hold that the Grizzlies brought in the third quarter.
“Yes. Hopefully we understand... That’s a big scouting report thing,” said Hill when asked if losses like this will help build the Hawks into the team they want to be. “We got to understand that the coaches are not putting things on the board just for shits and giggles. When they said they’re the number steals one team in the NBA, they’re going to pack the paint, they want live-ball turnovers. When they get out, you get to really see how fast and athletic Ja Morant is. They can really get going, throwing it off the backboard. I was talking to Ice (Trae Young) I was like ‘That’s usually what we do.’ We’re usually the more athletic team, getting out on the break and it’s Trae throwing it up to JC. We got a little bit of a taste of that, of consistency. Throughout the game, they started off a little slow but came out in that third quarter and made adjustments and that’s what the playoffs are going to be about. It’s going to be about adjustments. You can’t just think you can hold on to a lead, whether it’s by quarters, you got to finish the game. It’s a full 48 minute game.”
Obviously the third quarter was where things changed, and we’ve looked at how the Grizzlies took advantage of the Hawks missed shots to get run-outs etc. Young helped to this degree somewhat, taking a number of poor shots in the third quarter in addition to his poor defense at times. While Young is certainly not responsible for the Hawks losing, his play did fall into the Grizzlies’ hands at times in the third quarter.
Young couldn’t find a groove offensively, both from the field and from the free throw line, where he only had two attempts.
“I think it’s weird,” said Hill, while examining the box score during his postgame comments. “The NBA should take notice of Trae Young shooting two free throws. Whether you like it or not, it’s basketball, it’s in the rulebooks. What he does, it’s the same things that Steph Curry does, James Harden does, Kevin Durant does, Lou Will does. When you’re a talented scorer in this league, this is an offensive league, we think he should be rewarded for his play. I don’t care if people like it or not. Start of the season he’s shooting top-5 free throw attempts per game and tonight he only gets two playing the same way. There’s some inconsistencies that we can’t complain about but we can’t go out and not be the more desperate team. We haven’t earned anything, we haven’t won anything. Tonight was definitely a wakeup call.”
The Grizzlies are the league leaders in points in the paint (scoring 55 per game) and racked up another 60 last night. Capela’s absence is a blow to the Hawks on any day, but especially last night.
“Of course, Clint makes a difference, he helps us in the paint, defending the basket but tonight we were without him,” said McMillan when asked about how much Capela’s absence attributed to last night’s result. “When you have guys that are not in uniform, we have the approach ‘next man up.’ Big O had to step into that role, Nathan (Knight) had to step into that role. Those are the guys we had to go with tonight. We know Clint makes a difference but he wasn’t with us tonight.”
In Capela’s absence, Okongwu made just his second NBA start. It was a tough spot for Okongwu, who was tasked with the Valanciunas matchup but despite that Okongwu scored a rookie-high 13 points as well as collecting his first double-double with 11 rebounds (six of them offensive rebounds).
Okongwu’s best work came more so in the first half and he was lively in the first quarter, getting his evening going with this tough finish at the rim with Valanciunas in close proximity:
On the pick-and-roll link-up with Huerter, Okongwu hops nicely into a position to finish on the other side of the rim, taking Valanciunas out of the play:
Okongwu was active on the offensive glass with his six offensive rebounds, one of them leading to direct points for Okongwu as he tips this rebound home:
One of the things that has looked better — certainly in this game — was how Okongwu positioned himself in order to be better placed to receive the ball.
As Young navigates inside the paint, trying to find a way around Valanciunas, Okongwu back-pedals slightly away from Valanciunas for enough space for him to get the shot up off of the feed from Young:
This next clip will be a better example, as Okongwu moves out of the paint on the drive from Hill, which Valanciunas focuses on. From there, Okongwu shifts into prime position, receives the ball and finishes at the rim:
For his final basket of the night, Okongwu links up with Young on the pick-and-roll and flashes his athleticism with the dunk:
Okongwu has a lot to learn offensively in terms of being a screener and when to screen (he can be pretty stationary at times), but these things will come with time. All-in-all, considering the matchup, Okongwu did as solid of a job as could’ve been expected against Memphis.
“Told myself before the game, go out there and have fun,” said Okongwu of starting at center. “Play hard, play with energy like I’ve been doing recently. That’s all I did. Just having fun out there, playing hard and good things will happen when you do that.”
Okongwu seemed to be relatively calm in what would’ve been a forgivable moment to be overcome with nerves and McMillan was pleased with Okongwu’s performance.
“I thought he gave us some good minutes from the start,” said McMillan of Okongwu. “Valanciunas is a big man and he’s very productive, he’s very physical in that paint. Having your first start against a player like that, I thought he did a pretty good job for us early in the game. He didn’t seem to be nervous about the start, came in and gave us some good minutes but as a unit we just didn’t have enough.”
Okongwu has had difficult expectations thrust upon him in his rookie season as the sixth overall selection. Generally speaking, rookies aren’t great NBA players in their first season as they try and adjust to the NBA life but this year has been more difficult than ever for rookies without summer league, a proper training camp or the G League.
“He’s still growing,” said Hill of Okongwu. “It’s tough to put his growth in perspective. His availability this past month, he’s been ready for us. The thing guys have to understand on this team this year is we all have to be ready and available at any given moment. This year is taking a toll on a lot of our guys. He’s staying with it. He lacked summer league, he lacked a real sense of training camp and these practices but he’s able to figure it out as he goes. We’re going to be patient with him, we’re going to continue try to coach him. He’s doing nice on his rolls. One of the biggest adjustments for any rookie is to be able finish in the paint. Everybody is a world class athlete, he’s not just the biggest guy on the court anymore. He’s going to see waves of different matchups. He got a chance to play against Zion a little bit and Steven Adams, he got Jonas Valaciunas tonight and we’ve got a game coming up against Vucevic. He’s going to learn, he’s going to learn in-game and get his rotations right and figure things out.”
It remains to be seen what the status of Capela will be come Friday night for the Hawks’ next fixture but if Capela is, again, ruled out then — based on the evidence of McMillan pitching Okongwu against a less than favorable matchup in Valanciunas — it stands to reason that Okongwu would probably start again on Friday against Nikola Vucevic.
While the Grizzlies started off this game slow, on the balance of the second and third quarters (because the fourth quarter really didn’t matter), they deserved this victory. Offensively, there wasn’t anything wrong for the Hawks. Sure, Young didn’t have a great game offensively but the Hawks still scored 113 points. The Hawks are 21-7 heading into last night’s game when they score 113 points or more in a game. Giving up 43 points in a quarter in what was a close game beforehand will just about do it on any night — the defense wasn’t quite where it needed to be.
You have to give the Grizzlies credit too: second night of a road back-to-back and while Capela is a massive loss defensively for the Hawks, the Grizzlies are missing players too. They deserved their win and the Hawks can still thank them for beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night — as you were.
The Hawks (27-25) are back in action on Friday night when they’ll take on the Chicago Bulls (21-28) at State Farm Arena at 8 p.m. ET
Until next time...