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Strong bench play not enough as Hawks fall late to Heat, 124-118

Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks were in numerous headlines over the past few days due to a completed trade involving Cam Reddish heading to the New York Knicks. They looked to put the chatter behind them in a matchup against the Miami Heat in south Florida.

Despite wrestling away the lead in the second quarter and maintaining that lead until very late in the fourth quarter, the Hawks dropped yet another contest 124-118 to fall to a record of 17-24 at the halfway point in the season.

Atlanta began in an early hole, down 30-13 in the first quarter due to some sharpshooting from the Miami Heat, who welcomed back Jimmy Butler from an extended absence. But it was Max Strus who got loose over and over. As late as 3:31 remaining in the first quarter, Strus had 16 points on seven shots and the Hawks as a team had only 16. Lax transition defense has been a familiar motif for this team, and early on in this game was no exception.

But the Hawks bench came in and helped dig the starters out of a hole, with crisp ball movement and better energy on the defensive end. De’Andre Hunter, who made his first start since returning, in particular had a strong game defending at the point of attack and harassing Jimmy Butler at times.

Hunter helped stiffen up the transition defense upon he reentry to the game. Below he erases Strus’ shot and creates a scoring opportunity going the other way in this sequence in the second quarter.

Atlanta even mixed in some zone defense to good effect, despite the early hot outside shooting from Miami. Below, the Hawks use a 2-3 zone to help Gorgui Dieng stay attached to backdoor lurker Caleb Martin. A high screen-and-roll from former Hawk Dewayne Dedmon doesn’t change the calculus of what Atlanta is trying to do here: stay home and contest everything around the basket.

Danilo Gallinari cooled off after a hot start, but contributed 18 points off the bench in a solid shooting night. Kevin Huerter did the same with 15 points, four rebounds, and two assists.

With Lou Williams out of the rotation for the foreseeable future, the Hawks will need these two to step up and generate offense with the second unit. Below, Huerter curls off of two down screens, gets Duncan Robinson on his back hip, and calmly wiggles to the basket for two.

Delon Wright and Onyeka Okongwu gave the Hawks some defensive tenacity that they have been missing for most of this season. Wright had three big steals in just 13 minutes of play, and Okongwu led the team in rebounding with six in limited minutes. Here was another example of turning defense into offense in a hurry.

“I thought our bench came in tonight and played really well for us tonight,” said head coach Nate McMillan. “In both the first half and the second half. They did a good job of getting us back into the game in that first half. In the second half, they were able to keep that lead and allow us to give it back to the starters with I think a five or six point lead. And that’s what you want from your bench. And our starters, they have to finish the game.”

“They got off to a hot start,” said Trae Young about the game flow. “Our second unit came in and closed the gap for us and it was good we were able to have the lead going into halftime. There were just some crucial missed opportunities down the stretch for us to finish the game.”

“[The bench] did a great job of keeping us in the game,” he continued. “Delon [Wright] did a great job of managing the game. [Onyeka Okongwu] came in and did a great job. Just battling and getting rebounds.”

Still, despite the Hawks never trailing from the 4:40 mark in the second quarter until the last minute of the game, the team left FTX Arena with yet another disappointing loss. Young led the team with 24 points and nine assists, but he committed a pair of untimely turnovers during the late game fade for the visitors.

The first one is just Young trying to make a play on the drive to the basket with 4 seconds on the play clock, but Martin slides in to take the charge.

The next one was a brutal unforced turnover as Young looses control of his crossover move trying to break down the defense. A subsequent Kevin Huerter loose ball foul with the Heat in the bonus added insult to injury.

Huerter committed an unforced turnover of his own, turning down the opportunity to call a timeout and regroup to instead put the ball into play up for grabs off the inbounds.

“We had some mental errors late in the game that we can figure out and fix for tomorrow,” Young had to say. “But we’ve just got to be better. It was a good stretch we had in the first three quarters tonight.”

“Mistakes going down the stretch in the fourth quarter,” summed up coach McMillan. “We didn’t execute offensively. Had a couple of bad fouls. Gave up a couple of loose balls. Those 50-50 balls, we’ve got to get those. We just didn’t execute in that fourth quarter and it cost us tonight.”

Asked if the thought the team played well enough to win, McMillan concurred saying, “I thought we played a good enough game to win this game. And now we have to build off of this and get back to finishing games. I thought we did some good things defensively. Offensively we were able to score. That’s a tough team, a really good team over there. And we had control of this game for most of the second half. And now you have to finish. We have to learn how to win games like this.”

“This is all about team effort,” he continued. “We had some guys who did some good things but we didn’t win this game. The bottom line is to win the game.”

The loss drops Atlanta to eight games under .500 at the midway point of the season. The Hawks will have to pick up the pieces quickly as they match up against recent rival New York Knicks tonight in State Farm Arena at 7:30 pm ET.