The Atlanta Hawks came up short in the fourth quarter vs. the New York Knicks on Saturday evening for the second consecutive night after once again fighting back from a double-digit deficit. They got off to a decent start in the game but managed to dig a hole in the final minutes of the first half that sent them into the break down 14 points.
The Hawks’ second unit, who played more effectively throughout the game than the first unit, managed to narrow the lead to four with roughly eight and a half minutes to play. But once the Hawks starters returned things slipped from their control.
One imagines that frustration continues to mount for a team that entered the season with such high expectations. Atlanta has now lost five in a row for the second time this season (10 straight losses at home).
Their only wins in their last eleven games are a three-point win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and a six-point win over the Sacramento Kings.
Through all of the injuries and the disruption due to COVID absences, there has been a presumed reason to think the Hawks could find their footing with enough of the season remaining to make a relatively safe move upward in the Eastern Conference standings.
But things are starting to become urgent for a team now officially playing in the second half of their season. They finished play on Saturday evening in as the No. 12 seed in the conference and a full four games behind the No. 11 Boston Celtics team.
Atlanta continues to hit the mark on offense, still in possession of the second best offensive rating in the league. But they give back so much on the defensive end of the court, currently sitting 28th in defensive rating.
“You look around the league and every team wants to be good at home,” said Trae Young in post game comments. “You’ve got to be able to protect home court. We haven’t been able to do that in a long time.”
“We’ve just got to find a way,” answered Atlanta head coach Nate McMillan when asked about getting back in the win column. “We’ve got to put together a 48-minute game, a solid 48-minute game. And we haven’t been able to do that.”
“We need to learn how to finish games,” said Danilo Gallinari echoing, to a degree, the words of his coach. “Games are going to be like this, and we’ve just got to find ways to finish games. We haven’t been doing that this year.”
The most consistent thread in losses this season has been an inability to get steps on defense when they urgently need them.
Coming into the season, the defensive approach was founded on a unique opportunity to get 48 good minutes at the center position in each game with the ability to have Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu cover those responsibilities. Additionally, they were counting on De’Andre Hunter consistently taking the toughest defensive assignment at the point of attack.
Thus far this season, Capela and Okongwu have appeared in the same game just four times.
Meanwhile, the trio of Capela, Okongwu and Hunter have yet to play in the same game.
They should be better than a bottom five defense, but this lack of continuity in the key defensive roles has, so far, been too much for them to overcome.
New York, a bottom ten offense in the league, posted a robust offensive rating of 117 in their Saturday evening win.
The one area in the contest where things went a bit differently was the degree to which the Hawks second unit carried the team offensively. Atlanta’s bench posted 45 points, shooting 10-for-14 on two-point attempts and 7-for-14 on three-point attempts. That’s good for 45 points on 31 shooting possessions.
The Hawks starting five managed 63 points on 57 shooting possessions, normally good enough to win.
With four minutes to play Atlanta was down three points. Their next six possessions consisted of four missed field goals attempts, a single made three-point field goal attempt, and a turnover.
Meanwhile, New York put nine points on the board in their first four possessions under the four minute mark.
During this stretch, the Knicks were in the bonus with Robinson on the court. Atlanta could have opted to hack Robinson on these possessions but didn’t use the strategy.
And that stretch was the difference in the game.
Young put together a 29-point, five-assist performance on a decent shooting performance. John Collins had 13 points on eight shooting possessions while managing just three rebounds.
In reserve action Gallinari had 17 points and four rebounds while Okongwu had 12 points, five rebound, two blocked shots.
Okongwu went to the bench 6:20 to play in the game after a dominant stretch of play. This was at the same time that McMillan re-entered four starters to play with Gallinari for the final stretch.
Closing without Okongwu was a bit of a curious decision although he had played 12 straight minutes of game action during the most intense stretch of the game to that point. He may have been called upon to return after a brief rest except that Atlanta found themselves down far enough to require keep the shooting of Gallinari and Collins on the floor.
New York got a strong offensive output from their starters headlined by RJ Barrett (26 points), Julius Randle (24 points), and Evan Fournier (18 points).
Mitchell Robinson impacted the game with 14 points and thirteen rebounds. Alec Burks added 17 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
The energy was good on an early defensive possession that turned into a transition score:
Young contains the dribble of Fournier and gets the steal which leads to the chance the push the pace.
In recent games, Atlanta has come to rely heavily on attacking mismatches they have created:
Young on Randle is a favorable mismatch, but too much of this stifles player and ball movement.
An excellent defensive possession here by the Hawks as they contain the dribble on the baseline and work hard to close out on shooters:
Okongwu and Kevin Huerter are basically racing one another to close out on Burks.
Collins passes out of a double team to Trae, who steps into a three:
If you notice Randle sprinting on the weak side of the play, it’s not often you see this from Hawks opponents when it’s not Young forcing all of the defensive agitation away from the ball.
Gallinari was good on defense down low in this one:
He hangs with Barrett and forces a miss.
Gallinari had an unexpected drive and dunk:
Huerter attacks before the defense can get set:
It leads to a nice dish and Okongwu dunk.
Hunter attacks the paint on the first possession of the third quarter:
Hawks need more of this from their wings.
Atlanta largely decided to soft double Randle in the post by bringing the center to the low block on the strong side:
This is how they schemed him in the playoffs last season.
Hunter again attacks the paint after beating his close out defender:
Young and Collins catch the Knicks matched up in a suboptimal manner and attack:
Robinson and Randle are both on the weak side of the play and can’t get to the rim to help.
New York starts getting some separation:
Young buries a three to try to stay in contact.
Okongwu is advanced beyond his years:
As he is being held by Toppin he takes advantage of the contact to get leverage on the play and gets to the rim to flush the dish from Gallinari.
Atlanta catches Randle and Robinson in a brief match up mix up:
Gallinari cuts it to three with a three-point make.
Unfortunately, this is where the Hawks would start to struggle on offense while the Knicks start to get on a run.
Barrett makes a three after the ball is rotated from the strong side where Huerter has held up well on Randle.
A Fournier three basically puts the game out of reach:
The Hawks (17-25) will host the Milwaukee Bucks (27-18) on Monday as the NBA celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s tough match up for an Atlanta team desperately looking to get back into the win column despite the fact that the Bucks are 1-6 in their last seven games.
Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 pm ET.