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Hawks unable to stabilize defense in loss to Lakers

Atlanta Hawks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks allowed yet another opponent to produce an outlier shooting performance in their Friday evening loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The issue is that it is becoming increasingly clear that their own defensive performance is the common denominator in these performances.

Los Angeles went 17-for-41 from the three-point line in their 134-118 victory over the Hawks. The Lakers are, at best, an average perimeter shooting team both in terms of volume and percentage.

As a result, Atlanta has now allowed 130 points or more in four of their last six games. The only games in which they held their opponent to fewer than 130 points they won.

In their four recent losses opponents have collectively shot 63-for-141 (44.6%) from distance. It would seemingly be unsustainable for Hawks opponents to continue shooting with this level of proficiency, One would think a regression to the mean would be lurking. But across these four games, Atlanta appears to have stopped consistently contesting shots on the perimeter.

There are many potential explanations for this. Like many other teams in the league the Hawks are working players back into the rotation that have been out after testing positive for COVID. Naturally, this would affect things like energy and stamina.

But those explanations likely only go so far.

In addition to the team’s struggles defending jump shooters, the Hawks are giving up points to opponents after turning the ball over. Even after committing 15 turnovers in the loss to the Lakers, the Hawks still have the lowest mark in the league on a per game basis.

But in the four recent losses they have allowed 80 points off of turnovers. Despite the excellent turnover rate the Hawks, on the season, allow a league average volume of points to opponents off of their turnovers. This emphasizes that the types of turnovers that the Hawks are committing are of the worst kind, often live ball turnovers in bad spots on the floor that allow opponents to generate easy buckets in transition.

This additionally emphasizes an issue in the area of transition defense. Naturally, the two go hand in hand. Lineup continuity, to a degree, could seemingly be a reasonable factor in each of these areas. But, at the end of the day, a team has to be accountable for it’s performance, especially in key phases of the game.

When the Atlanta offense would get choppy for stretches, it sometimes felt like the area of the game that was holding them back. But any ability to get consistent stops on defense would have given the game a completely different vibe. The defense is an issue. And it’s not immediately clear what the solution is.

In recent weeks the Hawks have looked like a team that knows it has issues on defense but has more confidence in trying to overcome them through excellent offensive output. It’s probably realistic to pursue such a formula for a somewhat regular win. But for a team that presumably hopes to push for a 50-win season, a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and position itself for another postseason run, it’s not a realistic plan. Not even close.

After this performance in Los Angeles one wonders if that reality is starting to sink in.

“We need to be better,” said Hawks acting head coach Joe Prunty after the game. “We need to be better defensively.”

“We have to take an individual challenge first and then guard as a team,” he added.

Atlanta allowed at least 33 points in each quarter in the Friday evening loss. The performance on that end of the court never stabilized for any meaningful period. Certainly not a recipe for success.

“It’s a collective thing. It’s not one particular thing,” said Trae Young when speaking about the teams defensive performance.

In the Friday evening loss, the Hawks were, once again, good enough on offense to get a victory. They managed 118 points by way of an offensive rating of 111.3, just below their season mark.

“We’ve got to have a lot of changes, when it comes to having a better game plan and having guys out there that really want to win,” Young added.

“It’s unacceptable,” said John Collins in a direct manner. “We’ve got to dig down and do the things that are necessary to win or this is going to be the result every night.”

As has too often been the case this season, Atlanta found themselves in a hole early in the game landing down ten points before five minutes had been played. They used some shot making of their own late in the first quarter to close the period down six points.

By the time the game reached the midpoint they were down just three points but had allowed 64 points.

Among other challenges it’s exhausting to try to chase enough points to overcome that kind of defensive performance. Atlanta would find themselves with a double-digit deficit for much of the second half and couldn’t get back in realistic range down the stretch.

Prunty finally pulled the plug in the final minutes of the game.

After missing Wednesday’s game versus the Sacramento Kings Young posted 25 points and 14 assists on one of his rougher shooting performances of recent going 8-for-21 from the floor, He made just one of his seven three-point attempts and had nine turnovers.

In his first game back from being in health and safety protocols, Collins managed 21 points and eight rebounds.

Bogdan Bogdanovic added 15 points on a decent shooting performance but ended up a game worst -25 in the box score.

Kevin Huerter (16 points) and Onyeka Okongwu (12 points, seven rebounds) helped boost the offense on the second unit. Danilo Gallinari added 13 points and five rebounds in reserve play.

For the winners, Lebron James led all scorers with 32 points while adding nine rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocked shots.

Malik Monk was the hot shooter the Lakers needed in the half court producing 29 points converting 7-of-12 shots from the arc,

Doing most of his work offensively in the early going Avery Bradley posted 21 points on 13 shooting possessions.

Talen Horton-Tucker had 21 points and five assists off the Lakers bench while Carmelo Anthony contributed 17 points and seven rebounds.

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

This early Hawks possession allows for a look at how aggressively the Lakers were playing Young in the pick and roll:

Young misses on his first attempt from long range.

The Lakers produce their first transition score on Young’s first turnover:

Notice that James, as the center, is the dropping in coverage. He improvises a bit here, using his reliable instincts, and gives Young a nearly impossible read on this play.

Bradley gets a completely uncontested three:

Young seems to complain to the official that James was using an elbow to restrict his path to the shooter.

The Lakers get another runout score following a Bogdanovic turnover:

That’s a tight passing window.

Okongwu works straight to the center of the paint after drawing Horton-Tucker in a switch:

He seals his man and uses a nice pass from Bogdanovic to get the easy score at the rim.

Young uses a possession after on offensive rebound to attack a Los Angeles defense that isn’t set:

The result is an easy lob to Okongwu for another easy score at the rim.

Huerter knocks down a three after the ball is rotated to the weak side:

This was his best shooting performance since an early December game versus the Nets.

One of the more disappointing defensive possessions in the game:

Bogdanovic matches up with Monk after good communication and organization. He has three available defenders behind him and doesn’t chase Monk off of the line.

The Lakers catch Atlanta taking too much time trying to get into a zone:

Another open three.

Young, as he often does, finds himself being defended by a big wing:

He finds an easy time getting past Horton-Tucker for the lay up.

Clint Capela gets behind Anthony and Young finds him with a lob:

Hawks again attack the Lakers defense before its set:

Good ball movement sets up the open corner three for Huerter.

A really uncharacteristic turnover leads to a three-point play for the Lakers:

That’s an unusually long distance for this pass to be executed.

Young was opportunistic about finding chances to push the ball:

Once again Atlanta gets a bucket before the Lakers can set their defense.

Young snakes through the defense and connects on a teardrop floater:

It appears the Hawks get caught trying to get into a zone again here:

Another open three.

Los Angeles gets their fourth quarter started with a bucket in transition:

James starts to get into his bag:

Capela had to exit the game with an ankle injury. As a result Gallinari and Collins are playing together for the first time in a while:

The Hawks can’t get help to the rim and James gets a lay up.

And the possession that probably put this one out of reach, at least mentally was a back door cut that Young doesn’t track:

Up Next

The Hawks will enjoy a weekend in Los Angeles, including an early tip versus the Clippers on Sunday. It will be a 3:30 pm ET start time.