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Lack of defense dooms Hawks in loss to Hornets

The Hawks fall to defeat for the first time this season.

Charlotte Hornets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday evening at State Farm Arena, 126-109.

Trae Young scored 28 points to lead the Hawks in scoring, Dejounte Murray added 19 points. For the Hornets — without LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier — Kelly Oubre poured out 24 points while Nick Richards added 20 points and 11 rebounds in 20 minutes of action.

The Hawks began this game as well as you might have expected in this spot, taking a 22-9 lead before the Hornets reduced it prior to the end of the first quarter. Things began to take a turn in the second quarter as the Hornets not only erased what remained of the Hawks’ lead but built a double-digit lead of their own.

Atlanta cut that to a four point deficit to open the third quarter and it’s here where the game got away from the Hawks. The Hornets began the quarter on a 10-0 run to re-establish their double-digit lead, one the Hawks would never bring below nine points for the remainder of the game.

So we’ll take a quick look at that period and how it got away for the Hawks.

PJ Washington gets the scoring underway for the visitors to begin the second half, De’Andre Hunter caught sagging just a smidge too far on the switch:

Hunter takes a tough shot on the other end in response, a good challenge from Gordon Hayward:

A split pair of Mason Plumlee free throws later, the Hawks come again but Young is doubled and his pass out of it is deflected for a steal by Dennis Smith Jr., who takes the ball in transition, is fouled by John Collins and scores the basket:

A missed floater by Young and the Hornets punish the Hawks’ slow offensive start as they move the ball around to find Oubre for a three-pointer, capping off a 10-0 run in little under a minute to transform this ball-game:

10 points in just over a minute was a microcosm for the rest of the quarter for the Hawks defensively, who conceded 45 third quarter points as the Hornets ran out to a 20 point lead. Though the Hawks had a mini-resurgence in the fourth after two missed Gordon Hayward free throws, the Hornets quickly rallied to put the game beyond the Hawks, who left themselves with too much to do.

The Hawks held the Hornets to 22 first quarter points but conceded 104 points in the remaining three quarters (with Charlotte shooting 54% from the field in those three quarters) while the Hawks conversely fell out of an offensive rhythm themselves, shooting just 40% from the field in the final three quarters.

“I thought the first quarter we had a rhythm early,” said Hawks head coach McMillan. “But then we started to turn the ball over. Defensively, we could not get stops and they got into a rhythm. We weren’t able to get stops in the second or third quarter. When you’re not making shots you can’t drop your head, you’ve got to get back and play defense. I felt like our lack of shot making tonight, we took that to the defensive end of the floor.”

“We didn’t play defense so there was no energy, there was no urgency from us on the defensive end of the floor,” McMillan went on to say. “I didn’t think there was much urgency from us on the offensive end of the floor. We weren’t running our sets with pace — we were going three-quarters speed walking through our sets on the offensive end of the floor. When we did get open looks we didn’t make those shots. There’s just got to be more urgency on both ends of the floor.”

The game did seem to change somewhat when Young picked up his third foul in the first quarter. When he did, the Hawks led the Hornets 24-11 with 2:36 remaining in the quarter. The Hornets managed to almost double their scoring output to end the quarter after that to reduce the deficit to eight points in what would become the platform for their second and third quarter success in which they scored 37 and 45 points respectively.

“The end of that first quarter they got into a rhythm, into groove and then they just got hot,” said Young. “Start of the game it was really good but then they got hot and it felt like they couldn’t stop.”

“We gave up two huge quarter, not big quarters, they were huge quarters” added McMillan. “37 and 45... I can’t explain that.”

Young was left frustrated with his third foul call and earned himself a technical foul afterwards. Young normally plays the entire first quarter and he just seemed to be taken out of his flow there after.

“I ain’t trying to give them no more of my money,” said Young when asked about the momentum shift after his foul trouble. “These guys in striped shirts want to tell me it’s all good after the play and after the dot but that third foul is a big momentum swing. I end the quarter usually so for me having to come out at the end of that quarter over a foul and later they want to tell me it wasn’t there, I get frustrated hearing that all the time.”

McMillan acknowledged that there are going to be some nights where the Hawks starters don’t have it going offensively and Young doesn’t have it cooking, but did not like the Hawks’ lack of connection (one of McMillan’s three C’s) on the court.

“That’s what it looked like but that’s going to happen,” said McMillan on if the Young foul trouble in the first quarter sucked the urgency out the Hawks. “There’s going to be some nights where Trae doesn’t get it going. I thought the last game he didn’t have a rhythm early and our bench came in and did a solid job. That’s going to happen in situations like that where one or two of the starters may not get it going, you’re going to need some help from your bench. It didn’t feel like we were connected out there. I thought we were quiet, I saw a lot of down heads not connected and trying to lift each other out there. I think we were concerned about our own game as opposed to coming together and finding a way to get it going.”

A fact the Hawks may have forgotten in the aftermath of their pursuit for the playoffs last season was that the Hornets came into State Farm Arena for the play-in game and were rolled over by the Hawks in a 132-103 loss that saw the Hornets’ season come to a screeching end and would prompt them change their coach in the aftermath.

The Hornets would not have forgotten; they wanted this game.

‘’Tonight was just extra special because this is where our season ended last year,’’ said Kelly Oubre via the AP. ‘’It was a bigger challenge for us to come here and stay locked in and focused on the game plan. Super proud of Coach and super proud of the guys for being ready.’’

“I think they came in here and wanted the game more, showed more effort,” said Murray. “They were ready to play, we weren’t ready to play starting with myself. That’s what we take from it. First quarter, whatever — you’ve got to play 48 minutes. You’ve got to make missed shots, turn the ball over. With the effort, you’ve got to be there every single night and I take accountability, so starting with me on down we weren’t ready to play tonight.”

The Hornets came in and, despite their slow start found their momentum, moved the ball really well after breaking down the Hawks’ defense, dishing out 28 assists. The Hornets worked themselves into good opportunities but also walked in good opportunities at times because the Hawks’ defensive resistance at time was not great:

“I thought they played with more pace than we did,” said McMillan. “Steve’s team has always been solid, they’re going to be solid on both ends of the floor. They’re going to make you work offensively, they’re not going to come down and shoot quick. They make you work and they play late into the shotclock. If you make a mistake they execute every option in their offense and they make you defend. They did a good job of making us work defensively. We had breakdowns that created open, high-percentage shots for them. We’ve got to work harder on the defensive end of the floor, we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. We’ve got to establish our defense so that we can establish the tempo we want to play at.”

“You’ve got to give credit to them,” added Young. “They made shots and made plays. They’ve still got NBA players over there and we’ve got to respect it but we could’ve controlled some more things, we’ve got to be better on offense. They got it going in those two quarters.”

The Hawks’ problems weren’t limited to the defensive end: the Hawks had their share of offensive issues, enough of which that they could have still won this game even with their defensive foibles.

Young may have scored 28 points but shot 9-of-25 from the field and 2-of-8 from three. Young did see some double-teaming action from the Hornets but not nearly the level of attention he would have seen under former Hornets coach James Borrego.

Collins scored just 10 points 3-of-12 shooting and 0-of-7 from three as the Hornets allowed him the opportunities to let it fly...they just didn’t go down for Collins last night. The Hawks also found it tough to get Collins involved on the block, the Hornets’ physicality making that a difficulty at times:

Collins was good defensively though to somewhat make up for his offense last night, coming up with four blocked shots and some good challenges at the rim. Collins was great in the first two games but his bigger tests are coming up on this road trip. De’Andre Hunter also struggled offensively, scoring 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting and some tough shots.

As McMillan alluded to, the Hawks will have nights where their starters will struggle but what did not help when this happened yesterday was the Hawks’ bench, of which the Hornets outscored 52-28 — largely thanks to the 9-of-9 shooting effort of Nick Richards.

Onyeka Okongwu led the Hawks bench with 10 points (including a made jumpshot) but the rest of the bench struggled. Both Holiday brothers struggled quite a bit while Jalen Johnson played just nine minutes.

To start the fourth quarter, McMillan inserted rookie AJ Griffin into the lineup for his official NBA debut, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting in six minutes:

“I was looking for some activity,” said McMillan of Griffin. “We needed shooting, we couldn’t make any shots and I wanted to give him a try. We put him out there, he was able to knock down a shot and get out on the floor and bring some type of energy to the lineup.”

Griffin’s teammates praised his work ethic and his ability, and were delighted for him postgame.

“It’s exciting, it’s good,” said Young of Griffin. “He’s going to have a long NBA career. The way he is, he’s a sponge to learning new things, he wants to do great every time he’s out there on the court. That’s a start. He can play too at the same time. It was good that he was able to get his first three to go. I was excited for him.”

“Just being ready to go, I don’t think you see that from young guys that are not used to playing right away and thrown in the fire,” added Murray of Griffin. “You’ve got to give your respects to him for being ready to come in and compete at a high level.”

Many I’m sure will call for Griffin to become a more solid member of the Hawks’ rotation going forward, and Nate McMillan was asked about the Hawks’ rotation postgame and while he says the Hawks are still working on their rotation, anyone coming into the — so-far — established nine-man rotation would have to replace an existing member of it, should they not add a 10th man to the rotation.

“The nine is pretty much the nine man rotation that we’re probably going to look at,” said McMillan. “I think all of our guys have to be ready to go, pretty much like AJ tonight, if we want to switch him in place of one of the nine or if we want to go 10-man rotation. All those guys are available. We’re still working on rotation as well.”

Griffin would give the Hawks some sorely needed shooting, Atlanta shooting 8-of-35 from three. It’s early, but even fears back in preseason of potential shooting struggles are really coming to the fore. It’s only three games, but the Hawks are shooting 30.8% from three — 26th in the NBA at this early stage. It is a cause for concern going forward, certainly until Young finds a little more form from three and Bogdan Bogdanovic returns to action.

This was a pretty bad loss for the Hawks at home to the Hornets, without Ball and Rozier and causes a little bit of concern as the Hawks get ready to head out on the road having wrapped up a three-game homestand.

From his early impressions if the Hawks so far, the Hawks’ conditioning isn’t where Nate McMillan wants it to be and how that is manifesting on the court.

“We’ve got to improve on — I mean, it’s early — but all aspects of the game,” said McMillan. “Conditioning, execution, certainly establishing the defense, offensively playing with pace. I think all of that starts with conditioning, conditioning yourself to play hard to exhaustion and raise your hand if you need a sub and we’ll get you out and get someone back in. You can’t pace yourself, you’ve got to play yourself into shape. No team is really in the type of shape they’re going to be in a month from now so you have to play yourself into that shape. You have to get your legs — some of the shots that we’re missing, we don’t have our legs. You have to continue to push and work yourself out of this.”

The Hawks (2-1) now head out on the road for a five game trip, beginning with two games in Detroit against the Pistons (1-2).

Until next time...