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Hawks let down by second unit in loss to Jazz

The Jazz continue to roll, this time at the expense of the Hawks.

Utah Jazz v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks were unable to stop the avalanche that is the Utah Jazz, falling 125-119 on Wednesday night at State Farm Arena.

Dejounte Murray led the Hawks with 26 points with De’Andre Hunter and Trae Young adding 22 points each to the Atlanta cause. For the Jazz, Lauri Markkanen scored a season-high 32 points, Jordan Clarkson added 23 points.

The form of the Utah Jazz has been one of the surprises of the season so far, and sat atop of the Western Conference when they rolled into Atlanta and they immediately showed why as they took it to the Hawks from the first minute, their aggression plain to see as they found themselves in the bonus with 9:51 remaining in the first quarter led by Markkanen, who scored 16 points in the first quarter and eight from the free throw line.

The Jazz found themselves leading by double-digits briefly in the first quarter but a decent job from the Hawks’ second unit helped trim the Utah lead to a respectable six points — a decent end to the quarter for the Hawks considering they allowed 13 Utah free throw attempts, the visitors converting 12 of those and John Collins landing himself on the bench for the remaining 9:51 of the quarter due to foul trouble and Jalen Johnson’s struggles on defense against Kelly Olynyk and Markkanen.

It was from the second quarter onwards where the bench became a negative for the Hawks last night as they quickly fell behind by double-digits again in the second frame, the high-level play from Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson and AJ Griffin in the Hawks’ victory against the Bucks unable to carryover into this contest.

When Young and Clint Capela returned to the game in the second quarter the Hawks’ level of play improved dramatically and they cut the lead back down to six points but disappointingly allowed an Olynyk three-pointer to end the half to go into the locker-room down nine points.

Basketball games can sometimes be referred to as ‘a game of two-halves’ which sounds incredibly obvious but it generally means that a team can be play either exceptionally in one half and then horridly the next, or visa-versa. Last night’s game you could say the second half alone was a game of two halves as the Hawks blitzed the Jazz in the third quarter 36-22 and not only overturned the Jazz’s double-digit point lead in less than two in-game minutes (the Jazz had led 68-58 with 11:01 before the Hawks tied the game at 68 by the 9:22 mark) but established a double-digit lead themselves.

In the 8:44 that the four starters of Collins, Murray, Capela and Hunter played together in the third, they were a plus-19 on the game. Young had briefly checked out at the five minute mark for Aaron Holiday before returning when those four starters checked out after a timeout at the 3:16 mark.

From that point forward, however, it was all downhill.

The second unit absolutely stalled and the double-digit lead the Hawks had not only overturned but then built, was eradicated. A couple of Young baskets to end the quarter nudged the lead back to five points to start the fourth quarter but he was the only Hawk of that bench unit — consisting of himself, Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday, AJ Griffin, Jalen Johnson and Okongwu — to score to end the third quarter.

Murray replacing Young in that unit did little to change the fortunes of the Hawks and the Jazz’s extended run continued. Let’s take a quick look at how the Hawks lost their lead, from which the Jazz would not fall behind again.

To start on the offensive end Johnson finds himself with two cracks on the drive, the first of which Rudy Gay is credited with a block as it goes out of bounds — the Hawks keeping possession — and the second attempt from Johnson is met with resistance at the rim:

It was a good initial drive by Johnson going left but the defense of Walker Kessler at the rim was great here (and for most of the game).

Malik Beasley scored 12 points in the fourth quarter behind four three-pointers, the first of which coming here as the Clarkson gets into the paint and Justin Holiday is caught out by the pass to Beasley in the corner and his attempts to contest the shot do little to sway Beasley who converts:

Holiday tries to make up for it with a three of his own off of the setup from Murray and the screen from Johnson but misses:

The Hawks manage to come up with a stop to prevent the Jazz from tying the game, as Okongwu contests the shot well at the rim, leading to fastbreak opportunity for Murray and the Hawks to briefly push the lead back to four:

Clarkson would attack again the following possession, and while Okongwu does well to stay with Clarkson and contest, his arm falls at the end and the officials call the foul, sending Clarkson to the line where he would make both free throws:

The Hawks’ offense again finds trouble as Murray gets a decent look on a step-back but cannot hit:

The Hawks would get another chance to add to their lead but again fall short as Johnson is unable to guide an alley-oop home:

The Jazz take their final lead of the game as they stroll into a three-pointer from Beasley, who receives a simple hand-off and springs into the three:

Very easy basket to give up here; Murray and Okongwu have to communicate this better with Johnson arriving late on defense and Holiday needed inside to cover the middle (or surrender a basket at the rim otherwise).

That was how the Jazz took their lead: it’s not as though the Hawks were especially poor on defense but their second unit offense (whether it was Young or Murray leading the way) was poor offensively.

For the game, the bench combined for a minus+ 67, while the Jazz’s bench was a plus-52.

“I thought as a unit tonight we somewhat struggled,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan of the bench. “The bench was good for us last game and they have to continue to develop and play. We’ve got to trust those guys out there but you’ve got to play better, and I would say both units. Both units have to play better.”

It was the key to this game as all the Hawks starters (other than Murray, who played a lot with the second unit) were positive in plus/minus and the Jazz’s starters (other than Clarkson) were all minus.

It’s a shame the bench was as poor as it was especially given how instrumental they were in the Hawks’ victory against the Bucks on Monday, but young players are largely inconsistent and three of the Hawks’ bench rotation are in their third season or less, with Johnson essentially only getting real minutes for the first time this season to go along with rookie Griffin.

McMillan brought up an interesting point after the Bucks’ win on Monday when he praised the bench unit and how they took it to the Bucks’ basically starting lineup in the fourth quarter, noting how the Bucks use their rotation and use more of their starters to begin the second/fourth quarters. The start of the fourth quarter is a obviously a key part of the game and you can understand why Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks would use more of their starters for that period — in a tight game, if you don’t get away well to start the fourth you could spend the quarter trying to chase the game and sometimes it leaves you with too much to do, sometimes you don’t get back in the game. The Hawks have previously used all-bench lineups to begin fourth quarters and hoped that their bench wouldn’t squander a lead or leave a hole too deep to dig out of before Young checked back into the game. This year they’ve used Murray to help the second unit to start fourth quarters but sometimes it’s still not enough and they lost their lead during this period last night.

Where the game then got away from the Hawks came mid-way through the fourth quarter.

Starters back in, two Collins free throws cut the Utah lead to two points (100-98) with 5:59 remaining and the Hawks looked well placed to make a good run of it to end the game. However, an 8-0 Jazz run in under a minute to reestablish their double-digit lead blew this game open and left the Hawks with too much ground to make up.

The run began with another three from Beasley, who utilizes the Jarred Vanderbilt screen — with Hunter getting trapped behind it — and hits an open three:

The Hawks attempt to respond but Murray’s drive and layup fall short:

Good help defense by Mike Conley here and Murray has to adjust.

In transition off of that miss, Collins and Hunter equally do a poor job of sorting themselves/their man out on offense as Conley pushes in transition, getting by Collins and lobbing an easy look for Vanderbilt at the rim and it’s just far too easy:

It seemed as though the Hawks were going to take a timeout here (the quality of defense on that previous possession would not have made that a surprise) but the Hawks carry on, and Young’s attempted layup is smothered by Conley:

It’s possible Young was looking for a foul, it didn’t come, and in transition the Jazz come through Conley again, who gets into the paint and whips a good pass back out to Markkanen who hits the three to give the Jazz a 10 point lead and the Hawks get their timeout in but far too late:

A horror sequence for the Hawks whose momentary lapses lead to devastating consequences; a close, two point game now soured into a double-digit deficit.

But credit to the Jazz and Conley especially, who had an impact in every single part of this run: the easy setup for the Beasley three, the help defense on Murray, the alley-oop for Vanderbilt, the defense on Young, and the drive and kick to Markkanen for the three — one of six assists for Conley in the fourth quarter.

It left the Hawks with too much to do, and while they brought the lead to five points behind a late flurry from Hunter — then, a four point hole behind a Murray three — it was simply too late and the Jazz were always in control and secured their 10th win of the season.

The Jazz scored 40 points in the final quarter and having lost the third quart 36-22 they turned it around in the fourth 40-29 — a game of two halves in the second half alone.

For the Hawks, they were left to reflect on a game that could have easily gone their way.

“We just couldn’t get stops,” said McMillan of the fourth quarter. “We started the game that way, fouling early and then gave up a big second quarter — gave 37 points in that second quarter — regrouped in the third, was able to fight our way back into the game and late in third we couldn’t make a bucket late in that third and the fourth quarter they just exploded on us. 40 points in the quarter... way too many. We just had no way of stopping them.”

“They were comfortable, confident and they scored the ball,” added Dejounte Murray of the Jazz’s fourth quarter. “We weren’t ready and they took advantage of it. They just kept going and they didn’t stop.”

The Jazz and high scoring games haven’t been an uncommon partnership this season prior to last night: 2nd in the league in points scored (now 1st after last night), 2nd in bench points and 2nd in offensive rating. Nate McMillan described what makes the Jazz difficult to play against from the perspective of their offense.

“They’ve got a lot of offense,” said McMillan of the Jazz. “Their first and second unit — we said at the beginning of the game — they are live, meaning that when they catch or receive the ball they can play, all of them can play, all of them can create their own shots. Tonight, their bench is second in the league in scoring and they showed why tonight. They keep the pressure on you offensively having to guard. They’re playing with two bigs who are very versatile in the sense of being able handle the ball and spread the floor with Olynyk and Markkanen and they do a good job of attacking you, keeping pressure on you.”

Free throws were a significant contributor last night for the Jazz’s early offense; their free throw numbers from the first quarter (12-of-13) were greater than the Hawks’ free throw numbers from the entire game (9-of-11).

“You kind of get flat,” said McMillan of the tone Jazz’s free throws set. “What I said to our guys, we can’t let the calls be a distraction, we have to find a way to get ourselves into the game and get a rhythm but it starts with us getting stops and with defending without fouling. I think the first four, five possessions we fouled and they went to the free throw line. You had to fight our way out of the hole, and we did, but we’ve got to sustain that.”

Dejounte Murray believed the free throws had the opposite affect, that it woke the Hawks up.

“They were aggressive,” said Murray of the Jazz’s first quarter free throws. “Neither team can control what the refs call. Stay aggressive. I feel like that didn’t affect us, that really woke us up even more because later in the game we were up 10 at a point in time. I think that just helped us out waking us up.”

In the end, the Jazz shot 20-of-24 from the line, the majority of those coming in the first quarter. It wasn’t the only major disparity of the game as the Jazz shot 17-of-39 from three (43.6%) to the Hawks 8-of-28 (28.6%) — 51-24 the Jazz outscored the Hawks from distance.

“I think we got a lot of looks that we turned down,” said Murray of the three-point disparity. “That was something I kept preaching in the first half and throughout the game. If somebody drives and kicks it to you and you’re wide open you’ve got to take it. On the other end, you’ve got to know your personnel. We’ve definitely got to take the ones that’s created.”

The Hawks rank in the bottom five in both attempts and makes from distance. It’s been just a struggle and last night was no exception. Young shot 2-of-5 and Collins made his one three but Murray shot 1-of-5 from deep, Hunter 1-of-6, Justin Holiday was 2-of-6 and AJ Griffin 1-of-4.

But generally speaking the Hawks’ starting unit played well. Despite his early foul trouble, John Collins scored 15 on 6-of-8 shooting to go with three assists, Murray led the team with 26 points on 11-of-20 (55%) shooting, De’Andre Hunter missed only one two point basket as he scored 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting and Clint Capela was especially fantastic last night.

Capela scored 15 points and grabbed 19 rebounds (10 offensive rebounds) but every run the Hawks went on and, effectively, every dip they suffered coincided when Capela was/wasn’t on the floor. He was instrumental to the Hawks’ cause last night, it was night-and-day the difference to the Hawks’ level of play when Capela went to the bench (reflected in how poorly the bench got on — not one of the better games for Okongwu this season).

Trae Young struggled as he returned to the lineup following injury, shooting 10-of-28 from the field. McMillan believed that Young’s injury and how he wasn’t able to run recently played a part in his performance.

“I thought Trae was a little winded,” said McMillan postgame. “Being off the last couple of days he hasn’t been able to do much running the last couple of days nursing that calf muscle. Today, I thought he looked a little winded so we tried to get him a sub early in the third quarter to give him a breather.”

Watching the game, it didn’t feel like he took 28 shots but there were a few occasions where Young forced it a tad. It’ll be interesting to see how Young fares in a back-to-back situation against the Sixers tonight.

All-in-all for the Hawks, this was definitely a game that got away from them. When they made that 28-8 run in the third to take that double-digit lead you’d be forgiven for thinking that would be the Hawks on their way but between the bench’s production and that 8-0 run in under a minute in the fourth it all fell apart in a hurry.

A shame, but not the worst loss in the world given the Jazz’s season so far, and they do deserve credit. Markkanen was fantastic (especially in the first) and Mike Conley’s performance in the fourth was commanding. The Jazz are led by rookie head coach Will Hardy, who Dejounte Murray worked with in San Antonio and credits Hardy for instilling confidence in him.

“First of all I want to give credit to Will Hardy,” said Murray when asked originally about Lauri Markkanen. “I was in San Antonio with him for five years so I know the confidence he put in people because he once put it in me as an assistant so I knew one day, when he got a head coaching job, players would love to play for him. You could just see at the beginning of the year, they were saying, ‘They’re not going to be good. Rebuild.’ They got a bunch of guys with a chip on their shoulder. To speak of Lauri, he’s been around a little bit trying to find a home. He’s always been talented, went high in the draft for a reason I feel like. He’s comfortable and playing his best basketball as a pro.”

The Jazz are one of the stories of the NBA season so far and the Hawks had a fair shot to beat them and fell short. It’s not a horrible loss all things considered. Ideal? No, certainly not, but plenty of teams — some better than the Hawks — have fallen to a similar fate so far this season. They came as close as they did shooting 8-of-28 from three, shooting 11 total free throws, Young shooting 10-of-28 and the bench being as bad as they were last night against one of the best teams in the league at this stage of the season — in context, it’s not awful.

What the Hawks (7-4) should be more concerned about their game tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers (5-6) at State Farm Arena. The Sixers haven’t played since Monday, so they will have rest advantage on their side.

Until next time...