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Hawks defense fades in home loss to Lakers

Three straight losses for the reeling Hawks.

Los Angeles Lakers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It was another frustrating loss for Atlanta Hawks fans to witness in the team’s final game of 2022. Playing once again without the services of Clint Capela and De’Andre Hunter, the home team had significant struggles containing the ball on the defensive end of the court and lost to the visiting Los Angeles Lakers by a score of 130-121.

Atlanta couldn’t control the Lakers pace and persistence in driving to the rim as Los Angeles posted a massive 75 points in the paint. At times it felt like Onyeka Okongwu (three blocks) and John Collins (in foul trouble the entire game) were making some noticeable impact on the interior, but even when rebuffed now and then the Lakers just kept forcing their way to the rim.

Of the Lakers 51 shots in the paint 43 of them came inside the restricted area. They converted 34 of those attempts on their way to a massive offensive output. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who the Hawks surely need as to be consistently competitive, looked like he might need to come out of the game in the second half. Aaron Holiday, who the Hawks turn to for defensive contributions on the second unit, could do little with the bigger and perpetually aggressive Russell Westbrook.

Trae Young was put into the “low man” position repeatedly in the game by way of Lakers scheme and tactics. This forces Young to be the weak side helper at the rim, a win for the opposing team. Atlanta seemingly couldn’t find an adjustment as to solve for that. Los Angeles secured 12 offensive rebounds as the Hawks big men had to consistently try to make some effort to help at the rim and thus found themselves out of position to rebound.

Atlanta didn’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter (11-38 on three-point attempts) but 56 points in the paint and 18 second chance points are usually enough to reliably set you up for a victory. Not in this contest. The theme for the Hawks on the season is that they basically have to have all of their rotation players available as to produce the quality of work needed to win games. They might be all right if they are missing one player. But two or more absences creates a dire situation because the roster doesn’t offer the same depth as in previous seasons.

The Hawks are particularly exposed when they are missing Capela or Hunter. Atlanta is now 2-7 in games Capela has missed and 1-8 in games Hunter has missed this season. Despite the encouraging flashes seen in the play of the young Okongwu, he’s probably not suited to provide more than 25-28 minutes or so. At least not yet. When Hunter isn’t available the Hawks have absolutely no one to rely upon to backfill what he brings defensively.

Five games from the midpoint of the 2022-23 NBA season it’s clear that the roster construction and lack of enough output from player development efforts in prior seasons has resulted in a roster greatly reliant on unlikely player health. There is no fix in sight apart from what would likely be a high-risk trade or a sudden decision to operate above the luxury tax threshold.

Atlanta built a nice lead in the first quarter but gave most of it back when they were essentially forced to play Frank Kaminsky at center with Collins in foul trouble. Kaminsky isn’t designed to be the backup center on this team and will especially struggle when the point of attack defense is so suspect.

The Lakers had a slow start shooting the ball but found their rhythm and confidence as the the game progressed through the second quarter. As has been the plan for most of this season Young and Dejounte Murray dominated the ball. They collectively produced 49 points on 45 shooting possessions , a respectable result. But it wasn’t enough considering how things were going on the other end of the court.

Atlanta’s shooting specialists, Bogdanovic and AJ Griffin, combined to produce 30 points on 29 shooting possessions. Maybe another two or three makes would have been good enough. Okongwu and Collins combined to generate 24 points on 20 shooting possessions. Against the Lakers, considering the way they struggle to defend on the interior, it might have helped to generate more usage their way.

The Hawks managed 27 shots inside the restricted area. Of those 15 came from Collins, Okongwu, and Jalen Johnson. They converted 13 of them. The rest of the team was 5 for 12 at the rim. The Lakers forced the ball to the rim at will in this game. While Atlanta did well enough in the same area of play it wasn’t enough to offset what the Lakers were getting.

Lebron James led all scorers with 47 points. He added 10 rebounds and nine assists.

“We needed to put big bodies on (James),” said Hawks head coach Nate McmIllan after the game. “He’s smart. We had to try to play John and Onyeka guarding him. When he had that match up, he basically stayed on the perimeter and attacked. When we tried to put someone small on him, he went into the post.”

His IQ is extremely high. And he understands time, score, and situation.

Lakers starting center Thomas Bryant isn’t much of a rim protector. But he works hard every minute he’s on the floor. He posted an impressive 19 points and 17 rebounds.

“Bryant just dominated the paint,” McMillan said about the play of the Lakers center. “We had our bigs, at times, guarding Lebron. So, you’ve got one big out on the perimeter, you’re pretty small without Clint and De’Andre.”

In reserve play Westbrook contributed 14 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds.

In the losing effort Young led Hawks all scorers with 29 points while also adding eight assists. Murray had 20 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds.

“You have to give them credit,” Young said in postgame comments. “They were packing the paint. They were forcing us to shoot jump shots. We’ve just got to be better making shots.”

Johnson struggled defensively along with his teammates but continued a string of breakout performances offensively. He complied 15 points and seven rebounds.

Let’s look at some of the action.

Murray knocks down the elbow jumper:

It’s plain to see how the Lakers were committing bodies to deny a driving lane.

Young scores on the break in the early going:

James drops almost to the baseline in “ice” coverage:

The Hawks settle for the Murray jump shot as opposed to pressing the space via a pocket pass and going from there.

Curious decision making from Young here:

In transition he draws a match up with Bryant. As opposed to attacking the big man he opts to put up a pull up three-point attempt.

An example of Holiday struggling to contain the size and strength of Westbrook:

When the Hawks were able to create action via ball screen in this direction they seemed to create better shots on the weak side:

A rare dive through the nail leads to an easy put back score for Okongwu:

Here Murray opts for a fairly early shot clock pull up three. If he moves the ball to Johnson in the short roll it seems likely the ball finds Griffin on the weak side for a catch and shoot three.

As Hawks run more zone when Capela doesn’t play, they sometimes struggle to abandon and instinct to get into zone set up versus transition attacks:

They need to do much better in this area.

Young and Murray do a terrible collective job managing the top of the 2-3 zone:

Lakers start looking quite confident in attacking right down the middle before the Hawks can set the defense:

Good activity on offense leads to an easy score at the rim for Okongwu:

Okongwu seals James which leads to another easy score at the rim:

But the Hawks couldn’t keep James and the Lakers off the rim the rest of the way

Up Next

The Hawks will try to start a new winning streak in their first game of 2023. But it will be a tough task as they visit the reigning champions on Monday in San Francisco where the Golden State Warriors will host.

Tip is scheduled for 10 pmq ET.