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Hawks present listless display of defensive basketball in loss Spurs

San Antonio Spurs v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks and the San Antonio Spurs held very different trade deadlines, with San Antonio acting as sellers and the Hawks instead holding serve and making no moves this week. But in tonight’s game, it was hard to tell the Hawks were the team pushing for playoff positioning.

The Spurs came into Friday night’s game at 20-35 having traded away Derrick White and Thaddeus Young just a day prior, and had not processed the incoming players for this contest. This meant that they were playing a road game with a less than full roster against a revitalized Hawks team. It didn’t matter, however, as San Antonio torched Atlanta to the tune of 136-121 in a game in which they never trailed.

The Spurs came out of the gate blazing, and there was a quick realization from everyone involved that the Hawks had absolutely no answer. Eight of the first nine threes went in for the visitors, and it would never seemed to cease. They finished the contest 18-for-32 from deep (56%), a shocker considering San Antonio came into the game 30th in frequency of threes taken.

Certainly Atlanta played a large part in their own downfall, displaying sluggishness and a lack of awareness on the defensive end from start to finish. Ball pressure was a major issue on defense as well, with no one daring to pick up the ball handler in transition opportunities on too many occasions.

Plays like this illustrate the disconnect between expectations coming in and the reality of the brutal loss suffered. Here, Doug McDermott receives a screen with John Collins’ help defense in a drop position. There’s really no explanation for Kevin Huerter to go under the screen and switch off to give McDermott — who is shooting 43% from three this season — a clean look.

A lot of the issues stemmed from lack of communication during transition defense. Atlanta seems to be in good position getting back after a missed shot, but De’Andre Hunter is left to cover both Devin Vassell and McDermott in the corner. He tries alerting his teammates to the error, but it’s much too late to rectify the situation.

Below, the Hawks cannot get properly set up despite being back on defense. With all eyes on Dejounte Murray in a ball screen, nobody picks up a trailing Keldon Johnson stepping into a world of shooting space.

The Spurs enjoyed feasting Friday night in 5-out setups with everyone behind the three-point arc. Collins has a foot in the paint during the initial setup and the defensive pass off between him and Trae Young headed to cover the corner isn’t communicated well if at all. The All-Star guard Murray isn’t going to miss many of these.

The Hawks would give up 23 points in transition due to plays like the above clips. Murray finished with a monster triple-double, routinely using his dribble to get into the paint and terrorize the interior defense with drop off passing. He finished with 32 points on just 18 shots, as well as 15 assists and 10 rebounds.

But even in set situations, like this baseline out of bounds play, Johnson gets free after using a Jakob Poetl up screen for an easy two.

Even with the bench unit in, the Spurs found ways to dice through the Hawks defense, like this give-and-go play that loses Delon Wright and sees Danilo Gallinari make a weak attempt to help in the paint.

Still, the two units could not have been diametrically opposed in play on Friday. The Hawks’ usual starting lineup of Young, Huerter, Hunter, Collins and Capela posted ugly plus-minus that saw them cede an average -33.4 points while on the floor in under 30 minutes.

“We have to have a better start,” Young stated about his unit. “Starters have to play better.”

“Just flat,” said head coach Nate McMillan about his team’s performance. “I don’t understand where that came from. The position that we’re in and the urgency we need to play with, we were just flat. They outworked us. They played harder than us. They executed better than us. And that happened for 48 minutes. This is a surprise.”

“It’s hard to have energy when they’re making shots,” said Young. “They’re making runs. And we’re just not making plays. It’s definitely tough to have energy when they’re making the plays.”

In what appeared be a turning point in the last month with a big win against the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks, a nearly healthy rotation propelled Atlanta to winning nine of twelve contests since January 17th until this Spurs matchup. The good vibes from 21-point victory over an undermanned Indiana is all but wiped away after this kind of performance.

“I didn’t expect this,” added McMillan. “We played great basketball against Indiana. We played well on both ends of the floor understanding the position we’re in. The games we have before the All-Star break. We talked about that. We addressed that. Every game is extremely important with the position that we’re in. And to just not have energy, to come out flat as we did and give up 43 points in that first quarter like we did. We weren’t in the building, mentally. We have to figure out what’s going on mentally. We weren’t here to start the game.”

The body language quickly mirrored the early deficit for Atlanta, and the players and coaches will have to find a way to pick up the pieces after this performance.

“We felt good honestly, but it doesn’t matter,” said Bogdan Bogdanovic. “No rhythm. It’s not that we lost by two, three, or five. We lost in every single aspect of the game.”

In the end it’s one loss, but with the Hawks clinging onto a play-in spot and the number of games in the season dwindling toward zero, Atlanta must find a way to bring much more urgency in future contests. The Hawks will be back at it against the resurgent Boston Celtics in TD Garden as part of a nationally broadcast contest on Sunday.

Stay tuned.