Atlanta Hawks fans have been voicing frustration of recent regarding the team’s tendency to start games slowly. The trend was not an issue on Sunday as the Hawks built an 11-point lead by the end of the first quarter in Boston as they played their best 12 minutes of defense in quite some time and made a handful of of perimeter shots.
As the game progressed however, the shooting, of anyone other than Bogdan Bogdanovic, fell off and the defensive plan appeared to disappear early in the third quarter as De’Andre Hunter picked up four fouls in 123 seconds of play. That sent Hunter, who had the primary assignment of defending Jayson Tatum, to the bench.
Tatum went on to score 16 points in the third quarter and 13 points in the fourth quarter. Boston put up 42 points in the third frame which allowed them to take a nine point lead into the final 12 minutes of play. Atlanta fought to get the Celtics lead down to five but couldn’t get it any closer and eventually fell by a score of 105-95.
It wasn’t ideal that the Hawks had to play this contest without John Collins, out with a foot injury. Danilo Gallinari slid into the starting lineup but wasn’t effective for any real stretch.
Boston generally deploys players that can put the ball on the floor at both guard and forward positions (Grant Williams aside) and that leaves no natural match up for Gallinari. In match ups like this one Hawks head coach Nate McMillan will often play Gallinari with Collins for extended minutes because of the latter’s defensive versatility. That was not an option in this game.
Boston has been playing, perhaps, the best defense in the league of recent. And they held the Hawks to 36.6% from the floor and limited them to just 36 points in the paint.
The Celtics use a lot of switching and the Hawks often sought to draw Robert Williams on to Trae Young. This led to good results in the first half but Boston found successful adjustments in the second half.
Boston’s 42-point fourth quarter exceeded Atlanta’s point total for the entire second half. Their defensive performance after the half was impressive.
“I thought we were playing a good, solid game in the first half defensively,” said McMillan in postgame comments. “We were doing the things we needed to do, keeping them in front. Making them score over the top. The defense was really good. I thought our offense had good ball movement. We were attacking. The first half was really good.”
“I thought the third quarter we got distracted by the officiating, got ourselves into the penalty early,” McMillan added. “And they had a 42-point quarter. I thought that was the difference in the game.”
“They made plays and we couldn’t get a stop,” Young said. “We did a really good job on the defensive end the whole night, besides that third quarter. And it kind of got away from us.”
“I think our lesson from the last game and tonight are different,” he added contrasting their last two losses. “I think last game we didn’t necessarily play defense at all. And tonight we really played really good defense until that third quarter. Even the fourth quarter only allowing 18 points. We played really good defense three of the four quarters and you’ve got to stay solid throughout the four quarters.”
“They changed the defense,” responded Bogdanovic when asked about the third quarter. “They started playing more aggressive on the ball and then we stopped playing aggressive on offense as well, stopped moving the ball, stopped driving.”
Young had an impact on the game. He always does. Otherwise it was the scoring of Bogdanovic and the rebounding of Capela that kept Atlanta in the game.
When Hunter went to the bench with foul trouble, Kevin Huerter struggled to contain the aggressiveness of Tatum.
Atlanta’s centers had trouble making an impact on the game offensively as Boston played Robert Williams on Hunter for most of the game.
Young couldn’t lift the offense down the stretch. This game was one more example of how he needs more help on offense.
To a degree, the Hawks seem a bit stuck at the moment in between developmental goals and pursuing a win-now formula. A good bit of the the secondary playmaking needs to come from Huerter and Hunter, 23 and 24 years old respectively. At ages 26 and 27 they probably will provid the additional offensive punch with more consistency. But the reliable production is just not there yet.
Travis Schlenk opted to not make a move at the trade deadline. Who knows what deals were available? But when Hunter encountered foul issues, there was not another option to which to turn for defending Tatum.
When Young couldn’t engineer a more productive fourth quarter and neither Hunter nor Huerter had any real offensive rhythm, there was not another option to try.
And that’s who the Hawks are right now.
It would make no sense to write off the young players, including Onyeka Okongwu. But the consistency of the secondary contributors is just not where it needs to be for Atlanta to regularly win games like this one.
Young had 30 points and 10 assists. But it wasn’t much of an efficient performance even though there was no lack of trying.
Hunter managed just 10 points on 16 shooting possessions. He was a massive factor defensively in the first half but never recovered his performance on either end after going to the bench with a fourth foul.
Capela had 17 rebounds to go aling with eight points.
In reserve play, Bogdanovic posted 26 points on fairly efficient shooting.
In the fourth quarter Young and Bogdanovic managed 13 points but missed on all four of their combined attempts from the three-point line while converting five of 12 shots inside the arc.
For the winners, Tatum led all scorers with 38 points. He also managed 10 rebounds and three assists,.
Jaylen Brown had 17 points and nine rebounds. Marcus Smart added 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Derrick White, in his second game playing for his new team, had 14 points.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Huerter defends at the point of attack really well on an early possession:
Brown tries to attack but Huerter maintains excellent position and technique.
As was often the focus, Young looks to attack a Boston big man after a switch:
This time it’s Al Horford and Young gets the bucket.
Atlanta demonstrates A+ transition defense in the early going:
Normally an area of weakness, more effort and execution like this would serve them well.
But even when their defense is mostly on point, a breakdown at the point of attack comprises the entire unit:
That’s just not good enough from Gallinari.
This “pistol” action was a refreshing change from all of the recent focus on attacking mismatches in isolation:
It leads a comfortable three-point look for Hunter.
This is an example of a three-point attempt the Hawks will mostly live with:
Lou Williams is a less than ideal match up for Tatum and needs help protecting the live dribble from reaching the paint.
Some great work by Huerter can be seen here as he attacks a comprised weak side:
Especially helpful to be able to generate this while Young is on the bench.
On their first possession of the second half, they run some floppy-like action for Young:
With the consistency issues and possible frustration from Hunter and Huerter, it would seem like this type of action might also help them get back on track.
Huerter struggled with Tatum after Hunter leaves with four fouls:
The Celtics tighten up their switching and offer more bodies in the paint when a big gets matched up on Young:
It results in a good bit of off ball players standing around watching Young try to work in isolation.
A pick and roll set leads to a lob and an easy score:
Bogdanovic stays aggressive and tries to help the Hawks offense keep pace:
More aggressiveness from Bogdanovic helps cut the Boston lead to five:
But Atlanta would struggle to make shots the rest of the way, as reflected in their shot chart over the final 8 minutes of play:
Boston outscored Atlanta 16-11 over that stretch, which doesn’t sound bad from a differential standpoint but 11 points in eight minutes is not impressive.
The Celtics are playing excellent defense right now and that helped them get the win on Sunday.
There are just two games remaining ahead of the long awaited all star break.
Atlanta will host the third place Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday evening at State Farm Arena. Tip is scheduled for 7:30 PM ET.