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Hawks run out of gas in the Motor City

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks entered Detroit on the heels of a thrilling comeback victory at Madison Square Garden, but every game in the NBA is a new adventure. The Detroit Pistons had stumbled as of late after turning the corner of sorts.

Detroit followed a 6-2 streak with a 1-6 skid that included elimination from postseason contention, but onlookers would never know it from the proceedings on Wednesday night. In the end, the Hawks were outclassed by a Pistons team with little to play for besides player development and ultimately fell 122-101.

Sparingly used Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot got the start Wednesday night with John Collins and Danilo Gallinari on the mend. After a few misses to open the game, the Hawks were able to execute on a few possessions to aim to stake their claim to a win.

I really enjoyed this screen the screener action early on that led to a Trae Young dish to De’Andre Hunter for an easy finish. Hunter sets a ball screen, then Clint Capela follows with an off ball screen for Hunter to slip once Cory Joseph overcommits to climbing the screen on Young.

Later in the quarter, the Hawks’ 2021 first round pick, Jalen Johnson, would receive rotation minutes for the first time outside of garbage time minutes since the team was wrecked by the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols last December. He showed a keen ability to dive toward the rim and finish at the rim — although he did his focus defensively on occasion.

First, Johnson sets a high ball screen in tandem with Onyeka Okongwu, and the roll leaves him one-on-one with the sliding Saddiq Bey. His strength and physicality allows him to finish with ease.

Later, he sprints the length of the floor after a turnover and is rewarded with the lob jam from Bogdan Bogdanovic plus an “And 1” for his effort.

“With [Gallinari] being down and [Collins] being out at that four position on a back-to-back, we knew that we were going to need another body,” said head coach Nate McMillan. “And Jalen, it was a perfect opportunity to put him out on that floor. I thought he gave us really good minutes. Did a good job of defending out there. A nice little energy in his play. I really like what I saw from him.”

“I thought [Johnson] earned some minutes tonight, what he did out on the floor,” continued McMillan. “I liked what I saw from him at that four position. He was rebounding for us, which is something that we desperately need. We’ll see where it goes from here on Friday night.”

Jalen Johnson finished with 11 points — an outright career high — on 5-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds — a figure that tied a career high. “It felt good to be out there,” added Johnson. “Just staying prepared. Staying ready.”

“It was exciting to see him in an NBA game, said Young. “He’s been doing really well in the G League and just waiting for his opportunity. I think tonight he was ready. I wish we could have won so he could feel a little bit better about his performance but he played really well and played hard for us.”

“It was a great pass,” commented Johnson about his alley-oop. “That lob doesn’t happen if [Bogdanovic] doesn’t see it so it was a great pass on his part.”

The Pistons took control in the second quarter to take an eight point lead into halftime. A lot of that stemmed from live ball turnovers coughed up by the Hawks that Detroit took advantage of going the other way. The Pistons would finish with 17 points in transition — bolstered by 14 Hawks turnovers — but only cede three in transition the other way.

But by the end of the third quarter, Detroit would make the game a steep uphill climb for Atlanta with help from a 23-point run to bury the visitors.

Here is one example of the Hawks failing to cut off the ball in transition. Despite possessing a numbers advantage the entire way down the court after a miss, a kick up to Cory Joseph off of the rebound is all it takes to open up the lane for the finish.

And here is a second example, this one off a blocked shot from the rangy Isaiah Stewart, who helps the Pistons start a three-on-two break ending with a layup.

Even the Hawks’ half court defense wasn’t up to snuff in this contest, especially across the middle two quarters. Here, De’Andre Hunter loses sight of the cutting Kelly Olynyk on the backside for an easy bucket.

In this clip, Young jumps the ball handler to trap with Luwawu-Cabarrot, but that leaves Hunter on an island to defend two people.

A similar situation occurs with an over-helping Okongwu, and the Pistons’ ball movement finds an open Joseph for three points.

McMillan threw up the white flag in pulling the starters with just six minutes left in the contest and facing a 23-point deficit. Ultimately, eight Pistons would finish in double-digits in scoring in a balanced attack that never relented all night long.

For Atlanta, Young finished with 21 points and 9 assists, and Hunter added 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting from the field, but the Hawks as a whole finished with a poor offensive showing on the night. The Hawks tallied an ugly 98.1 offensive rating while ceding 117.3 points per possession going the other way.

“It’s always tough on a back-to-back and this is a tough team to play on a back-to-back,” added McMillan. “They keep a lot of pressure on the ball. Defensively they make you work for everything that you get. Being physical, touching, grabbing, bodying you. And with the switching, it forces a lot of isolation basketball. They keep pressure on your defense because they have multiple ball handlers attacking the paint.”

On the 23-0 run in the third quarter, McMillan had to say, “that was a sign of heavy legs. We were just settling.”

Johnson concurred, saying, “we’re coming off a back-to-back so I’m sure the guys were tired. Looking forward to the next game. Tomorrow, get our rest and get prepared for Golden State.”

Everybody had a lot of praise for Detroit, including Johnson who commented, “[the Pistons] are young and they’re fast and they play hard with a lot of energy. I think that’s what makes them tough.”

“[The Pistons] were just like us my rookie year,” echoed Young. “They didn’t win many games, [but] we didn’t either. Any night you can beat somebody. I think they played with a lot of energy. They just played free.”

“You could see guys’ shots were short,” continued Young. “And some shots that we had some good looks and they just weren’t going in. You could tell some guys had some heavy legs.”

“We just need to get guys back, get guys on the court,” Young added, referencing the absences of Collins and Gallinari. “Just go back home, regroup, get some rest, and just be ready to go at it Friday.”

The loss drops Atlanta back under .500 to 36-37 and keeping them in the 10th spot to in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks play the Golden State Warriors at home on Friday, who will be without the services of Stephen Curry.

Stay tuned.