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Hawks suffocated by Miami defense, drop series to Heat 4-1

The Hawks’ season comes to an end in South Beach.

Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks’ season came to an end on Tuesday night as the Miami Heat emerged triumphant in Game 5 at the FTX Arena, 97-94, and winning the series 4-1.

De’Andre Hunter scored 35 points for the Hawks — who were without Bogdan Bogdanovic due to knee soreness — while Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter added 12 points apiece.

For the Heat — without Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler — Victor Oladipo led the way with 23 points. Bam Adebayo added 20 points and 11 rebounds.

If ever there was an opportunity for the Hawks in this series, this was it in Game 5 — there’d be no better opportunity than this. No Lowry, no Butler, and the prospect of Trae Young in an elimination game. But there was no let-up from the Miami Heat; Butler may have been absent but the Heat’s defense was anything but and it was the story for the majority of the game.

The Hawks fell behind in the second quarter as, again, the Heat turned an Atlanta lead into a double-digit lead by way of a 17-2 run to end the half (which was just a 17-0 run before some free throws at the end of the second quarter for the Hawks ended the Heat run). The Hawks began the third quarter with the urgency you perhaps would have expected with their season on the line, cutting the 12 point halftime deficit to just four points in less than three minutes forcing a Miami timeout.

Out of said timeout the Heat found their footing again defensively and the Hawks — having forced a timeout at the 9:40 mark — would not score another field goal until Gallinari sank a jumper with 2:30 remaining in the quarter.

Similar to Game 4, it’s not as though the Heat were particularly devastating offensively — they shot 5-of-13 in that seven minute period where the Hawks failed to hit a field goal — but their defense held the Hawks to 0-of-7 from the field and six turnovers.

One of a number of occasions where the Hawks just were not able to drive inside the paint and, here, Hunter is forced to settle with the jumpshot:

Young was also forced to settle but his own shot selection did not help at times, and this shot with 16 seconds left on the clock left something to be desired:

The Heat obviously played their part defensively too and when Young was able to find a teammate at the rim, Onyeka Okongwu is blocked by Tyler Herro on the way down:

Perhaps worse than these were the turnovers in the third quarter. Bad shots, look, as bad as they are sometimes, sometimes bad shots go in. You live with it to a certain degree and it still counts as a shot you’re taking. Turnovers rob you of that chance that it might go in, even if it’s a bad shot, let alone the opportunity to work something better, while also giving your opponent an opportunity to add a shot to their tally.

Here, Bam Adebayo makes an incredible defensive play to get his hand in on Young’s dribble between his legs and a kick-ball by Young is caused, resulting in the turnover:

Honestly, that is just an amazing defensive play by Adebayo: look how low he sits in the stance here to poke this ball.

The league has seen Young whip some amazing passes from behind his back but this next turnover was not one of them as the ball comes loose from behind him in a poor, unforced turnover, leading to a Miami fastbreak and basket on the other end:

On the Huerter drive, the Heat help to excellent effect. As Hunter arrives at the top of the play, he brings his defender with him and Caleb Martin creates some chaos and the Heat end up turning the Hawks over through Gabe Vincent:

Having broken up a Heat play and coming up the steal themselves, the Hawks return the ball right back to the Heat as Hunter leaps to produce the steal before pushing the ball in transition, getting stuck in the crowd and his flailing attempts to find a teammate as he’s falling over are in vain as the ball sails out of bounds:

Lastly in the quarter, the Hawks carelessly turn the ball over on an out-of-bounds play as Hunter and Okongwu are unable to connect and the Heat collect the ball in the Hawks’ half.

Having not committed a single turnover in the first half the Hawks would go on to commit 19 (!) turnovers for the game, eight coming in the third quarter. The Heat may not have punished the Hawks for their transgressions this time around (scoring 14 points off of turnovers) but, again, limited their overall field goal attempts to just 74, the Heat attempting 82.

In three of the Hawks’ five games in this series the Hawks have been limited to 75 field goal attempts or fewer — 75 twice and 74 here in Game 5. In the entire regular season there was only one instance of the Hawks attempting fewer than 76 field goals, which came on January 21st against...you guessed it, the Miami Heat, where the Hawks attempted just 68 field goal attempts (a game the Hawks actually won despite that low number) — it just shows the degree the Heat have been able to slow down the Hawks offensively in this series; that they’ve forced three instances in five games of something that happened once in 82 games.

Despite all of that, the Hawks actually won the third quarter — for the first time in this series, per the Bally Sports broadcast — by a point and made quick inroads into the Heat’s lead once again in the fourth quarter. But similar to the third quarter, the Hawks made their run but the Heat withstood it and ran their lead back out to double-digits before long.

The Hawks had one more throw of the dice in them as Hunter ignited in the fourth quarter.

Hunter scored 18 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and cut the Heat lead to two points with this pull-up jumper:

Feet on the line meant that this wasn’t a three-pointer (though it sure looked like it in real time/first viewing) but the Hawks had found some momentum. Now, let’s look at the plays down this final minute that got away from the Hawks.

On the defensive possession, Huerter shows Oladipo to his left (something Hawks assistant coach Chris Jent spoke with Lauren Jbara at halftime on the Bally Sports broadcast) and funnelled him into Onyeka Okongwu. At least, that’s what should have happened. Instead, Okongwu’s arm is pulled and held by Adebayo on the baseline affecting Okongwu’s timing on the contest and Oladipo manages to wrap the pass to Adebayo who finishes with the dunk, pushing the Heat’s lead back to four points and leading to a Hawks timeout:

Okongwu was understandably annoyed here and if there was any player who had a right to a technical foul last night it was Okongwu, who was consistently on the short-end of the stick with foul calls versus ‘reputation’ players.

Young would go on to draw a foul from Oladipo, where he split the free throws to bring the Heat lead back down to three points. Then came, arguably, the turning point.

Hunter, who had scored 18 points in the fourth and essentially, single-handedly dragged the Hawks back into this game, was called for his sixth foul on this play:

An extremely late whistle on this play but what was perhaps more bizarre was the reaction from Hawks head coach Nate McMillan not to challenge the call.

Now, part of it I can understand. While it was clearly a flop from P.J. Tucker, there may have been enough of an extension from Hunter’s arms here to validate the officials’ decision and not overturn the call. That said, given how the game had unfolded and obviously Hunter going off the Hawks definitely should at least tried to overturn this call, even at the cost of their last timeout. The season is over if they lose the game and Hunter has been their best player in these last two games — I cannot understand why McMillan did not challenge this call (and even more so seeing what the Hawks ended up spending this timeout on later).

This is what McMillan had to say about the decision not to challenge the call, postgame.

“We talked with the bench and we felt like it was marginal contact and if we lose that we lose my last timeout and they’d get the ball on the side,” said McMillan of not challenging the Hunter foul. “So we would lose De’Andre as well as the last timeout. We felt it was marginal contact and it was going to go against us and we decided to hold onto that last timeout.”

Again, I think he may have been right from the point view this may not have been overturned but I still think you’ve got to at least try to overturn it. There’s as much of a chance they could overturn it as there was that it wouldn’t be — calls have been overturned for less.

The Hawks manage to get themselves a valuable stop after Hunter fouled out as Max Strus’ three hits air and returns the ball to the Hawks trailing by three points with 30.7 seconds left on the clock:

Initially the ball is in the hands of Young, who kills his dribble not long after advancing beyond half-court and, from there, the Hawks find themselves unable to launch a three-pointer, with Adebayo switching to prevent Huerter launching a three off the screen and Strus denying Young. With less than 10 seconds remaining, Gallinari drives inside and his attempted shot is missed but the Hawks catch a break as the ball goes off of Oladipo and out-of-bounds:

When the offense clearly broke down here, I am confused as to why McMillan didn’t call a timeout. The Hawks’ season is on the line; if they don’t score here, that’s it.

McMillan got lucky here on two counts: one being that the rebound bobbled as it did and went out of bounds rather than, say, in possession of the Heat or off of Delon Wright (which it almost was), and two, that the Heat challenging the call and failing actually returned the Hawks’ timeout to them — taking one away from the Heat — while giving the Hawks time to draw something up.

Inbounding at the baseline obviously creates some issues but the Hawks have time, and a timeout, which they use as Delon Wright is unable to get the ball in. On the Hawks’ final throw of the dice, the Heat do a good job preventing a clear opportunity to inbound and in the end Gallinari comes to Wright where he receives the ball and is trapped and as the precious seconds tick, Gallinari’s attempted pass to Wright near the basket is intercepted and the game-clock expires:

A few things obviously to note here. As soon as Wright gets the ball to Gallinari, Wright probably needs to fan out to the weak-side corner, since a three is the only thing that’s going to extend the Hawks’ season at this point. There’s also not a lot Gallinari can do because where he’s received the ball, he’s just trapped. What probably doesn’t help Gallinari is that Kevin Huerter tries to come over to him to help but in doing so probably took away the one place Gallinari may have been able to get the ball to on the perimeter. Of course there’s no guarantee that even if Huerter had stayed where he was that any attempted pass to him from Gallinari would have been successful.

“They bodied us up and basically took us out of our cuts and forced the pass inside,” said McMillan of the final play. “We had two options, the first option was Trae, the second was Gallo coming off. As they do, they switch everything and they grab and they take that away. They just blew that play up.”

“It was good defense by them,” McMillan added.

“It was pretty easy and smart what they did,” said Danilo Gallinari of the final play. “They took away the three-point shot, we ran the play to get the ball in the corner, we were able to get the ball in and they double-teamed the corner. I had no outlets, no time to do anything else. So I thought they played smart defense.”

With how those final possessions unfolded after Hunter fouled out, it was in retrospect a poorly spent timeout for how costly it was to protect as Hunter fouled out. It was also a poor decision at the time, regardless how the rest of the game unfolded.

“Super frustrating,” said Hunter on having to watch his team after he fouled out. “Especially on a call like that. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

Hunter’s loss was one that obviously was felt down the stretch, the disappointment of losing him clear to see. Hunter wasn’t the only one who had issue with the manner of the call, with Young suggesting it was ‘personal’ but noted that it was one possession out of many last night.

“It was a couple of seconds late obviously it’s the ref that I had just got a tech on — maybe it was personal with him — but it was five, six seconds late and it was crazy the situation,” said Young. “Obviously being the sixth foul hurt us but that was one possession out of a lot.”

“It’s tough especially with the type of game he played,” added Gallinari of losing Hunter. “He played an amazing game and we needed him, especially the last few plays we had to play.”

But that’s it. That is all she wrote for the Atlanta Hawks’ season.

Postgame, McMillan congratulated the Miami Heat before expressing his gratefulness to his team after a difficult season, proud of the fight they showed throughout the year and last night.

“First I want to say congratulations to Erik and his team,” began McMillan. “They are a hell of a team. Those guys compete every second that they are out on the floor and I have a great deal of respect for how they play and how he coaches his team. For our guys tonight, I just thanked them for all that they’ve given this season. We’ve got a lot of guys over there that are banged up. Some of the injuries we don’t even talk about. These guys fought through that all season long, with the COVID, a short off-season, we had guys coming in with injuries and throughout the season every single one of us was out for a period of time, that’s including the coaching staff. This team continued to stay together, continue to fight, play their way into the playoffs and met up against a team that’s a tough matchup for us, they really are a tough matchup.

“Tonight, we lose Bogi before the game, we lose Clint during the game, JC has some things going on and our guys continue to fight. I have a great deal of respect for my group and how they played this season and how they played this game. There was no quit, there was no give-up or give-in. As we put up on the board, there’s three things we can do here: we can give in — say it’s too hard — we can give-up and quit or we can give it all we got, and I felt like they gave me all they had.”

McMillan has often talked about the Hawks putting together a full 48 minutes — something they did not always do this season — but last night saw fight in his side for the 48 minutes and obviously the fourth quarter where the Hawks made a game of things.

“Fight,” said McMillan of what he saw in the fourth quarter. “I saw a group that wasn’t giving in. We found something with De’Andre and a matchup he had and he was able to get us close. That foul at the end takes him out of the game. Big call, big play there. We felt like we had some momentum going. But I saw fight from these guys for 48 minutes.”

“Great fight,” added Gallinari of the fourth quarter. “When you play these kinds of games you’ve got to fight. If you lose, you’re home. You can’t go home without a fight. It was a good game, we fought, but it wasn’t enough.”

The mood in the locker-room postgame was understandably sombre.

“We didn’t really talk because it’s tough to digest and talk about stuff right now,” said Gallinari of the locker-room postgame. “It was a pretty quiet locker-room.”

“I think for the most part we fought hard,” added Hunter. “Especially this last game. We really competed, we just didn’t get the outcome we wanted. Basically saying (to each other) ‘Way to play.’”

For the game itself, the Hawks were again limited in their attempts inside, the Heat doing a good job of forcing the Hawks to take tough shots either at the perimeter or outside the paint:

The Hawks scored just 28 points in the paint in Game 5 and, similar to the field goal attempts, the Heat held the Hawks to three games of 28 or fewer points in the paint (28 in Game 5 and 26 on two other occasions in the series). In the entire regular season, there was only one instance where the Hawks scored less than 28 points in the paint (and the sole instance of the Hawks scoring 28 points in the paint came in a loss against the Heat as well).

“They switch one-through-five,” said McMillan. “They do a good job of guarding the perimeter. They don’t give up a lot of threes, they force you into an isolation game. The way you have to attack them first is try to get down and play fast before their defense can get set but you have to attack them inside with dribble penetration or post-ups or on the glass. I thought we started to get to that at the end. De’Andre was able to get into the paint and play. We just came up short. They are a team that, with a switching defense, try to keep you out of the paint and keep you on the perimeter.”

“This series was tough,” added Young. “They definitely challenged us. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out where we can be better at as a team, come back next year and not be in this situation, understanding where we want to be is where we were last year and further. We’ve got to figure out how we can get back there and that’s the main goal.”

For the second consecutive game, Hunter was, by far, the Hawks’ strongest player offensively, scoring 35 points on 11-of-21 shooting from the field and was a plus-3 in his 42 minutes of action.

“I wasn’t trying to lose, that’s all,” said Hunter of his game. “I had open shots, I made them, I was in a rhythm, shots felt good. That’s pretty much it.”

“He was aggressive all game for us,” added Young of Hunter. “That was important for us, especially with Bogi being out we needed him to be aggressive and it was amazing to see him be aggressive, especially that second half, our comeback and getting us back in the game. Even when I had the ball his man was at the nail and I was able to kick to him and he was driving and making plays not only for himself but for others too. It was really good to see and to have him go off, wish we could have won for him.”

Hunter obviously had a difficult season and I’m sure the way he ended this series can be used as confidence to build into his pivotal fourth year as restricted free agency looms.

It was tough for the Hawks offensively all series long. John Collins clearly wasn’t healthy and I’m honestly surprised he wasn’t ruled out for the playoffs heading in. Both he and Clint Capela was obviously extremely limited in their game-time, Capela playing less than 20 minutes in Game 5, Collins playing just over 25 minutes. Bogdan Bogdanovic obviously wasn’t healthy in this series and was clearly worse off than thought if he was unable to even attempt to play in an elimination game. With how the Heat defended the perimeter, Kevin Huerter wasn’t able to be as effective and Danilo Gallinari did not have a great series either.

Obviously Young struggled has offensively in this series and Game 5 was no exception, scoring 11 points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field, 0-of-5 from three and matched his six assists with six turnovers. For the series, Young averaged 15.4 points per game on 31.9% from the field on just 13.8 field goal attempts, 18.4% from three on 7.6 attempts, six assists and six turnovers per game.

“They’re a good defensive team,” said Young of why he struggled in this series. “Their team is more of a system than who they have on their team. No matter who they have out there they can play and it’s about their system. Their defensive system is all about helping and when they’ve got a guy they’re targeting to take away they do a really good job of doing that. I’ve got to go back and watch film and understand places where I’ve got to learn, and it’s not just me I’ve got to sit down with coach and we’ve got to find out ways that— I mean, teams if are going to face-guard and do what they did, the whole 94 (feet) and 48 minutes of the game we’ve got to be better at it.”

Young has faced a lot of different defensive looks and schemes this season but could not find the gaps he normally does against lesser teams, couldn’t get to his spots when defenses lapsed. This is no coincidence because this is no ordinary team. The Miami Heat are an elite team and they have a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals.

“For sure, the numbers would say that,” said Young when asked if this was the best a team has defended him. “Obviously I didn’t shoot the ball well, I couldn’t get into certain places I can normally capable of getting into. It’s going to be something that’s part of my growth, it’s something that I’m going to get better at and next time I’m faced at this challenge I’m going to be better.”

It’s time to give the Miami Heat their due.

Defensively the Heat were absolutely brilliant in this series. It won’t get as much shine as what the Boston Celtics got to the Brooklyn Nets defensively but it should. The Hawks were a very good offensive team this season and the Heat just absolutely clamped them. They forced the Hawks to play sped-up, they forced them on the outside, they helped each other on almost every drive, they showed what an elite defense looks like. They were on such a string that even when Butler and Lowry went out of the lineup, the system didn’t miss a beat. Oladipo came in and gave them a lift, the likes of Strus, Vincent and Martin were so active defensively, P.J. Tucker stirred things up as he normally does and Adebayo anchored the backline.

Yes, the Heat’s job was made somewhat easier by the Hawks’ injuries limiting their best front-court players but they deserve so much credit. I certainly back them against the winner of Philadelphia-Toronto and I think they’ll give the winner of Boston-Milwaukee a fantastic run (though they should hope for the Bucks over the Celtics in my opinion because if Boston can shut the Heat down defensively like they did the Nets, the Celtics I think have better offensive talent to see them through. But I digress...).

I honestly can’t say enough good about how the Heat played here. As a fan of basketball, to see the Heat execute like that on defense — with everyone so connected on the floor, moving as one... The game-plan looked so clear and the Heat rarely ever let up in its execution from top to bottom in their roster — it was honestly special to watch. Erik Spoelstra really is one of the NBA’s best.

The Hawks didn’t deserve to win Game 5 on the night nor did they deserve to win this series. Given how the series unfolded, it’s more impressive the Hawks avoided the sweep and that’s just being honest. Injury factors did go against them but they still had everything they needed to take this to a Game 6 in Atlanta with Butler ruled out in Game 5 given how good he was this series too. Ultimately the 1-seed prevailed over the 8-seed and there’s no shame in that.

The Hawks were far too inconsistent to deserve a better seed, they didn’t take the regular season seriously enough and were punished for it for having to go through the play-in and their eventual slot as the NBA’s 8-seed with a brutal matchup. That’s how it should be.

“I think we can learn that we have to play a better regular season to put ourselves in a better ranking and a better position to approach the playoffs,” said Gallinari. “We let a lot of games go, too many ups and downs during the season. When it’s playoff time you can’t take games off or minutes off, you’ve got to play every game the same way.”

The postmortem of the Hawks’ season has already begun and, as will discussions where they go from here as they head into what will surely be an interesting summer.

For now however, the Atlanta Hawks’ season is over.

Until next time...