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Hawks lose ground in playoff race in wire-to-wire loss against Knicks

A costly loss for the hosts heading into the All-Star break

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks were on the wrong side of a wire-to-wire affair as they dropped a costly game to the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, 122-101 at State Farm Arena.

De’Andre Hunter led the Hawks in scoring with 20 points, while Trae Young added 19 points and 11 assists. For the Knicks, Jalen Brunson scored a game-high 28 points with Julius Randle adding 25 points and 11 rebounds.

Where to begin with this one... The Hawks, surely, knew this was an important game. They’re chasing a top-6 spot and the Knicks are one of the teams — the team heading into last night’s game — immediately in front of them between where they are now and where they want to be. With only 24 games remaining prior to tip and already trailing ground to the teams in front, they absolutely needed to win this game heading into the All-Star break and gain a game back on the Knicks, all while coming off of a brutal loss in Charlotte on Monday.

Those were the stakes heading into last night’s contest — it could not have been more clear.

Their response to these stakes was to fall behind by double digits early behind a 25-8 start before then trailing by 20 points in the first quarter before trailing as many as 25 points in this game and suffering a wire-to-wire loss at home without bringing this game below double-digits at any point once that advantage was established.

That is a frighteningly bad response to what was a torrid loss on Monday.

Offense was the main issue in the first quarter, though conceding 30+ in a five of their last six first quarters doesn’t help either. The Hawks scored 19 points on 8-of-28 shooting (28.9%) from the field and being outscored 18-0 on threes in the first quarter (the Knicks shooting 6-of-14, Atlanta shooting 0-of-8) did not help either.

There were a number of reasons for the Hawks’ many misses in the first quarter, we’ll go over a few. They missed a lot of makable shots in the first quarter here.

To start, a drive from Young that goes high off glass but a little too strong on this occasion:

How many of those has Young seen fall? It’s not a bad shot by any means on this occasion.

Next, a jumping hook from Clint Capela in the paint:

Again, a makable shot. It’s contested, sure, but Capela has this knack of hitting similar to shots to this where you think as it leaves his hand in that flat manner that it does, ‘That is not a good shot,’ but gets it go. Just not on this occasion.

Next, a drive-and-kick from Young to Dejounte Murray, who misses the contested three:

You can file this under the ‘bad shot’ category but Murray has been hitting these kinds of shots frequently in 2023. Since January 1st, Murray is shooting 47% on his threes where a defender is within 2-4 feet of him — what the NBA considers ‘tightly defended.’ He can make shots like this.

Later in the quarter, Murray sheds Randle and does well to side-step the charge attempt from Brunson but his floater off glass is missed:

A very makable shot from Murray here but one that, again, goes a-begging.

Lastly, AJ Griffin misses a wide open three-pointer behind the break:

In eight games in February so far, Griffin is shooting 23% from three.

In addition, the Knicks defense was quite good at times during this quarter.

Good help from Brunson away from the ball here to prevent Young getting downhill after the screen and then to contest the three from Murray:

Isaiah Hartenstein was a force off the bench, making life at the rim difficult, particularly for Onyeka Okongwu on this possession:

And again with this fantastic block as he recovers from the Okongwu slip of the screen:

Now, this isn’t to excuse the Hawks entirely. Yes, they missed some good openings and the Knicks played them well at times but they did not help themselves either with some of their shot selection.

On the switch with Randle out front, Young — with plenty of time on the clock — settles for a contested three-pointer which misses:

Aaron Holiday did not have the greatest of first quarters offensively, and his contested shot on the drive is missed:

With all due respect, with the time left on the clock here and with some of the players on the floor here, this would not have been the shot I’d have fancied, personally.

His floater attempt not long after is contested high by Jericho Sims but still wouldn’t be the option I think the Hawks are looking for:

The Knicks scored 37 points in that first quarter on 52% shooting from the field. They got hot from three — more so through Randle — and that can happen, but perhaps most damningly from the Hawks defensively were the 14 fastbreak points they conceded to the Knicks in the first quarter — more than the 11.4 they average per game, tied for 28th in the league and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a season-high from the Knicks in the first quarter. They would finish with a season-high 30 fastbreak points, which at this moment is the tied-15th most fastbreak points that any team has scored in a game this season in the NBA — it is an obscenely high number to give up to a team that averages just over 11 per game.

Just a few of these...

The defensive resistance on the RJ Barrett drive isn’t great from Hunter and Murray is too late to step in as the help:

Murray didn’t exactly covet himself in glory here with this challenge at the rim on another Barrett transition drive:

Between Okongwu and Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Hawks get themselves mixed up on a basic action and it allows Immanuel Quickley to spring into an open three and Quickley does not need a second invitation:

Lastly, the Knicks made some solid shots themselves, this was a nice take and finish at the rim by Josh Hart:

It wasn’t until the third quarter when the Hawks began to dig into the Knicks’ 22 point half time lead but missed an opportunity here as well. The Knicks’ start to the third was poor and the Hawks’ wasn’t much better — they trimmed the lead, yes, but missed an opportunity to bring it lower than the 13 points that they did and the Knicks eventually found their way somewhat as the margin hung around that 12-14 point range to end the third quarter.

After the Knicks increasing this margin slightly, the Hawks responded but the Knicks gradually edged away back to a 20-point margin and extended it to as high as 25 points before Hawks head coach Nate McMillan waved the white flag with 3:43 remaining and emptied his bench, completing a dismal night for the hosts.

Postgame, McMillan highlighted the physical and mental fatigue his side have been feeling and how it was reflective in their play as they were unable to match the Knicks’ physicality on the game.

“We knew they were going to bring that style of play to the floor,” said McMillan when asked about the physicality. “Our last two games we just looked like we’re mentally, physically fried. We had a lot of wide open looks in that first quarter, first half, shots weren’t falling. I think we were 0-for-10 before we even hit a three. They were just quicker to the ball tonight. We only had five turnovers but they had 30 fastbreak points and I think that’s due to long rebounds, not able to react. I think this break is coming at the right time for us and we need to regroup and come back and finish up strong here.”

“You’ve got to give credit to them establishing that tone, they did a good job,” added Trae Young.

It does all line up to an extent: the Hawks missed a number of good opportunities even in that first quarter. But you got the sense they played like they knew the break was coming and let up whereas the Knicks played to the finish line.

“That’s what we look like,” said McMillan when asked about his comments about being ‘mentally and physically fried’. “New York didn’t look like that. Our last two games we’ve been a step slow on both ends of the floor — defensively, guarding, reacting, the hustle game. Tonight, it seemed like we didn’t have legs to shoot the ball. I thought we had open looks, good looks in the first half and the ball didn’t fall for us.”

In contrast, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said this postgame: ‘’You don’t want to go on break before the break.”

That’s exactly what the Hawks did, and you can extend that back to Monday’s game: they went on break before the break. They’re just glad it seems to now have an opportunity to regroup and recharge but McMillan is challenging the Hawks to not just sit around all break long.

“I think everybody just needs to take some time and mentally and physically recharge” said McMillan. “As I said to them, we can’t practise until Wednesday but our gym will be open for the guys to come in and do something on Tuesday. You don’t want to lose everything that you have on this break, sit around and not do anything. You need to do something because we’ll only have two practises before we strap up and be ready to go again. But they need to get away.”

“We definitely need a break,” added Young. “It’s a good time that it’s coming now and I think a lot of teams it happens this time of year and unfortunately we’re one of those teams that kind of needs this break but we’re going to come back and I’ve got faith in our team, I’ve got trust in our team that we can make a special run. No matter who doubts us I’ve got faith in my teammates.”

As for what the hope is after the break, Young is hoping that with the break comes an opportunity for the Hawks to get their legs back and, with that, play faster.

“I think just playing faster, hopefully we’ve got some more legs under us,” said Young when asked the top priority to address coming after the break. “Get some rest, guys come back with another boost of energy and now that we’ve got a lot of games we should have more chemistry under our belt, it’s not like we’re starting our season over again so we’re able to come out with more energy in the second half.”

For the game itself, it was tough for the Hawks — Young and Murray combined for 29 points on 7-of-26 shooting, Collins was 2-of-8 before getting whacked in the face and being ruled out for what the Hawks say was ‘head evaluation’ (perhaps best not to get into the officiating angle with this game...a strange one to say the least) and Bogdanovic only saw five field goal attempts in 23 minutes (not the output you need when his defense struggles).

AJ Griffin was solid off the bench, 6-of-12 shooting for 12 points, while Hunter scored 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting. This odd trend feels like it’s continuing: when Young and/or Murray have strong games, Hunter seems to struggle with his own efficiency. When the reverse happens, Hunter seems to have strong games. It could be my own imagination but it feels like more often than not this trend seems to follow when it comes to Hunter’s game.

The Hawks’ shot the ball worse from the field, beyond the arc, the free throw line, got to the free throw line less, they were bullied on the boards (55-40), they conceded more 30 fastbreak points with just five turnovers, they were outscored 21-6 on second chance scoring, they lost the bench battle (it should have been more than what it actually was in the end due to McMillan clearing his bench with over three minutes to go)...

This was a bad loss, as mentioned, but I don’t think it’s worth getting too angry over for this reason: the Knicks are just better. I think the Hawks were just outclassed by a better opponent last night in so many areas, an opponent that is likely going to finish ahead of the Hawks in the standings and have an opportunity to make a little noise in the playoffs if they can sneak in as a 5/6 seed.

Their addition of Hart is going to make a huge difference, and they better equipped themselves for the stretch run than the Hawks did. Which brings us to another issue.

Saddiq Bey scored two points on 1-of-4 shooting in 18 minutes — that’s not great but his two points aren’t the main issue I want to discuss (he’ll have better games). I fear this addition doesn’t help the Hawks from (a) a value perspective on the actual trade itself but (b) more so the fact the early returns based on this game is that it’s squeezing Jalen Johnson out of the rotation, which was a huge concern from this trade. Johnson should be playing minutes — he’s solid, he’s worth continuing to play and develop. This trade, I fear, sets Johnson back and I think the Hawks lose out as a result. We’ll see if Johnson continues to miss out with Bey playing after the All-Star break but it certainly is a concern.

If there was any game to show that the Atlanta Hawks were just as ready and deserving of fighting for a playoff berth as their competitors, to show they could be on a similar level as those fighting for the playoffs, it was last night, and they flopped spectacularly.

The Hawks enter the break 28-29 and return to action with a four-game homestand, beginning with a visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers (38-23) on Friday February 24rd.

Until next time...