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Hawks fall to Nuggets, fail to win third straight road tilt

41 points from Jamal Murray were too much for the Hawks, despite cutting a 22-point lead down to eight in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta Hawks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This was a game of extremes for the Atlanta Hawks. At one point in the third quarter, the Hawks trailed by 22 points, 78-56. With 5:49 left in the game, the Hawks found themselves down only eight points with 109-101 showing on the scoreboard.

A combination of Jamal Murray going supernova, bad defense, and a lack of offensive execution allowed for the deficit to balloon again, resulting in a 20-point loss for Atlanta.

The Hawks were without Trae Young in their battle against the Nuggets, and Coach Nate McMillan opted to start AJ Griffin in his place. Atlanta came into the game on a two-game winning streak, after victories in Phoenix and Utah. Denver rolled out their strongest lineup, with Aaron Gordon & Nikola Jokic both active despite carrying questionable tags before gametime.

To start the game defensively, the Hawks seemed to stick to their switch & recover defense on the perimeter. This meant that they stayed very connected to cutters and movement, particularly around Jokic in the high post

Offensively, the Hawks aggression which served them well in Utah continued through the early goings of this game. They started on a torrid shooting pace, hitting nine of their first ten shots, primarily through active cutting and attacking the rim. Clint Capela in particular started strongly with three quick buckets at the rim, taking advantage of open space in the paint. Dejounte Murray managed eight points and five assists while leading the offense for the visitors.

The Nuggets found an early rhythm offensively, primarily due to Jamal Murray’s 14 first quarter points, including two three-pointers. Nikola Jokic also had five first quarter assists, and eight rebounds, as the Nuggets used backdoor cuts to punish the Hawks’ high pressure scheme. This allowed the Nuggets to take a 35-30 lead into the second quarter.

Both teams opted for mostly second unit lineups to start the second quarter, and both offenses stalled as a result. The Nuggets won the first five minutes of the second quarter 7-6, as they managed to go 3/10 from the field to the Hawks 3/9.

The starters returned to the court at the seven minute mark, and the Nuggets stretched out their lead behind solid defense, forcing two missed shots and a turnover, while going on a quick 10-5 run. Meanwhile, the Hawks lost their edge on defense, as Aaron Gordon in particular found his way to the rim consistently in the half-court. Denver took advantage of the Hawks three turnovers in the last five minutes of the half. Atlanta has given up the 8th most points in transition in the NBA this season, and Denver continually cut them apart in the open court.

Denver won the final five minutes of the half 22-13, and took a 70-52 lead into halftime. The statistical differences were stark after the first half. Despite both teams shooting over 50% from the field, the Nuggets took twelve more shots and took fourteen more threes than the Hawks. The Hawks had seven turnovers to Denver’s two, and grabbed nine fewer rebounds.

Jamal Murray was the story of the first half with 22 points, four three-pointers, and six assists. Michael Porter Jr. chipped in 16 points, and the Serbian two-time MVP cruised to eight points, six assists, and eleven rebounds.

For the Hawks, De’Andre Hunter’s hot hand did not cool off, as he led all scorers with 13 points, and 4/4 from the line. AJ Griffin also contributed eleven points in the rookie’s tenth career start. There was little else to be proud of offensively for Atlanta.

To start the third quarter, it was the battle of the Murrays, with Atlanta’s Murray scoring eight quick points. However, the Denver Murray also contributed five, and Atlanta’s defense was not strong enough to get any stops, so the lead remained unchanged after the first five minutes of the second half.

Atlanta managed a small run behind some terrific shot-making by Dejounte Murray, who managed twelve points in the quarter. By the end of the third, the Hawks had cut the earlier 22-point deficit in half, trailing 97-86 going into the final period.

The beginning of the fourth quarter was the Onyeka Okongwu show, who managed to score four points in one minute, including a thunderous dunk off an AJ Griffin assist. And after a slicing drive from Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Hawks cut the lead to single digits.

Sloppy play and trading buckets defined the middle of the fourth quarter, including buckets from rookies on both sides as AJ Griffin and Christian Braun scored in consecutive possessions. Nikola Jokic notched his ninth triple-double in eleven games with a backdoor assist to Aaron Gordon with 5:25 left in the game.

This marked the beginning of the end for the Hawks, as the Nuggets immediately went on a 15-2 run, stretching their lead back to 21 points behind eleven straight points from Jamal Murray, who finished with a total of 41 points on the night. After both teams cleared their benches for the final two minutes of the game, the Hawks were handed a 20-point loss, 128-108.

Dejounte Murray finished with a double-double, 28 points and ten assists, including hitting three of eight three-point shots (37.5%). Hunter also stayed hot, scoring 20 points on 46% shooting. Onyeka Okongwu was huge down the stretch for the Hawks on both sides of the ball. It’s been very encouraging to see him round into form, excelling in his back-up center duties.

Nate McMillan pointed to Jamal Murray’s performance in his post-game comments: “I thought [Jamal] Murray was really good tonight, being really aggressive attacking our defense in transition as well as the half court… We were making tough shots, I didn’t think we had the ball movement, but that was due to their defense.”

McMillan continued by commenting on the Hawks lack of transition defense, and Denver’s ability to capitalize, “for us defensively, they moved us. Continued to get out in transition and attack us. They had 19 fastbreak points, so they did the things you wanna do against a team coming in off of a back to back.”

McMillan also pointed to the Hawks “heavy legs” and turnover issues: “You gotta take care of the basketball. I think we had 3-4 turnovers in the last minute of the game. So, that’s always a big key is taking care of the basketball. I didn’t think we had a lot of movement. We were scoring but it was one pass and a shot. That could be due to guys having heavy legs.”

McMillan did not comment on the shooting disparity between the two teams, after mentioning last night that he was happy with the Hawks 37 three-point attempts against Utah.

The Hawks will finish their west coast road trip on Tuesday night in New Orleans before heading back to Atlanta. They will need to win in New Orleans against a struggling Pelicans team to come away with a winning record on this west coast swing. It remains to be seen if Young will be healthy for that matchup.