The Atlanta Hawks’ four game winning streak was snapped at the hands of one of the NBA’s best teams, the L.A. Clippers, in a high-scoring 149-144 defeat at State Farm Arena on Monday night.
De’Andre Hunter led the Hawks with 27 points off the bench with Trae Young added 25 points and 12 assists. For the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 36 points, and James Harden added 30 points and 10 assists.
The Hawks were without Clint Capela in this contest (sidelined for a minimum of 7-10 days with an adductor strain) while the Clippers were on the second night of a back-to-back and the end of their seven game Grammy road trip and without their own starting center Ivica Zubac.
Right from the outset the Clippers showed why they are among the NBA’s best. The manner of which their offense was clicking was incredible to watch, highlighted particularly in their three-point shooting — which was relentless — shooting 6-of-9 in the first quarter.
The Clippers built a 13-point lead in the early stages of the second quarter, but the Hawks were able get some stops while their scoring kept pace with the Clippers’ high-powered offense, outscoring the visitors 38-29 in the second quarter. Fast forward to the fourth quarter, and it was still a close game with both teams showing no signs of offensive let up.
Two key stretches in the fourth quarter got away from the Hawks — the first came with the Hawks holding a 123-122 advantage after Jalen Johnson’s bucket with 5:10 remaining.
The Clippers retake the lead after Leonard gathers his own miss and sticks back the follow:
There was no Capela here to clean up the glass, and the Hawks probably shouldn’t have allowed this rebound, but the Clippers only scored 11 second chance points, which is a big win for the Hawks without Capela.
The Hawks’ next possession turns up empty as Young’s attempted lob is broken up by Russell Westbrook, who leads the charge in transition and finds Amir Coffey for the layup:
To Westbrook’s credit, he saw the play develop here, and you can see him accelerate to get back and break up the lob.
The Hawks would commit a turnover on their next possession as Saddiq Bey is cut off on the baseline by the help defense of Westbrook, and that in tandem with Onyeka Okongwu moving just at the moment Bey passed to where he was leads to the turnover — the end result being Paul George drawing a foul and free throws on Young:
On the drive, Young isn’t quite able to get rim side, and his pass to the perimeter finds Dejounte Murray, who can’t hit the three:
Offensively, Leonard was great, and while Paul George had a quiet 18 points, he and Leonard were active defensively. You can see that in evidence here.
To cap off a 7-0 run, Harden does what Harden does and draws the foul and free throws on the drive:
This small stretch was a tough one for the Hawks. Their live-ball turnovers contributed directly to Clipper points whilst not getting a shot up themselves. A six-point margin wasn’t an impossible margin to overturn, but they never held the lead again nor tied the game nor brought the game under three points again.
Having cut the lead to four points with 2:17 remaining after a Murray basket, the Clippers again stretched their margin, first through Leonard’s three:
Tough break defensively: you can’t have situations in the fourth quarter where Young ends up on Leonard defensively — between Murray and Johnson, one of them has to help Young here. In the fairness of Johnson, he does seem to motion to Young to switch behind him but he should still cover Leonard. Any concerns about being the help defender shouldn’t be present, as Okongwu can rotate, and if Westbrook makes the subsequent three you’d live with it. What you can’t have is Leonard making a three in this scenario.
The Hawks cough the ball up again, this time Young’s attempted pass is emphatically swatted by Westbrook (credited with a steal and not a block here) and, again, the live-ball turnover is punished immediately as Coffey scores on the other end to push the lead to nine points:
Westbrook’s defensive impact down the stretch here was a very underrated aspect last night — he just seemed to telegraph what Young wanted to do on multiple occasions.
Coffey bails out what was a pretty terrible Murray shot — a straight-away pull up three down nine points — by committing a foul and Murray’s three free throws are immediately offset by a made three by Harden and then eclipsed as he’s fouled by Young:
Big players make big plays, and as much damage as Harden’s reputation took over the playoffs and the Philly fallout, he has very much rebuilt much of it since the Clippers trade and he was fantastic last night. It was bit of luck with the bank shot here, but Harden is still hugely impactful.
“He’s so poised and he’s shooting the ball really well,” said Hawks head coach Quin Snyder of Harden. “It’s really hard to prevent that shot because of his stepback and his size. He gives them another dimension and he’s so unselfish. Their team, collectively, to have such a group of guys that at various times in their career have been the guy and for them, clearly, they sacrifice for one another and that makes them even better collectively than they are individually and that’s a credit to them and a credit to Ty (Lue).”
Harden’s made free throw put the Clippers up 10 points with just over a minute to go, and while the Hawks brought the lead down to three points it was ultimately a bridge too far. It was a bit confusing initially to see Young commit the foul down three points when there would have been some time left on the shot clock, but in his defense you can just chuck a shot at the end of the clock. And by the time the ball goes up, comes down and you, hopefully, grab the rebound the game is basically over.
In the end, the Hawks went toe-to-toe with the Clippers all game long and the difference in the fourth quarter came down to two things: free throws and turnovers. The Clippers shot 14-of-17 from the line in the fourth while the Hawks shot 11-of-14, but the main issue was that the Hawks’ three turnovers led directly to five points. The Clippers committed just one turnover in the fourth as they scored 47 points in the final quarter.
“A lot of it is players making plays,” said Young of the fourth quarter. “They got superstars over there for a reason ... we were trying to hit the ball. Big O got on James or certain matchups they were just cutting and finishing around the rim. They just made a couple more plays than we did. Credit to them, they see that type of defense a lot with the hitting and guys doubling so they know how to play and they’ve got smart players everywhere. They capitalized off it.”
The Hawks end up on the wrong side of a 149-144 defeat after all their efforts, of which Snyder was pleased with and with it was that type of effort that will keep the Hawks in games in the future.
“I think they started really hot,” said Snyder postgame. “We hung in there, even early in the game which was important and kind of ground our way back into it. We compete like that we’re going to be in games and good things will happen.”
On another night, against a lesser opponent (of which there are arguably 28 teams — maybe 29 depending on your viewpoint — that are lesser teams than the Los Angeles Clippers), the Hawks would have had a different result — so it’s a tough one to swallow from that perspective. It’s difficult to score 144 points in regulation and still lose, and yet it’s happened more than you’d expect for the Hawks this season!
Crazy stat:— Wes (@bloghawk) February 6, 2024
The Hawks are now 0-3 this season in games in which they score at least 143 points in regulation
That stat in itself tells a telling story for the Hawks this season.
Across the board the Hawks played well: they scored 144 points on 53.7% shooting from the field, shot 20-of-39 from three, 22-of-27 from the line, dished out 35 assists with just 11 turnovers. They played really, really well. The Clippers, unfortunately for the Hawks, just played better: 149 points on 58% shooting, shot 21-of-35 from three, shot 24-of-31 from the line, dished out 32 assists but with just seven turnovers.
The Hawks got great player contributions from Young (who scored an efficient 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting) but also De’Andre Hunter, who scored 25 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field in just under 19 minutes of action.
“This was probably the most tired I was this game, but shot was feeling good, my teammates were finding me in good positions and I made the shots,” said Hunter.
“It’s good to have him, even if it’s not as much as we’d like right now,” added Snyder of Hunter. “The most important thing is he’s back playing. We can ease him back, if that’s the right word. He didn’t look like he was easing anything tonight which is really important, he’s not saving himself. I just think when he’s aggressive offensively early shooting the ball it opens a lot of other things up, and he’s able to attack the rim. He hit a few really important mid-range jumpshots as well, which he can do. A lot of good things that he did tonight and I haven’t talked about his defense, which is always really consistent. Particularly against a team like the Clippers that have so many big wings, to have him out there was important.”
Hunter is still limited on minutes and on back-to-backs but when he plays like that...whew, that is a big boost for the Hawks. But the issue has not been offensive capability, it’s been offensive consistency. So, what Hunter follows this up with is of more interest to me. To expect another 10-of-12 shooting display would be unrealistic but you just don’t want to see 4-of-14.
Onyeka Okongwu was also extremely efficient as he took over starting responsibilities in place of Capela, scoring 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 2-of-2 from three. Since January 1, Okongwu has shot 50% from three, 8-of-16. His confidence with that shot has clearly grown, and despite struggles early on in the season with that shot, he and the Hawks have stuck with it — and it’s paying dividends.
Conversely, Jalen Johnson really struggled shooting the ball as he scored nine points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field and looked at bit exasperated at times with how things were going offensively, but his contributions on the defensive end did not go unnoticed.
“That’s really important, and probably as much as anything when he was out we missed his defense and his rebounding,” said Snyder of Johnson. “I know it’s hard, there’s some plays that he’ll make and has made and we want him to continue to make, sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. Those guys, they’re big, long defenders back there as well, but he didn’t let it bother him and continued to compete.”
Despite the loss, the Hawks wrap up their six-game homestand with a 4-2 record, mostly against Western Conference opponents who were, admittedly, were either deep into their road trips and/or missing players, but the Hawks have, generally, played quite well during this stretch. And while it doesn’t lift them close to getting back above .500, they remain on the road to do so.
“It’s more about all of us understanding that we’ve got to take it one game at a time,” said Young of building heading onto the road. “I know that sounds cliche and a lot of people say it, but we’re in the position where we have to. Winning one game isn’t going to bump us above .500, so we’ve got to continue to take it one game at a time, continue to stack up these wins whether we’re at home or on the road. We’ve got two on the road that we’ve got to take care of, and starting in Boston, best team in the league this year, tough place to play. They don’t lose there a very much, so we’ve got to do something a lot of teams don’t do.”
The Celtics are 23-3 at home so, indeed, the Hawks will have their hands full.
The Hawks (22-28) are back in action on Wednesday against the Celtics (38-12) at the Garden in Boston. The Celtics have been off since Sunday, a game in which they were able to coast to victory against the battered Memphis Grizzlies, so the advantage will be well and truly on the hosts’ side.
Until next time...