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Film Session: How and why the Atlanta Hawks have struggled to close out wins

The Atlanta Hawks are 9-7 in games where they’ve led in the 3rd quarter. Not the stuff of a self-proclaimed playoff team. So what’s going wrong?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have struggled closing games late this season.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

On the day after New Year’s, the Atlanta Hawks entered the fourth quarter with a four-point lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has toiled at the bottom of the Eastern Conference this season and likely will for its remainder. While the Hawks may have led by as many as 15 points in that game, what ensued that night was a weak quarter and a half of basketball for the Hawks, resulting in a 96-91 loss to one of the league’s worst teams. This seemed harmless enough at the time, but it was the first sign of a concerning trend that Hawks fans have watched unfold as the season continues.

Since the Hawks’ torrid 4-1 start, they have gone 7-14 and find themselves with more questions than answers thus far this season. Here, we’ll evaluate four such games where the Hawks failed to secure a win despite being in the lead late in the game (vCLE, vNYK, @DAL, vIND). What we will uncover is that a combination of costly late turnovers and mental mistakes, poor defensive execution, and an overall lack of engagement and passion in crunch time have led to these painful late collapses. As such, the blame rests across the entire organization from the players failing to execute, to coaches failing to adjust, as well as the overall struggles of this team battling significant roster turnover and injuries amid an unprecedented season. So, let’s focus on a choice selection of pivotal moments in each of these games that changed the momentum and resulted in Hawks losses.

Film Session

Cleveland Cavaliers, Jan. 2

As referenced above, the Hawks led by as many as 15 points in this game (67-52 with 6:31 left in the 3rd quarter). From that point on, we began to see some of the early glimpses of the problems that cause these late game collapses. The back-to-back turnovers in the clip below are typical of young teams. Kevin Huerter tries to force two bad passes to Bruno, and it backfires, leading to an easy dunk for JaVale McGee (Shaq voice) on the other side. One other point to note, this occurred while Young was on the bench, meaning Huerter was being tasked with ball-handling duties. The lack of a consistent and stable back-up point guard has exacerbated these issues.

In the final four minutes of the 3rd quarter, the Hawks had nine offensive possessions, which had these results: two made shots for four points and six missed shots (2/8 for 25%). They also conceded three offensive rebounds, had a shot clock violation, and a technical foul to boot. By the end of the 3rd quarter, the Cavs were within four points. Bask in the sheer majesty of these consecutive offensive rebounds for the Cavs, resulting in a JaVale McGee three-point play (the Hawks made McGee look as good as he believes he is).

In the 4th quarter, Atlanta continued to struggle with the same issues that plagued them in the 3rd. The Cavaliers won the 4th quarter 26-17. Trae Young had one assist and three turnovers in the 4th quarter, including going 2/7 from the field (28.6%). The poor shooting isn’t a disaster, defenses get stingier in the 4th, but the turnovers are the bigger issue.

In the clip below, with the Hawks down by one, Young gets good penetration after a Collins pick. Young draws Larry Nance Jr. towards him and get Nance to bite on a hesitation dribble, but Young misses his patented floater. No real problem there, that’s a good shot. He succeeds in getting his own miss, but rather than pulling the ball out to reset for a decent look, he brings the ball low and tries to force a pass into the post to Collins. That mistake in a close game down the stretch is the type of mental error good teams can’t afford make. Good look, bad luck, bad mental error typical of a young player trying to do too much.

In the final two minutes of the 4th quarter, the game just turned against the Hawks. Drummond gets an easy dunk after taking the ball away from Young, just as Young is about to run the break off a Cavs turnover. Then, Sexton hits the dagger over Bogdanovic, who didn’t even have a hand in Sexton’s face in a tie game with 30 seconds left and five seconds on the shot clock.

Bogi fails to put a hand up to contest the go ahead dagger 3-pointer from Sexton

New York Knicks, Jan. 4

The Knicks game was eerily similar to the Cavaliers game just 2 days earlier. Once again, the Hawks had a 15-point lead in the 3rd quarter (82-67 with 4:47 left), and by the end of the 3rd, the lead was cut down to four. The Knicks went on a 17-6 run in the final 5 minutes of the 3rd quarter. The clip below typifies the effort at the end of the 3rd. Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley dribbles to RJ Barrett’s side of the floor, showing a DHO, but Quickley fakes the handoff blowing past Reddish for the easy dunk. Goodwin points to Reddish to switch on the handoff, but Reddish fails to recognize the switch to engage Quickley at the point of attack, so he gets caught flat-footed on the blow-by. That blown coverage pulls the Knicks within 7 points of the Hawks with just 30 seconds left in the 3rd.

Knox hits a three-pointer to end the quarter, and the Knicks are within striking distance of the lead, despite being down 15 points earlier in that same quarter. Each side trades baskets for the majority of the 4th quarter, and it’s all tied at 99 at the half-way point of the period. Atlanta had four turnovers in the 4th quarter (too many) and three of those came after the six-minute mark. See two of those turnovers below. In the first, it’s difficult to say exactly who is to blame here (if anyone).

It’s unclear if this is a play called by Lloyd Pierce or if this was a read by Young. In either case, posting up Hunter on Austin Rivers isn’t a bad decision on the surface, but it’s always about time and score and in a tie-game with six minutes left that shouldn’t be the first option. Randle does a great job digging down on the entry pass to steal the ball from Hunter.

In the second clip, with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Reddish receives a tipped skip pass in the corner and attacks the basket. He has the dump off pass to Collins in the lane when Mitchell Robinson (one of the most talented shot-blockers in the league) steps up to challenge, but Reddish decides to elevate; realizing half-way up that he couldn’t finish, Cam tries to force a pass to Collins anyway.

Obviously, Reddish made the wrong choice, but the offense at this point had stalled. Young hadn’t found any avenues to probe and needed a bail-out skip pass that barely reached its target. One could argue that Bogdanovic or Huerter would have been more equipped than Reddish to make the right read, but at the same time you need Reddish’s defensive prowess for the other end of the floor, so the lineup decision isn’t without merit. These turnovers were on consecutive possessions for the Hawks, and completely killed the offensive flow. Despite the fact that the Knicks didn’t actually score off those turnovers, the damage to the Hawks momentum was done.

The final clip demonstrates the Hawks penchant for missing opportunities and simply not doing the little things required to win games. Austin Rivers razzle dazzles for nearly five seconds with the shot clock winding down and is forced into a very bad shot with John Collins coming to contest. The mistake here for the Hawks occurs when Huerter and Hunter don’t box out Julius Randle, who is averaging 11.1 rebounds/game (as of the writing of this piece).

They’re both caught ball-watching with Rivers pounding the ball into the hardwood, so when the shot goes up, Randle is able to sneak between them and sky for the put-back. Hunter in particular misses the box out and fails to put a body into Randle diving to the rim on Rivers’ drive. With the game on the line, a missed box out, failing to secure the rebound after a bad shot, can be the difference between winning and losing.

The Hawks had 18 offensive possessions in the last six minutes of the game, they scored on only four of those possessions, missing 10 shots to go along with two turnovers, and an offensive foul. The Hawks shot 7/21 (33.3%) in the 4th quarter to the Knicks’ 9/16 (56.2%), losing the quarter 29-20 along with the game.

Dallas Mavericks, Feb. 10

Over a month later, the Hawks held their largest lead on the Dallas Mavericks at 81-68, with 5:30 left in the 3rd quarter. Unlike their previous collapses, the Hawks managed to mostly limit the damage through the end of the 3rd quarter and took a nine-point lead into the 4th. The downfall was delayed to the beginning of the 4th quarter instead, with the Hawks failing to score in the first two minutes of the quarter (four offensive possessions). And yes, in case you were wondering, one of those four possessions was a 33-footer from Young with 16 seconds left on the shot clock.

Atlanta suffered an even more devastating scoring drought from 7:49 to 4:44. In that time, the Mavericks enjoyed a +10 advantage, from being down five points to being up five points, while the Hawks missed 5 shots and committed an offensive foul. The most revealing possession in this stretch featured the type of uninspired, disengaged offense that has plagued the Hawks throughout these late game collapses.

As Huerter receives the ball on the wing, we see Young immediately recede to nearly half-court. Having your most potent offensive weapon 40-feet away from the basket is not a sign of an organized offensive strategy. Reddish never moves from the corner, Collins drifts around no-man’s-land between the mid-post and the elbow, so Huerter is left with no options after his unsuccessful drive attempt other than kicking it out to the always-ready Gallinari for a contested 3-pointer.

The lack of movement, creativity, and energy falls on the players, but the absence of a cohesive strategy or a solid go-to play with six minutes left in a tie game falls under the purview of the coaching staff. There’s a lot that went wrong here, and it indicates the lack of direction and engagement that seems so common in these meltdowns for this team.

The offense picked back up for almost exactly one minute as the Hawks scored 8 points from minute 2:03 to 1:05. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter as the Mavericks scored 5 of their own points in that stretch. The most critical of these came on a Dorian Finney-Smith wide open 3-pointer. Snell gets burned on the Brunson drive, so Gallinari really has no options, but he may have been better served staying home as Brunson seemed to have a tough angle to finish. Not to mention, Gallinari has struggled with mobility, and he would have had no chance to show help and get back to his man at the perimeter.

It’s difficult to point at one single thing here, the Hawks were missing Bogdanovic, Hunter, Rondo, and Dunn in this game, all of whom are better defenders than Gallinari. The first two likely would be on the floor in this scenario over Gallinari, and they may have made a better defensive play here. This is just as much part of the story of the Hawks’ late game struggles as any other example presented in this piece.

Atlanta lost the 4th quarter 37-27, standing in stark contrast to the 2nd quarter where the Hawks outscored the Mavericks 30-19. Directionless offense and a few “less-than-perfect” defensive moments are more than enough to let a team like Dallas slip back into the game, and the Hawks paid for it. Over a month after the Cavaliers and Knicks games, the Hawks seemed to make zero improvements in these late game situations.

Indiana Pacers, Feb. 13

At 96-87, Atlanta held their largest lead of the game against Indiana with 9:33 left in the 4th quarter. In the nine and a half minutes that followed, the Pacers outplayed the Hawks to the tune of a 38-17 run, while they shot 70.6% from the field to the Hawks’ 37.5%. Some of this certainly was attributable to Atlanta simply missing open shots. Find two such painful examples in the clips below. Nothing stands out as particularly wrong here, they’re wide open looks for good shooters, they just didn’t fall. It happens.

So, what did the Hawks do wrong? The problem started before these wide-open shots were missed, indeed even if they had fallen, the Hawks still might not have won. Similar to the Mavericks game a few nights earlier, the offense fell apart down the stretch with players making poor choices that didn’t put their team in a position to win. Collins takes a contested 3-pointer with 13 seconds left in the shot clock and no one under the rim. The reason why Collins shoots such a great percentage from 3 (39.1% as of the writing of this segment) is that he takes those shots in rhythm, not forcing up shots like he did in the clip below.

Finally, and perhaps the most common issue cited in this film session, there were critical turnovers, the worst of which came when TJ McConnell stripped Young after Young seemingly forgot that McConnell was right behind him after he was denying the entry pass to Young just moments before. These kinds of mental lapses are unacceptable in the 1st quarter, let alone down by 2 points with 4:50 left in the game. McConnell is the kind of savvy veteran who can pull these types of moves off, but these antics become even more prevalent in the playoffs when everything is on the line. The star point guard can’t afford to make mistakes like this when it really counts.

All told, the Hawks lost this game by 12 points, giving up a blistering 41 points to the Pacers in the 4th quarter. Indiana outscored Atlanta 20-8 over the final 5:12 of the game, the latest in a slew of late collapses that have riddled the Hawks season thus far.

Key Takeaways (TL;DR)

There’s never just one reason why a team struggles. While it’s easy to point the finger at the coach, or at the star player, or at the GM, more often than not it’s a combination of those things and many others that can cause inconsistency and a lack of execution. However, the prevalence and pervasiveness of these late-game stumbles have grown from slightly concerning to full-blown worrisome. Across the four games that this piece analyzed, there were some overarching themes and insights that we could take away.

First, and most obvious, this team has struggled with injuries, as well as incorporating the 10 (!) new roster additions this season (I’m including Capela as his first in-game minutes came this season). Few Hawks fans realize this, but only Young, Huerter, and Collins were on this roster in this 2018-’19 season.

Second, this team is prone to making poor decisions and has not demonstrated the polish required to finish games. In the breakdowns above, we saw the Hawks forcing bad passes and bad shots, blowing coverages in high-leverage defensive possessions, missing box-outs, failing to put a hand in the shooter’s face, forgetting to clear the backcourt. These are the types of things that win close games and separate the “ok” teams from the great teams.

Finally, and this builds on the above two points, the Hawks simply don’t look engaged and passionate. Obviously, they all care about winning, but have they shown that they are willing to go above and beyond and do the little things it takes to win games? A lot of this does fall at the feet of the coaching staff, it’s their responsibility to drive buy-in and hold players accountable. But those players also need to be open and available to that coaching, they need to execute their assignments and the game-plan.

If there’s one main takeaway from this research, it once again be that there is never just one reason why a team’s struggles. It’s a collection of failures. Unless, the Hawks work to address these challenges, across every facet of the organization, and get these young players engaged and passionate, they have no chance of turning around this season-killing trend of blowing winnable games. We’ll all be watching with intent, hoping that they figure it out.