The Atlanta Hawks looked to come into tonight and beat up on a worse Cleveland team to snap a three game slide. However, they left bewildered and defeated yet again to a score of 99-83.
The good news comes first. Larry Drew went with a large lineup by bringing in Zaza Pachulia into the starting lineup and placing Lou Williams back in his 6th man role. This gave the Hawks a strong defensive presence, as well as a size advantage on offense. With Josh at the small forward, he was able to roam around defensively and provide weak side help. Smoove was a veritable swatting machine with a season-high 6 blocks.
Unfortunately, the large lineups made defensive rotations very slow. Kyrie Irving burned the Hawks from deep, going 5-6 from 3 and 11-15 overall for an absurd 33 points on 15 shots. Without two ball handlers on the floor, turnovers were an issue as well. The Hawks turned the ball over 8 times in the first half and finished -3 on the turnover margin.
With such a significant size advantage, Al Horford took advantage with 12 first half shots. Smith and Horford combined for 34 shots in total in 72 combined minutes of play. Zaza Pachulia received a fifth foul in the third quarter meaning Ivan finally got minutes for the first time in many games. Mike Scott and John Jenkins also got considerable run but failed to spark anything for the Hawks. In fact, the entire Hawks bench combined for a miserable 7-24 shooting the ball.
In the first half the Hawks had 0 free throws, but don’t despair! They were able to rebound for a rousing total of 5 by game’s end. Don’t be too concern by that large number; the Hawk only converted 2 of those 5 chances. For comparison, two Cavaliers had more free throw chances by themselves. 20 NBA players average 5 free throws attempts per game by alone and 111 average 2 made free throws a game this season.
There were open Cavalier shooters all night long, and many Hawks simply failed to rotate on basic pick and pop plays. Both teams had 12 chances from long range in the first half, but Cleveland made 7 to Atlanta’s 3. Alonzo Gee, shooting .292 this season from three, outshot the Hawk from long range 4-7 in the same half.
The time to panic is now if there are real expectations of being a top 4 seed in the East. A loss to the team with the second worst record in the NBA as part of a four game slide does not exactly shout contender status or even second-round-of-the-playoffs worthiness. The size and rebounding issues may be a product of a rebuilt roster a season removed from a franchise changing trade. The trade has also left only one player that the Hawks can rely on to get to the free throw line at a high rate, Lou Williams. The Hawks are in the bottom five in free throw rate and bottom ten in rebound rate and have displayed this ugly trait all too frequently in recent days.
Should the Hawks rediscover the success they had at the beginning of this season, defensive rotation must be much sharper and offensive sets must be executed better. Could the midseason lull be the result of a delayed lack of team cohesion? Is this Hawks team simply not as talented as they appeared to be? You make the call but it’s clear the team is many holes away from being a true contender even in a very weak Eastern Conference.
Even so, I urge fans to not root for a tanking strategy but rather fully expect a good Hawks team to simply perform better as we move toward the All-Star break. After all, 48 of 82 games remain for Atlanta. Now it not the time to make rash decisions. A steady grind and strive to get better is all the Hawks players and coaches need.