“Dropping 30-5-5 on the Hawks soon!”
Home, Sour Home!
After one disastrous minute, one horrific overtime, and one lousy extra game in the space of 24 hours, our Atlanta Hawks were chomping at the bit to get this show off the road.
“We just have to get back to Atlanta,” said Cam Reddish to Fox Sports Southeast after Wednesday’s listless loss in Chicago, “and get back in the gym.” Oh, okay, is that all it takes? When not even a good night’s sleep at a Holiday Inn Express would do, the Hawks insist that a trip back to the lab in Brookhaven will make all the difference.
Beginning tonight with the Indiana Pacers in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), we will just have to see if home is where the heart was.
I’ve made much about Atlanta’s arduous strength-of-schedule to start the season, in terms of opponent caliber. But there’s also the matter that Our Fine Feathered Friends haven’t strung together many days to incubate in their own nest. Since November 10, the Hawks have had one road swing of five games, and two trips three-games long, a back-to-back embedded within each of those stretches.
Sure, Atlanta (6-19) did have an 11-day stretch at the end of October to “enjoy” the comforts of home, before having to fly cross-country to Portland to start that five-game Western trek. But even that period was unduly disrupted by concerns about Trae Young’s injury status and the news of John Collins’ 25-game suspension.
Since that time, they’ve had nothing but single-game (one, against the Bucks) or two-game pit stops at State Farm Arena (3-8, incl. 1-6 over last 7 home games). That includes this weekend, where the Pacers, fresh from a day off after surging late to beat Boston at home 122-117 on Wednesday, will be followed by LeBrongeles. The Lakers, too, won’t be coming here without a day off, having spent their week cruising on relatively short flights through the Southeast Division.
Atlanta has already been grounded and pounded through three road back-to-backs, losing the back ends by 122-101 (Lakers), 158-111 (Houston), and 136-102 (Chicago). Conversely, only once has a visiting opponent arrived at The Farm after playing the night before on the road, and that opponent was Tarnished State.
“We’re just still learning how to compete,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce acknowledged after the blowout loss in Chicago. They came off a reasonably competitive loss at Milwaukee before Thanksgiving, then nearly upset the Pacers in Indy on Black Friday before succumbing in overtime. Of course, the Hawks had a resting Rockets team at home waiting for them just one night later.
Pierce’s nightly crews were shorthanded, and tired, to be sure. But they have also been lugging around the youthful core of a roster that has hardly played meaningful minutes together in seasons past, and supersized-contract veterans that have contributed next-to-nothing of value on the floor.
And in a head coach, through questionable substitutions, that is prioritizing committee-style minute shares and metered-out rehab returns over maximal lineups, and things like confidence, competition, and cohesion become a hard sell. Is simply shifting the area code back to 404 going to make that big of a difference, anytime soon?
The Pacers are likely to get their franchise star and newly unmasked lounge singer, Victor Oladipo (quad rehab), back at some time over the next few weeks. In the interim, Indiana (16-9, 1.5 games behind 4-seed Boston) seems to revel in being a team without a clear identity.
As a team, Indiana doesn’t shoot a lot of threes (2nd-fewest 3FGAs/game), and they don’t get to the line much (30th in free throw rate). While that means they’re high in shares of interior shots, they’re just middle-of-the-pack in 2-point shooting accuracy (51.1 2FG%, 19th in NBA).
They haven’t been exceptional passers (18th in assist percentage), they don’t crash the offensive glass (19th in O-Reb%), and don’t drive the tempo of games in either direction (21st in Pace). After being harassed all night by the pernicious Bulls, Young and the Hawks will be relieved to face a Pacers squad that’s smack-dab in the middle for forcing turnovers (15th in opponent TO percentage; 24 Hawk TOs on Nov. 29 were 4 more than any other opponent so far).
They literally don’t do much of anything to stand out. And I suspect coach Nate McMillan and his staff like it exactly that way, at the very least until they can get Oladipo back into the fold. No strengths for opponents to deny, no weaknesses to exploit.
GM Kevin Pritchard stocked the team in the offseason with efficient supporting cast members (Malcolm Brogdon, T.J Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, the injured JaKarr Sampson), and contract-extended Domantas Sabonis (13.5 RPG, 4th in NBA) to pair in the frontcourt with Myles Turner (2.4 BPG, 4th in NBA). As such, they can afford to wait until Oladipo can build upon their playoff-worthy foundation. Along the way, they can stash as many Ws in the column as they can, so Victor Victorious won’t have to do so much to seal up a nice playoff seed in the East.
Taking sound shots, wherever they are on the floor, and hustling back into stout defensive positions has been enough to stay above the fray. Indy (6-6 in away games) has also benefited, unlike Atlanta, from a friendly early road schedule. After edging the Hawks back on Nov. 29, the Pacers went on a five-game road swing of their own. Except theirs included Morant-less Memphis, OKC, Detroit and fizzling New York.
The NBA West hasn’t been the 12-team juggernaut many projected before this season began, but the Pacers have yet to travel into the teeth of that conference. Including just one visit to Houston a month ago, on three days’ rest, in addition to the Grizzlies and Thunder, Indiana (5-2 vs. Western Conference foes) has not had to travel west of the Plains. Before they return to face Atlanta on January 4, the Pacers’ only “Western” road opponent will be New Orleans, a team that likely still won’t have Zion and may be dealing with a new coach.
They have played in just one all-road back-to-back (Detroit and the Knicks). Before that last trip, the Pacers hadn’t played in consecutive road games since October 30. They haven’t had a back-to-back of any kind since leaving the last Hawks game to visit Philly, a space of nearly two weeks, and they won’t encounter one for another ten days. Even while enduring injury absences for Turner, Brogdon, and Lamb, the Pacers have had more time to work through adversity under their own confines or, at least, in reasonably close vicinity.
While Trae carried the Hawks as best he could, for better or worse, when these teams last met (49 points, 8-for-15 3FGs and 9-for-9 FTs; 9 TOs and 6 assists), Atlanta was able to use bench help from DeAndre’ Bembry (11 D-Rebs and 7-for-9 2FGs), Alex Len and Bruno Fernando to neutralize the contributions from the Pacers’ balanced starting unit.
Atlanta will try to use the returning Kevin Huerter (DNP-injury @ IND; 1st home start likely since Oct. 31) and Cam Reddish (1-for-7 FGs in 11.5 minutes @ IND) to greater effect in taking defensive pressure off of Young, whose teammates could muster just 8 assists (15 player TOs) in November’s 105-104 loss at the Fieldhouse.
When on the road, the Pacers have effectively stifled their opponents’ fastbreak schemes (NBA-low 7.4 opp. points-per-48; next-nearest team allows 11.2). The Hawks still need to press the pace in transition, but they must be mindful of the need to look for trailers and corner-three opportunities, not piling up deleterious offensive foul calls (3rd-highest TO% on transition plays) while forcing actions that aren’t there.
Defensively, the task for the Hawks include denying the obvious subjects, Sabonis, Turner and Warren, post position in the halfcourt that allows for easy putbacks. Absent obvious second-chance opportunities, the Pacers are inclined to just get back on defense.
Free money for the Pacers involves getting Brogdon (NBA-high 94.6 FT%, up from NBA-high 92.8% last season) to the charity stripe. Besides his 8 assists and a single turnover, the Atlanta native’s season-best 15-for-15 display on Wednesday (12 fourth-quarter points, incl. 10 FTs in the final 4 minutes) helped the Pacers turn a ten-point deficit versus Boston, to start the fourth, into a five-point victory at regulation’s end.
Young and his help defenders will have to be less lackadaisical off handoffs and screens than they were in Chicago, keeping Indiana from getting easy looks at the hoop. But they also must do so in a way that keeps them out of foul trouble and the Pacers’ best marksmen off the free throw line. Hopefully, a day’s worth of video and training at the Brookhaven facility will be all that was needed to drive those points home and keep Atlanta from descending into needless ruts tonight.
A more mature, resilient and composed Hawks team will understand that fundamentals are fundamentals, regardless of the venue or the number of intervening days off. We’re quite a ways from seeing that kind of team reveal itself.
But maybe, at least for tonight, with a more inspired 48-minute effort from players and staff, having their own fans and being inside their own Factory will be enough to get not just the occasional Highlight, but a rare win over a decent opponent as well.
Simply clicking heels and crooning about Home like Dorothy in The Wiz won’t be enough. But a coordinated display of brains, heart and courage can make a huge difference, when the time comes once again to ease on down the road.
Let’s Go Hawks!