Backcourt Struggles As Hawks Fall to Pacers

Ben Ladner

Just over two weeks removed from exploding for a season-high 49 points against the Pacers, Trae Young endured one of his worst shooting performances of the year Friday night against the very same opponent. He finished with 23 points in Atlanta’s 110-100 loss to Indiana, but took 30 shots to get there and never found any sort of rhythm against the Pacers’ badgering defense. He shot 9-of-30 from the field, becoming just the third player this season to score less than 30 points on so many field goal attempts.

Young has suffered poor shooting performances before, but in many of those games, he earned enough trips to the foul line to outweigh off-nights from the field. The Pacers removed that counterbalance on Friday, holding Young, an expert foul-baiter, to just two free-throw attempts. “They call a lot of fouls for him, so that makes any player hard to guard, and he’s a great shooter,” said Malcolm Brogdon, who spent much of the night glued to Young. “I sort of took it as a personal task for me while I was on him to really frustrate him.”

Brogdon’s approach worked, and Young grew visibly frustrated over the course of his 37 minutes. He shot 3-of-13 on floaters – far below his usual mark – and 3-for-10 from deep. The same shots with which he torched the Pacers in November rimmed out or came up just short. “I was able to get my shot off, they just weren’t going down tonight,” Young said. “Sometimes it’s like that, and it sucks, but tonight I felt like I let my team down.”

Young has been guilty of forcing the issue at times this year, and Indiana managed to coax him into a few ill-advised long jumpers early in the shot clock after little or no ball movement. The Pacers didn’t blitz Young in the pick-and-roll quite as often as they had in the first meeting – in part because he wasn’t scoring as effectively. Instead, Indiana forced Young into a crowd and lived with him taking reasonably-contested floaters and tough pull-up 3s. “We were a little loose [defending Young] last game,” said Pacers coach Nate McMillan. “He was running guys off screens and getting downhill on us. We just did a better job of pressuring him and forcing him towards our bigs.”

With its primary catalyst unable to settle into the flow of the game, Atlanta’s offense was rudderless, scoring just over 0.96 points per possession and with a percent effective field goal percentage of 45.7. While the Hawks made headway on the offensive glass and at the foul line, they did not make a 3-pointer in the first half, which put them at an ultimately insurmountable deficit. “When you’re 0-for-13 from 3, that’s just a tough night in general,” Pierce said. “We just couldn’t capitalize on some of the offensive possessions that we had in the first half.”

Jabari Parker, Alex Len, and De’Andre Hunter all made positive offensive contributions, but couldn’t on their own lift Atlanta’s offense. Kevin Huerter didn’t provide quite the spark he did in his first three games back from injury, shooting 2-of-7 from the floor with three costly fourth-quarter turnovers. Cam Reddish, Vince Carter, and Allen Crabbe all fell somewhere between damaging and anonymous.

The Pacers were far from dominant, but simply by virtue of attacking the basket, they managed to generate enough offense to trudge past the ineffectual Hawks. Indiana took a whopping 52 percent of its shots at the rim and penetrated Atlanta’s first line of defense with ease. The Hawks failed to corral the Pacers at the point of attack, and their help defense was inconsistent at best. Shooters and cutters darted around screens, and Atlanta couldn’t contain the Pacers’ middle pick-and-roll, which yielded bucket after uncontested bucket for the visitors. “We think we’re a team, especially against the Hawks, that can get to the paint,” said Brogdon, who tallied 19 points and 12 assists. “Their bigs were a little in-between, so we tried to use that to our advantage.”

The Hawks got back into the game in the third quarter, outscoring Indiana 35-23 to cut the deficit to just three entering the fourth. But Atlanta would come no closer, and a nearly three-minute drought to start the final quarter gave the Pacers the room to separate. Any hope of a comeback depended upon a late push from the Hawks’ backcourt, but as the game wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the surge wasn’t coming.

“We all fought so hard to get back in the game,” Young said. “I’ve got to be better. I was getting wide-open looks and missing, and I feel like I let my team down tonight.”