Defense, turnovers stand out as Hawks fall to Magic

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The Hawks played their final home game before the start of the regular season on October 24 Wednesday night, falling to the Orlando Magic, 97-88. Atlanta will travel to Miami next Monday to kick off a three-game stretch of tune-ups before the real games begin.

This was not the frenzied up-and-down affair that took place on Monday against New Orleans. The pace was fast – about 104 possessions – but not blistering, and neither team was able to convert much of anything offensively. The Magic shot 29.4 percent from three and 37.6 percent overall – and outgunned the Hawks in both areas. Neither team posted a true shooting percentage higher than 48.5 percent, and the game was sloppy virtually from the start.

Among the chaos of Wednesday night two things stood out above the rest:

Atlanta’s defense

Orlando’s ghastly shooting night undoubtedly contributed to its offensive woes, but credit the Hawks for making it more costly. Almost anything would have been a step up from Atlanta’s miserable defensive night against the Pelicans, but the Hawks appeared entered Wednesday with a decidedly sharper focus and a greater emphasis on that end of the floor. The Magic managed just 0.93 points per possession as Atlanta’s defense scampered around the floor in a way it didn’t in Game 1. Save for the occasional head-scratching breakdown, there were relatively few completely broken possessions.

Both Lloyd Pierce and DeAndre’ Bembry decried their team’s lack of defensive communication on Monday, and the Hawks improved noticeably from the first game to the second. “Definitely a lot better,” Bembry said. “We could still talk better, but I think the energy definitely picked up today.” It connects a defense when individuals aren’t hung out to dry on screens, caught in between rotations or unsure of where to be on a given play. On-ball defenders gain confidence from knowing that help will come if they’re beat off the dribble. All of that stems from players communicating with one another, and for a young team still learning the very basics of NBA defense, that sort of support is critical.

The Hawks count in players like Bembry, Vince Carter and Alex Len to provide that, but rookies DeAndre Hunter and Bruno Fernando were equally lively and tuned in Wednesday night. Hunter once again moved his feet well against Orlando’s most dangerous perimeter threats, while Fernando – in stark contrast to his debut earlier in the week – looked sharp and self-assured on that side of the ball. The rookie big is still learning the ins and outs of Pierce’s system and NBA defensive concepts at large, but he seemed to have a tighter grasp on his responsibilities on Wednesday. “I thought his energy was great in his first stretch,” Pierce said. “That’s what we need. We need him to be an energetic big, come in, use his voice, command the defense, run the floor, set screens, get behind the defense. And he showed a little bit of that tonight.”

Atlanta’s defensive performance is not entirely replicable and it would take a near-miracle for the Hawks to transform into an elite defense this season. But as the team’s young players find their footing at this level, the habits and principles they learn might matter more than results this year. Gradually, they might be moving in the right direction.

Turnovers

For the second consecutive game, the Hawks died of self-inflicted wounds. Two nights after coughing the ball up 29 times, Atlanta wasted 27 more possessions Wednesday against a long, swarming Orlando defense. The Magic boast one of – if not the – rangiest lineups in basketball and bothered the Hawks into errant passes, loose dribbles and anxious decision-making all night. They gathered 16 steals and scored 18 points off of turnovers. “They’re a great defensive team,” said John Collins, who committed six turnovers while shooting 0-of-8 from the floor. “All those guys have experience, so you know what you’re going to get. Myself included, we have to come out prepared.”

While the Magic’s imposition of their length and athleticism clearly irritated Atlanta, many of the Hawks’ mistakes were of their own making. They traveled six times – partially a product of playing such a long rotation in a preseason contest – and forced passes that would have been picked off by any defense, no matter how long. “We’ve got to get to fundamentals,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to try and get back and slow the game down a little bit.”

Much of the team’s carelessness falls at Young’s feet. Turnovers have become a theme for the point guard, who committed eight of them against New Orleans and a whopping nine Wednesday night in 28 minutes. Giving a few possessions away is an inherent part of the game for a creative point guard willing to take high-upside risks, but Young must find the line between daring and recklessness. “As far as turnovers, I’ve been playing like shit,” Young said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Young and Pierce can stomach the occasional high-turnover night from Young so long as the rest of the team takes care of the ball. When two other starters give the ball away more than three times, it all but derails the team’s offense entirely. For Collins, a relatively low usage big man whose job mainly involves finishing plays, nights like Wednesday are inexcusable. His turnover rate could rise this season as he expands the edges of his game, but like Young, must find the right balance.

Turnovers may well be the only thing standing between the Hawks and a top-15 offense this season. Cut down on the number of empty possessions, and Atlanta’s high pick-and-roll attack becomes even more dangerous. Overcoming that obstacle won’t be easy, though, and it starts with the man at the top.

“I know I can fix it,” Young said. “I’ve got to be better and I’m going to be better.” 

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