Hawks Lack Focus, Physicality in Loss to Bulls

Ben Ladner

A night after letting a late lead dissolve into an overtime loss in Miami, the Hawks made a far less dramatic affair of Wednesday’s contest against the Bulls. Atlanta hung around through one quarter, but let the game slip firmly into Chicago’s control over the next three. The Bulls closed the second quarter on a 10-2 run, and a 14-point halftime deficit stretched into 19 in the third quarter as Zach LaVine heated up. Eventually it ballooned to 30 midway through the fourth before Lloyd Pierce pulled his starters for good. “The game got away from us at the end of the second quarter,” Pierce said. “A lot of it was trying to force the issue, dealing with the refs. They were physical.”

That physicality took a toll on a Hawks team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and the disparity between the two teams’ physicality levels manifest most visibly on defense. The Hawks were slow getting around screens, recovering to shooters, and plugging holes from the weak side. They rarely sought to make plays on defense or apply much pressure to Chicago’s ball-handlers, and after playing relatively connected defense in Miami and Charlotte, Atlanta looked disjoined and uncommunicative Wednesday night.

(De’Andre Hunter was annihilated twice on ball screens – once on each side of the floor – and both appeared to have stemmed from a lack of warning from the big men, Alex Len and Bruno Fernando, involved in the plays. After the second play, the usually silent Hunter appeared to mildly scold Fernando for the lack of communication.)

The result was over 1.23 points per possession for Chicago, who took care of the ball, hit tough shots, and took the many easy looks Atlanta conceded. The Bulls attempted 58 percent of their shots at the rim against the flat-footed Hawks. LaVine finished with 35 points on an effortless 12-of-16 shooting and 7-of-7 from 3. Lauri Markkanen added 22 points in just 23 minutes while Coby White pitched in 19 off the bench. Thaddeus Young, in typical funky Thaddeus Young fashion, added nine rebounds, six assists, and three steals.

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“I thought they were the more physical team from the start,” Pierce said. “I thought we were moving the ball well early, but it really didn’t come down to our offense. It was more about our defense tonight.”

The offense wasn’t much prettier for the Hawks, who turned the ball over 23 times and scored just 0.95 points per possession. In keeping with a trend from their last two games, Atlanta moved the ball well early on, but eventually lost that rhythm and didn’t have the touch from the field to capitalize on open looks. No Hawk imposed his will for more than a few minutes at a time, but Alex Len snuck into a team-high 17 points on nine shots simply by getting behind Chicago’s defense and being an option. “[Len is] finding his rhythm around the basket,” Pierce said. “I think he established himself just by rolling to the rim and being around the basket and getting something easy.”

Cam Reddish was another bright spot, finishing with 16 points. The rookie is still finding the line between assertiveness and recklessness, but he inched ever closer to it on Wednesday. He attempted eight free throws – a product of patience and aggression – and stepped confidently into nine 3-pointers, three of which found the bottom of the rim.

While Trae Young made hay as a distributor in the first quarter, he never really settled in as a scorer and Chicago’s blitzes eventually denied him and Atlanta’s offense the options they wanted. Kris Dunn met Young before halfcourt on seemingly every possession and was constantly impeding his passing and driving lanes. When a second defender successfully trapped Young, there was really nowhere for him to go. The point guard finished with 15 points and 13 assists, but had seven turnovers and shot 1-of-6 from 3-point range. Kevin Huerter (nine points, four assists, 1-of-6 from 3) wasn’t sharp enough to take the pressure off like he did in previous games.

The Hawks are now 6-19 on the season and 0-6 on the second night of back-to-backs; five of those six losses have come by 15 points or more. Their tired legs and lack of focus on Wednesday culminated in the fourth quarter, when they turned the ball over nine times and were outscored 30-15. Much of that came when the game was already out of hand, but Atlanta did little to keep it under control. “[Chicago] didn’t feel us for the most part, and that’s been a point of emphasis,” Pierce said. “But our guys have been competing, we’re just still learning how to compete and what that means.”