Three Takeaways From Atlanta's Loss in Milwaukee

Ben Ladner

Much like the first time the Hawks and Bucks matched up, Atlanta played above its head for most of the game – with the exception of a critical stretch that allowed the Bucks to create enough separation to win. Despite 29 points and seven assists from Trae Young and Jabari Parker’s season-high 33 points and 14 rebounds, the Hawks went scoreless for the final six minutes of the first quarter. Another three-minute dry spell in the fourth gave the Bucks all the breathing room they needed.

Atlanta’s bench provided nearly nothing outside of its six turnovers, and strong efforts from Parker and Young weren’t enough to outweigh 30 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo and a balanced Bucks scoring effort. The Hawks were outscored by 12 points in 13 minutes with Young off the court and have scored a miserable 94.8 points per 100 possessions for the season without him.

Box Score

Atlanta has now lost 14 of its last 16 games – including its last eight in a row – to drop to 4-14 on the season. The Hawks are tied with the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks for the fewest wins in the NBA and now own the worst point differential in the NBA. Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s loss:

The Bucks controlled the rim

Generating and converting shots at the basket is a point of emphasis and a challenge for any team facing the Bucks, and while the Hawks achieved the former, they had a hard time with the latter. Nearly 40 percent of Atlanta’s attempts came at the rim, but shot a paltry 56 percent on those looks. Brook and Robin Lopez barricade the paint in pick-and-roll coverage while the other Bucks shade down toward the lane to take away the most efficient shots in basketball. Trae Young has one of the best floaters in basketball, which helped Atlanta finish shots closer to the basket without getting all the way to the rim – the Hawks took 21 percent of their shots from floater range – but those looks are just inherently less efficient than layups, which played into Milwaukee’s hands.

The Bucks, meanwhile, took 43 percent of their shots at the rim and shot a whopping 71 percent; employing the best interior finisher in basketball will help you do that. Absent an imposing Hawk rim protector, Milwaukee got most anything it wanted inside and Atlanta’s inability to contain Antetokounmpo and company resulted in 27 Buck free throws.

Wednesday was likely an aberration in the Hawks’ season-long trend; the Bucks take away the rim as well as anyone and Atlanta’s offense simply isn’t dynamic enough to force teams like Milwaukee into fretting over other threats. But while that issue was amplified against the Bucks, it manifests in every game. The Hawks are one of the best teams in the NBA at creating room at the rim, but getting there becomes increasingly difficult as the rest of the offense flounders.

Alex Len played zero minutes

Pierce has been searching for clarity in his center rotation and appears to have found it, at least for the moment. Jones and Fernando played a combined 37 minutes, with Parker playing the remaining center minutes in small, offensive-oriented lineups.

The choice to sit Len against Milwaukee, in particular, is curious because of his theoretical ability to stretch defenses and open up the rim. He had the best year of his career last season as a stretch center, and given the Lopez brothers’ tendency to linger around the rim against pick-and-rolls, Len could have pulled them away from the paint and opened up the paint.

But Len has struggled mightily this season, even from deep, where he’s shooting just 16 percent. If the Ukrainian isn’t hitting shots and drawing defensive attention, he doesn’t have much use for the Hawks. Atlanta’s other big men are no great powers, but Jones is at good enough as a roll man and Fernando is versatile and intelligent enough to earn minutes in a weak rotation.

How Pierce proceeds from here will be worth watching in the long-term. He doesn’t have an established NBA center to rely on, so the distribution of minutes between Atlanta’s three bigs could fluctuate by the week depending on who happens to be playing well. John Collins could soak up 10-15 minutes at center once he returns from suspension, which could leave Len exiled even further.

The Hawks held up on the glass

Atlanta outrebounded the Bucks in the game, but more importantly, it grabbed 75 percent of Milwaukee’s misses – an improvement over the full-season mark on the defensive boards. The Bucks do not emphasize second chances, but the Hawks have struggled before even against some of the NBA’s less aggressive offensive rebounding teams. The two teams were even in second-chance points – 16 each – and Atlanta stayed in the game, in part, because of their work on the offensive glass. The Hawks rebounded nearly 36 percent of their own misses against what was the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA.

Offensive rebounding has been a strength of Atlanta’s all season, but the effort, timing, and tenacity that affords them that edge just hasn’t translated to the other end of the floor. It largely comes down to effort and discipline – finding an offensive player and boxing him out rather than watching the ball – which the Hawks don’t always bring. It will be imperative that they play with the same exertion Friday against Indiana. 

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