Against Sixers, Hawks must settle for an instructive loss

Hawks guard Trae Young looks to pass out of the trap set by Philadelphia's Mike Scott (1) and Josh Richardson (0) during the first half Oct. 28, 2019, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Hawks guard Trae Young looks to pass out of the trap set by Philadelphia's Mike Scott (1) and Josh Richardson (0) during the first half Oct. 28, 2019, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

There will come a night when the Hawks take one of the NBA’s presumed Goliaths to the final possession, and it will be inappropriate to ask about growth and learning and what valuable experience there was to be gained in such a loss.

A night when they are greeted with a crushing sense of disappointment after a rugged defeat rather than a patronizing pat on the back for darn good effort. And then you’ll know this rebuild has a solid floor beneath it.

The sooner the better, really.

But that night wasn't Monday.

The Hawks lost in the dying seconds to a team much farther along in The Process — the name Philadelphia gave to its own rise from the ashes, a design that a former assistant named Lloyd Pierce brought with him to Atlanta. They lost to a team that has been anointed one of the favorites in the East, a team that is big and skilled everywhere, because, well, at this stage of development, they were probably supposed to.

The Hawks put up 40 points in the first quarter against the 76ers. They put up 38 over the entirety of the second half. Here only three games into the 2019-20 season, in a meeting between what was the only two unbeaten teams in the Eastern Conference, the young Hawks appeared to be playing on both a drag strip and a mud bog in the same evening. No, you never know what you’re going to get, from moment to moment.

With eight seconds left, the Hawks’ John Collins rose between a skyline of 76ers to tip in a missed Trae Young free throw and tie the score at 103-103. A mere three seconds later, Collins found himself with a face full of Joel Embiid, the brawny Philly center backing his way toward the goal. Collins might as well have been trying to deny the incoming tide. He was called for his sixth foul, and Embiid broke the tie with two free throws.

The Hawks’ best chance for a winning heave in the few seconds left was, of course, Young, whose range extends anywhere from beneath the basket to Marietta’s Big Chicken. The Sixers denied him the inbounds pass, leaving it to Vince Carter to hustle up the floor and launch the kind of flailing 3-pointer he might have made while constructing a legend, but not now while he’s writing the afterword.

Yeah, but it was a learning experience.

“It came down to a possession, which is all you can ask for,” Pierce said. “They say the best way to help a young team grow is to put them in these situations. We’ll get better from it, that’s the beauty of it.”

“You can try to watch film and get what you can out of it,” Collins said. “Not a lot of big growth, but some growth for sure.”

More from the coach: “We can play with anybody for three quarters. In the last quarter, do we communicate well, are we on the same page, can we execute? For a young team that doesn’t have collective experience, that’s going to be a focal point for us.”

One of the hard lessons of this little October get-together was that the mass of the Sixers, and the blunt way they tend to deploy it doesn’t play to the Hawks strength.

The slight Young felt that in the second half, over which he scored only six points, none in the third quarter. The same Young who averaged 38.5 points for the season’s first two games.

“That’s not our game. They’re big, they’re physical. That’s their game. They’re going to try to punish us,” Pierce said.

At the same time, the Hawks' top draft pick this year, De'Andre Hunter, continued to reveal an ability to crank up the offense sometimes in lieu of Young. On Monday, he led all Hawks with a plus-minus of plus-10, indicating his value while on the floor. Finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds, his 3-pointer to close out a particularly chaotic possession gave the Hawks an eight-point lead with five minutes to play That was the biggest cushion of the second half, a cushion not quite big enough.

About that manner of his contribution, Pierce said, “I keep raving about (Hunter) because I think he’s a guy when we drafted him I didn’t know that was something he’d be capable of doing this early in his career.”

Look, nothing about this one narrow October loss changed a general air of good feeling about where these Hawks are headed. It was as encouraging as an “L” could be.

You could hear that from court-side, where a certified winner, one-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, said afterward, “Best team we’ve had here in a long while.”

It was an instructive kind of loss for a very young, far from fully formed team.

One day, likely not this season but hopefully soon, such a loss might sting and blister. Then you’ll know the Hawks are on to something.