After blowing two big leads, Hawks look to clean things up moving forward

In back-to-back losses to the Cavaliers and Knicks, the Hawks (4-3) twice worked their way up to 15-point leads only for them to be erased in the fourth quarter.

Not exactly a pattern you want to fall into early in the season, if you’re trying to make the playoffs — especially against opponents that don’t project as playoff teams.

“We thought we had the game in control because we had a 15-point lead with 20 minutes to go,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “And so don’t look at the score, it’s look at how you’re playing.”

In Saturday’s 96-91 loss to Cleveland, the Hawks started strong with 35 points in the first quarter to go up by 10, and an alley-oop from Trae Young to John Collins gave them a 15-point advantage with 6:31 to play in the third quarter. Then, the Cavaliers went on a 24-7 run to take a 76-74 lead at the 9:47 mark in the fourth. The Hawks were outscored 26-17 in the fourth quarter and looked tired.

In Monday’s 113-108 loss to New York, the second half was a similar story.

With a 3-pointer by De’Andre Hunter, the Hawks worked their way up to a 15-point lead with 4:47 left in the third quarter. Then, the Knicks made three quick 3′s to close out the third, and that energized them going into the fourth quarter. They took the lead, 94-93, with 8:35 left to play, as the Hawks combined cold shooting with an inability to get stops down the stretch.

It’s not so much about improving play in the fourth quarter, per Pierce, but improving their mentality when they’re ahead. That’s something they’ll focus on moving forward, as they face Charlotte at home Wednesday and on the road Saturday.

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“I think everyone’s looking at it the wrong way,” Pierce said. “It’s not a fourth-quarter thing. It’s the approach. We’ve played probably two of I think five or six teams in the league that were going to give us a problem at a time when I thought we were feeling ourselves. Cleveland’s scrappy.

“New York’s scrappy and physical and will beat you up and crash the glass and so when you look at 50-50 balls and you look at some of the big defensive rebounds. … It’s not a matter of who, it’s a matter of how, and our will to go get those 50-50 balls. There’s a play where (Knicks forward Julius) Randle had four of our guys around him (like) he’s the only one on the floor.”

Combined ShapeCaption
New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) battles Atlanta Hawks guard Brandon Goodwin (0) for the ball during the first half of Monday's game in Atlanta.

Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) battles Atlanta Hawks guard Brandon Goodwin (0) for the ball during the first half of Monday's game in Atlanta.

Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Combined ShapeCaption
New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) battles Atlanta Hawks guard Brandon Goodwin (0) for the ball during the first half of Monday's game in Atlanta.

Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Still, though, there are several things the Hawks need to do to close out games better.

One of them, per third-year wing Kevin Huerter, is showing more discipline when they’ve built up a lead, continuing to take good shots and move the ball well so they make the defense work. Late in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter of the past two games, the Hawks fell into a pattern of chucking shots early in the shot clock, causing a few empty possessions. They shot 7-for-21 (or 33%) from the field in the fourth quarter vs. the Knicks, going 1-for-7 from 3, and 7-for-19 (36.8%) from the field in the fourth quarter vs. the Cavaliers, going 3-for-8 from 3.

Even when their 3-point shot isn’t falling, center Clint Capela said, the Hawks can seal wins in the fourth quarter by getting stops and attacking the rim, finding easy shots or getting to the free-throw line.

They also need to refocus on defense, Solomon Hill said, after giving up 145 points to Brooklyn in a loss Wednesday (they bounced back to beat the Nets 114-96, on New Year’s Day). The Cavaliers limit opponents to 105 points per game, good for No. 4 in the league, and the Knicks are tied for No. 5 with 105.1.

“We ran into a team that was more offensively driven, and we kind of bought into their game,” Hill said. “Gave up 140 points to Brooklyn, that’s basically no defense. And then we get into games against two tough opponents that are top 10 in defense, respectively this year. We didn’t buy into our own principles. I think we got caught (up) in the offense, and not the defense, and execution as well.

“But we’re not a team that’s separated from the Knicks or Cleveland. We haven’t done that yet. We haven’t earned that right to separate ourselves from those teams. So I sit here and say that we lost to good teams that we’re competing against and trying to improve at a faster rate.”

The Hawks added plenty of depth in the offseason, but they’re still shorthanded, considering they’re missing a lockdown defender in Kris Dunn (right ankle surgery), an elite shooter in Danilo Gallinari (right ankle sprain), a rookie with plenty of potential in Onyeka Okongwu (inflammation, sesamoid bone, left foot) and a 3-and-D wing in Tony Snell (inflammation, cuboid bone, right foot).

ExploreRajon Rondo to miss at least three games

Against the Knicks, Rajon Rondo (left knee soreness) technically was available to play, but Rondo has been playing sparingly considering his age (34) and that it wasn’t long ago he was playing in the finals with the Lakers. Also, Bogdan Bogdanovic tweaked his right ankle and couldn’t play in the fourth quarter (he was able to practice Tuesday, though the Hawks didn’t do anything with contact, and is listed as probable for Wednesday’s game with right ankle stiffness).

“It’s tough,” Young said. “We’ve got a lot of guys out, but that’s no excuse. It’s that next-man-up mentality, and we just got to figure out how to close games better, and can’t, giving up two games in a row, being up 15, it’s tough. Those sting because you know you have a good chance to win those.

“For us, it’s still (about) learning, it’s still early. You never want to get too high or too low early on in the season, because this is just the beginning. It’s a long season. We’ve got a lot of guys that we still need to get healthy, to come in and help us.”

No matter how many bodies are available, and no matter the caliber of opponent, the Hawks will look to shore things up defensively and on second-effort plays, battling for 50-50 balls.

“It’s how we’re playing, how intense we’re playing, are we imposing our will, especially on the defensive end, especially on the multiple-effort end, and some of the multiple effort is offense, but those are two teams that have that don’t-give-up mentality,” Pierce said.

“(The Knicks and the Cavaliers) are used to being down, and they’re used to playing that way. We have to learn how to develop that style of play as we get bodies healthy, and I don’t want to think that as we get bodies healthy, everything is solved. We need to see our lack of effort, our lack of (a) 50-50 mentality get better regardless of who we have or who we don’t have.”