Again, Hawks must undergo transformation in fourth quarter

Usually energetic in interviews, even after losses, John Collins sat at the podium and began running out of steam.

“I’m sorry,” Collins said mid-answer after the Hawks blew a 19-point lead in a 132-126 loss to the Rockets on Monday night. “I’m at a loss for words, really. It’s frustrating.”

It wasn’t Houston doing one particular thing that helped it outscore the Hawks 44-25 in the fourth quarter of another late-game collapse, Collins said — the Hawks needed to guard. They needed to take smart shots. They needed to stop turning the ball over. But that’s beating a dead horse, he added, having said the same thing for weeks, and even dating to the first half of last season, as the Hawks struggled with the same issue of closing games and hang onto leads.

The manner in which the Hawks are losing amplifies the frustration even more.

“I would much rather lose a different way than for us to just … just keep giving the game away,” Collins said. “I feel like that’s what we’re doing. We’re not getting beat.”

The Hawks led the Rockets by 19 points in the first half in what seemed like it would be an easy win. They led by 17 at the 2:08 mark of the third quarter and by 13 entering the fourth, then melted down, completely unable to get a stop, giving up eight 3-pointers and five offensive rebounds in the final period. They now own the third-worst net rating (minus-9.6) and the worst offensive rating in the fourth quarter (100.8), the No. 29 net rating in clutch time (minus-37.2) and have lost five consecutive games at home.

If the Hawks want to have any chance of getting to the playoffs, much less succeeding when they get there, they need to majorly clean up all that’s going wrong in the fourth quarter (the first three quarters, for the most part, have been pretty good). They’ve done it before, going from tied for the worst fourth-quarter point differential in the NBA at minus-1.9 through their 14-20 start under Lloyd Pierce last season to the best point differential at plus-3.0 from March 1 onward, once Nate McMillan took over.

It’s a new season, the Eastern Conference has gotten better and opponents know not to sell the Hawks short, after they came up two wins short of the NBA finals last year. But, yet again, they’ll have to learn how to buckle down and win close contests. At practice Tuesday, when asked if fourth-quarter issues necessitate a shake-up in the rotation or scheme, McMillan said what’s going wrong for the Hawks is more mental.

“We changed some things due to injuries,” McMillan said. “We had a 19-point lead, so some things were going right. To change some things up, I feel that we’ve got to put together a 48-minute game. We need to understand how we got that 19-point lead, and then how we gave it away. Those are the things that I think we need to focus on.”

Diagnosing the issues on offense, as Collins alluded to, the Hawks are often rushing shots in the fourth, going for home runs instead of making the defense work and wearing opponents out. Instead, they need to slow down, understand what the game scenario requires of them and execute it with some intentionality, to paraphrase Collins.

Essentially, making the right play at the right moment.

“It’s just really a matter of understanding the moment and valuing what the fourth quarter is, valuing that guys are playing harder, valuing the moment, the importance of the moment,” Collins said. “I feel like that’s where we’re not there yet completely, understanding what is needed in each moment. And I feel like it’s making it harder for us to execute down the stretch. We’ve got to be more aware. … Like I said, beating a dead horse.”

That decision-making hurts them on defense, and defensive issues are the main culprit. The Hawks have shown they can score (overall, they own the No. 2 offensive rating at 113.1) and set themselves up for success; now it’s a matter of finishing the job and not letting opponents make late runs.

They’re showing a lack of energy and dedication on defense, and you’re not going to win many games that way, particularly if you can’t manage a few key stops when it gets down to the wire.

“I felt like energy-wise, they doubled us,” Clint Capela said of Houston in the fourth quarter. “Their energy was twice better than ours.”

It doesn’t stem from anything X’s and O’s-related or scheme, Capela said. It comes down to belief, especially when both sides are drained at the end of the game.

“Your belief about the game has to be the best at the end of the game, when everybody’s tired, when they don’t call fouls, like cheap fouls, they don’t call that. They go to the offensive glass harder, start pushing, shoving, they don’t call that. We just didn’t match that. So once you don’t match it and they feed off it, they get really excited and everybody on their team, I felt like they had the belief that we had.”

“... It’s just, do you want it more than the guy in front of you or not? Especially with some of our rebounding, when you see the whole team going to (the offensive glass) to try to get themselves a second chance, yeah, I felt that tonight.”

Despite all that, the Hawks are only one game under .500 (13-14) and should get a boost when they get players back, as a healthy Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu will help the rotation. Bogdanovic will help as a shot creator and shooter, Hunter gives you a good defender and someone who can find his own shot and Okongwu should beef up the bench.

But the Hawks should have been more than capable of closing a game against an eight-win Houston team without that trio, and can’t wait for them to return to start resolving big-picture fourth-quarter issues.

“From top to bottom, myself, everybody, we’ve got to come figure this out,” Collins said. “Now.”