After leading by eight at the 7:03 mark of the second quarter, the Hawks made only one field goal before intermission. It was a John Collins 3-pointer that ended Miami’s 15-0 run. The other point came courtesy of a Kevin Huerter free throw.
In the quarter’s final seven minutes, the Hawks went 1-for-13 shooting. They didn’t score on 15 of their final 17 possessions.
“It was their man defense,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “They were solid all night long. They kept us on the perimeter. We weren’t able to get into the paint – only 26 points in the paint. I thought we settled a lot early in the first half with perimeter jump shots as opposed to attacking the pressure, getting to the paint and forcing the defense to collapse. Then that should open something up on the perimeter.
“We didn’t do that enough. Then, when we did, we’d get to the free-throw line and miss our free throws (11-for-20).”
All-Star Trae Young, who reentered the game less than a minute into Miami’s run, went 0-for-3 during that span. The Heat, meanwhile, converted the easy baskets that eluded the Hawks. Twenty-one of Miami’s 26 points in that time came inside the paint or at the free-throw line.
The Heat’s defense has tortured the Hawks much of the series. Despite his heroics in Game 3, Young is shooting 35% in four games, stifled by Miami’s wing defenders. Hawks center Clint Capela said it’s been reminiscent of how capable teams would try to slow his former Houston teammate James Harden, an all-time potent scorer.
Young shot 2-for-17 on 3-pointers across the first two games, an unsustainably bad showing, and improved to just 5-for-16 (31%) in the two home contests. Young was forced to settle for jumpers, attempting only one shot in the paint Sunday.
“If you’re watching the game, you see they have five people in the paint when I have the ball,” Young said. “They’re doing a great job showing help and not letting me get to the paint. … I took 11 shots, probably took a couple forced ones at the end. I didn’t get too many clean ones. You have to give them credit.”
Capela recalled the Hawks’ Eastern Conference finals series against the Bucks a season ago. Young, limited to playing in four of those six games, shot 43% and just 27% on 3-pointers. Miami has presented similar issues to an even stronger degree.
Young has been held to single-digit points in two of the series’ games, including nine Sunday. He had five assists against five turnovers in Game 4, the second time in the series his assist total failed to top his turnover total. Young is turning the ball over six times a game against Miami; he averaged four turnovers per game in the regular season.
“I haven’t been guarded like this consistently since high school,” Young said. “Obviously, this is way better competition, so it’s hard for me to score a lot more through the double teams and face guards at this level. It’s a challenge for me, and I have to learn how to fight through it and make it easier for myself and my teammates.”
Miami is a well-coached veteran team with the luxury of multiple defenders who can make life tougher on Young. In many ways, the Heat are the perfect counter to Young. Miami has exploited a clear weakness: The Hawks don’t have anyone who can consistently alleviate Young’s burden. Atlanta needed an explosive showing from Bogdan Bogdanovic or Huerter on Sunday, for instance, but the pair went 2-for-13 combined.
Miami has dominated the series. The Hawks have lost three times by double digits – 24, 10 and 24, respectively – and their lone win was by one point. In their losses, their shooting percentages: 38.7 in Game 1, 47.1 in Game 2 and 40 in Game 4. Miami was fourth in defensive rating during the regular season. It’s lived up to that billing this past week.
“We have to do a better job of figuring out how to get more open looks and get them off me early so I can create for myself and my teammates, too,” Young said. But while the problem is evident, the answer is nowhere to be found.
The Hawks look outmanned and understandably frustrated. Now their season is on the line. And if they don’t find a way to send the series back to Atlanta for Game 6, they’ll enter an offseason – one stacked with questions about a flawed roster – much earlier than they’d hoped.