Late-game execution a focus for Hawks down the stretch

Unable to get back to .500 for nearly three months, the Hawks have lacked the consistency necessary to chip away in the Eastern Conference standings.

“This (didn’t happen) overnight. … I know sometimes it looks easy when guys go on stretches, it looks easy, but it’s not easy,” star guard Trae Young said Wednesday at shootaround, with the Hawks set to face the Bucks that night.

“It’s definitely been an up-and-down season, I feel like. … We’ve had a lot of down moments, but we’ve had some moments where we’ve shown that we can be bright, and we’ve had some really good moments. You’re based off what you do in the end of the year, and if you don’t give yourself an opportunity to play in that, it’s tough. We’ve got to figure out how to put ourselves in position to be in the playoffs and right where we want to be.”

With 18 regular-season games left, the Hawks are No. 10 in the East, the final slot for the play-in tournament. It’s a far cry from where they were last season, finishing at No. 5, going 27-11 the second half of the season after Nate McMillan took over as interim coach in March, eventually advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

One of the biggest issues plaguing the Hawks this season is late-game execution, something they fixed under McMillan last year, going from the worst fourth-quarter point differential in the NBA to the best (minus-1.9 to plus-3.0). This year, the Hawks are No. 27 at minus-1.2.

They played their first overtime game of the season Monday in Detroit, allowing Cade Cunningham and the rebuilding Pistons (18-47) to edge them 113-110, blowing two chances to win in the final 1.6 seconds of regulation (once when Bogdan Bogdanovic was called for a foul, sending Cunningham to the line, and once when John Collins missed a free throw after the Pistons fouled on the next play). The Hawks shot 30% from the field in overtime, with Cunningham scoring 15 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Finishing games stronger is a major focus for the Hawks down the final stretch of the season, per Young. He still has confidence that they can get on a roll and have success in the playoffs.

“We’ve got to find a point where we know, when we get to the end of games, what we’re doing and it’s consistent,” Young said. “It’s not switching up from game to game. I think we’ve just got to find a way. The stretch we have coming down, we have a lot of chances to try and test our skill at the end and finishing games and stuff like that. We have the opportunity to figure it out here and try to make a run.”

With the goal of climbing in the standings (and a No. 7 or 8 spot much more favorable than a No. 9 or 10 spot in the play-in tournament), the Hawks can’t afford many losses like the one in Detroit. Young pointed to injuries and COVID-19 upending the roster for a few weeks beginning in mid-December as two issues that have made things tougher on the Hawks, though they also fought through extensive injury issues last season.

“This year, we’ve had to fight through a lot of adversity, different problems, different issues, injuries, COVID, with everybody basically getting COVID at one point, or at a different point,” Young said. “It’s hard to really jell and get that chemistry going. That’s not an excuse for us not to win games because I feel like we still have a chance to win games, but that can definitely slow down that type of chemistry.”

After the loss in Detroit, Young also delved into some X’s and O’s. The Hawks are a pick-and-roll heavy team, and excel at it with Young as one of the best playmakers in the league paired with Clint Capela, Collins and Onyeka Okongwu.

But teams have adjusted their strategy against the Hawks.

“A lot of teams are switching, so when you run a lot of pick and roll, teams are just going to switch, and then you just get into a lot of either throwing it into the big and everybody’s standing, or you’re just getting into a lot of switches,” Young said. “So a lot of teams we’ve played recently have been switching teams. There’s obviously, game-by-game there’s a different adjustment. … Milwaukee, there’s a different style. Maybe more pick and rolls in the next game because of their drop coverage and things like that.

“But if they’re switching, it’s hard to really run and pick and roll, because if you’re just going to switch, they’re just switching every time. I know we’re, I’ve been one of the best PGs with our bigs and pick and roll the last couple years, but it’s just teams know that’s what we do, so they’re guarding that lob and making sure we don’t beat ‘em by the lob and just make sure they stay in front of us.”

On Wednesday, McMillan said it’s not about changing overall approach but executing better in the final few minutes.

“It’s what we drill every single day,” McMillan said. “A lot of things happen during that time, especially late in games, emotions are high. So it’s, you’ve got to get back to calm, and you’ve got to be clear about what you train and condition yourself to do, and that’s what execution is. … Sometimes teams execute better than you, and it really came down to those last few possessions at the end. We foul at the end, but they turn around and do the same thing, they foul at the end. It’s just execution, understanding what you need to do, be connected out there on both ends of the floor.”

The margin for error in the final portion of the regular season is slim for the Hawks, Bogdanovic said, as it winds down.

“It is getting slimmer every game,” Bogdanovic said. “We all know where we’re at and what we need to do. And one game cannot change anything right now. We just have to keep working and play 48 minutes of basketball and try to get in as better of position as we can, closer to the playoffs. It’s going to be tough, for sure, but I think me, personally, I like the challenges. And I think a lot of guys on this team, they love challenges as well.”

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