‘We have to go harder:’ Hawks know defense must improve

On what’s going wrong with the Hawks’ defense, John Collins could start in a million places.

Therein lies the challenge.

“I really feel like it’s a lot of the small things and the small things always add up,” Collins said. “That’s how I feel about our situation, especially defensively. Whether it be guys getting blown by, whether it be rebounding, whether it be weak-side, whatever the case may be, fouls, it’s tough to digest sometimes but we just have to attack as many things as we can, all at once, really, and try to make them an emphasis.”

The Hawks entered this season with the goal of nabbing homecourt advantage in the playoffs, which would require a top-4 finish in the Eastern Conference.

It’s still early in the season, but Atlanta’s 4-8 start is a big letdown, and one thing has made itself abundantly clear on the team’s five-game losing streak – this anemic defense won’t cut it if they’re to get anywhere remotely close to those goals. Or even to climb back above .500. And the Hawks, trying to win now at a high level instead of just build for the future, have a completely different mindset this season than in years past.

“What we can’t do is get comfortable with the way we’re playing and dropping games. ... This is not a rebuild,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We just can’t get comfortable with that. You’ve got to hurt, you’ve got to feel something when you drop games and those are the things that we talked about today, and tried to work toward that.”

Through their first 12 games, the Hawks’ offense has been discombobulated at times, with rushed shots a common theme as players on a deep team try to find a rhythm in a smaller amount of playing time. They’ve spent too much time arguing with officials and getting distracted by calls. But having the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league (112.2 points per game allowed), unable to get consistent stops and keep guys in front of them, has likely been the biggest problem.

They’ve had some good moments, even in losses, holding the Jazz to 15 points in the fourth quarter, though simultaneously the Hawks’ shooting went cold and they weren’t able to eat into the deficit much. But consistency has been lacking.

To be fair, the Hawks’ schedule has been brutal so far, with eight road games and a tough West Coast road trip that will wrap up in Denver Friday. And, the player who transformed their defense last season, Clint Capela, hasn’t looked like himself coming back from an Achilles injury. He’s one of several Hawks players, including Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter, still working back into game shape after undergoing medical procedures in the offseason.

But, opponents aren’t going to wait for the Hawks to be 100% healthy or conditioned.

“You’ve just got to find a way to push yourself, because we don’t have that time,” McMillan said. “It’s something you just have to deal with and when you’re out there, just don’t pace yourself. You have to be aggressive and raise your hand if you’re feeling a little fatigued, raise your hand and we’ll get you out and get somebody else in. But that’s going to need to be done during the games.”

Capela significantly beefed up the Hawks’ defense last year, leading the league in rebounding with 14.3 per game, adding two blocks per game. His presence was a huge reason why they got all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.

He’s had nagging left Achilles issues for a while, and received a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection in August, sitting out in the preseason until the final game, when he played 12 minutes vs. the Heat Oct. 14. That delayed start meant he didn’t get to play with teammates and build up chemistry in training camp, and he’s behind on conditioning.

“I don’t think his conditioning is where it would be if he didn’t have that injury,” McMillan said. “The fact that he really didn’t start running until he got to training camp, I think that set him back. And he is now trying to play himself into game shape with the season starting. ... Absolutely, I think it has been part of the concern with a few of our guys who didn’t have a training camp or wasn’t able to do anything, so they’re trying to play themselves into shape, conditioning.”

Capela is still receiving treatment on his Achilles and said he’s not feeling like himself out on the court, though he’s continuing to fight through it. He knows that’s hard on the team, and it’s hard on him, too.

The Hawks won’t be at their best defensively until Capela is at his best, but starting now, they need to push themselves more on defense overall, he thinks. And they can help themselves out by taking better shots offensively, so opponents can’t capitalize as much on the fast-break and they’re not always rushing to get back on defense.

“I think the team’s doing its best right now, but we have to go harder,” Capela said. “That’s what I think it is right now. When you’re in this position, you just have to do what you do harder, do it more consistently. From what I’ve learned, that’s the only way to get out of this spiral that we’re in, is just go harder until it stops. ... A couple guys are not comfortable, tense, and that’s how it should be, because we care. No one wants to go on a five-game losing streak. We all know. The starters first, we all know we have to be better.”

No matter the reasons for their defensive struggles, the Hawks have to keep working on it as they go, McMillan said at practice Thursday.

“We’ve got to continue to work at it, whether you have injuries or conditioning is not quite there, you just work at it,” McMillan said. “There’s no other way of doing that. We’ve been playing against a lot of teams that are playing small-ball. Speed, putting a lot of speed out on the floor, and we’ve just got to work at controlling that basketball and keeping the ball in front of us. It’s not just one individual. As a team, we’ve got to work at being better.”