Friday’s game vs. the Nets felt similar to a playoff environment.
Rowdy crowd, close game heading into the fourth quarter, stars (Trae Young, Kevin Durant, James Harden) putting on a show.
In an up-and-down season for the Hawks, they competed well against the Nets, leading the top team in the Eastern Conference by two points heading into the fourth quarter. That’s when they ran into trouble, as they have a few times this season in the final period.
“They execute down the stretch,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said of Brooklyn. “They’re going to. I think they liked where the game was at, a close game, because they know that they have players they can give the ball to and they can finish with. Turning the ball over was part of not executing.”
The Hawks scored only four points in the first seven minutes or so of the fourth quarter, falling into an eight-point hole. It seemed like Young might lead them to a comeback, with five consecutive points to make it a one-point game with 3:35 to play, before a disaster sequence struck. Young lost the ball, Harden capitalized on the other end, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot couldn’t finish a layup, Durant hit a pull-up, Young missed one of two free throws and Durant made two of two from the line. Before you knew it, the Hawks trailed by six with 1:44 left in an eventual 113-105 loss, dropping them back to .500 at 13-13, No. 9 in the Eastern Conference standings.
All in all, the Hawks tallied six turnovers in the fourth quarter and scored just 14 points. They didn’t execute well enough to knock off a top team. The 98-96 loss to the 76ers on Dec. 3 followed a similar pattern, blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, held to nine points in the final period.
About a third of the way into the 2021-22 season, the Hawks are No. 26 in the league with a minus-1.6 plus-minus in the fourth quarter, and No. 26 with a minus-6.7 net rating in the fourth.
“It’s not been a struggle all season,” McMillan said of the fourth quarter. “I don’t feel it’s been a struggle all season. … I’ll talk about (Friday’s) fourth quarter. (Friday’s) fourth quarter, their defense was good. We didn’t execute. We weren’t able to win the matchups with their switching defense.”
Still, the Hawks had managed that defense well enough through the first three quarters, but that tune changed in the fourth, with the Nets able to switch 1-5 and force them into isolation ball, with the Hawks doing too much standing. Late-game execution is something the Hawks will need to improve on moving forward, particularly if they want to get to the playoffs and triumph in close games.
“I just think overall, fourth-quarter offense has got to be a little bit better,” wing Kevin Huerter said. “This isn’t the first time, the first game, something like this has happened in the fourth quarter. Just got to be a little better.”
A combination of mental mistakes and straying from their plan, Huerter added, contribute to struggles down the stretch. Midway through the fourth quarter with the Hawks down four, Huerter had back-to-back turnovers that gave the Nets a boost, allowing them to build up a 103-95 lead with 5:24 to play.
“X’s and O’s, shot selection, turnovers, kind of what goes into it, I feel like our flow and our rhythm in the fourth quarter isn’t the same as it is in first halves, first quarters when we’re coming out and when we’re sticking to our game plan,” Huerter said. “... We had turnovers in big moments. I had two in a row that you can’t have in the fourth quarter. Something that we’ve obviously got to clean up.”
For John Collins, the Hawks going quiet in the fourth quarter can cause issues, mostly stemming from lack of communication. That can hurt their energy level in moments where they need it most.
They also settled for mid-range or perimeter shots instead of making the defense work more and allowed Nic Claxton to come off the bench and make an impact for the Nets, with two killer dunks to start the fourth, which ended up setting the tone.
“I feel like a lot of times we get quiet in the fourth quarter, for a bunch of reasons,” Collins said. “But matchups, we’ve got to stay connected. I feel like that’s the biggest thing is us being on the same page regardless of if somebody come off and hits a shot or (gets an) offensive rebound, we’ve just got to talk to each other and give each other some comfort, some security out there. And knowing we have each other’s back. I feel like it starts there. As I said, sometimes it can get a little quiet and it can turn the energy down.”
After Friday’s loss, Young took responsibility for both not scoring enough in the fourth and two big turnovers late. He had seven turnovers total, though he led the Hawks with 31 points and 10 assists.
Cleaning those up, not forcing as many passes into tight creases was one of his biggest takeaways, as well as the Hawks learning how to create scoring opportunities.
“I think we get stagnant and we just get into iso and everybody’s just kind of standing and we’ve got to find out, because the Nets, they do a lot of iso ball too, but their guys are continuing to move and create driving lanes and things like that,” Young said.
“And I think that’s something that we’re just going to get better at, especially with (Luwawu-Cabarrot) in there and (Huerter) late in the game, I think we’ve all got to figure out how to mesh well at the end especially while these guys are out. But just got to do a better job of executing down the stretch.”