The Atlanta Hawks headed into their Monday night matchup with the Chicago Bulls having lost six of their previous eight games, including four straight road games against the relatively lowly likes of the Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards. After a rough couple of weeks, the 21-15 Hawks really needed a lift against a Bulls team that's been less than fearsome at home this season.
Instead of a boost, though, the Hawks found rock bottom, setting franchise records for fewest points scored in a quarter, a first half and a game in an abysmal 97-58 loss that has Hawks fans embarrassed and coach Larry Drew getting his Sam Cooke on.
As they did in recent road losses to the Wolves and Wizards, Atlanta got off to a slow start on Monday, missing 12 of their first 18 field goal attempts to spot the Bulls an 11-point lead after 12 minutes and enter the second quarter with just 15 points after a sluggish first quarter. That point total wouldn't change for nearly seven more minutes.
Only Al Horford (a putback of an offensive rebound after being blocked twice by Taj Gibson at the 5:17 mark) and Josh Smith (a short lefty hook over Gibson with 1:36 left before half) connected from the field in the frame. The two frontcourt stars also combined to miss nine shots, though, and teammates Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, Ivan Johnson, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and John Jenkins clanked all 10 of their collective tries. All told, the Hawks went 2 for 21 — a robust 9.5 percent — from the floor in the second quarter, going without an assist while turning the ball over seven times and digging themselves into a 28-point halftime hole from which they'd never even get close to emerging.
The Hawks' five-point quarter ties the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors for the lowest-scoring quarters in the NBA this season, with the Nets scoring just five in the third quarter in a New Year's Eve loss to the San Antonio Spurs and the Raptors managing only a handful of points in the fourth quarter of a November game against the Indiana Pacers ... a game they somehow won.
Just to drive the point home, let's take a look at the Hawks' shot chart from that second quarter:
That's not a very pretty visual if you're a Hawks fan, and a further statistical breakdown undertaken by USA TODAY Sports' Adi Joseph isn't much more attractive. The result was the lowest-scoring quarter, first half (20 points) and game (58 points) in Atlanta Hawks history — although, as Chris Viviamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, a last-minute layup by Teague prevented it from being the worst offensive display in franchise history, eclipsing the 57 points scored by the then-Milwaukee Hawks on Feb. 27, 1955. (Thank heaven for small mercies, we suppose, Hawks fans.)
Plenty of credit for this, of course, goes to a Bulls team that just whipped the Hawks from pillar to post on Monday, setting some franchise records of their own in the process. All the same, though, Drew seemed sickened by the Hawks' performance and promised changes are on the way, according to according to Viviamore:
“This was very, very embarrassing,” Drew said. “From where we were as a team to where we are right now we have lost all sense of team on both ends of the floor. Why that has happened, I really can’t put my finger on it. To have a team that started off so well, that really trusted and believed in each other at both ends of the floor, we have lost that sense of trust for one another. Why that has happened, I really have no idea. I will say, it’s time that we do shake things up. As we go back to Atlanta to prepare for Brooklyn (at home Wednesday), there will be some changes. We have to find a group that will compete on both ends at a high level with no excuses, with no finger-pointing as far as blaming officials, blaming each other. We have to go out and we have to play our first few games of the season.
“We need to shake things up and that will be the first line of business when we get back to Atlanta is to make some changes within our lineup.”
Asked what specific lineup changes might be made, Drew said simply, “Lineup changes.”
It remains to be seen which buttons Drew decides to push, but one thing's clear — while the 39-point defeat was the straw that broke the camel's back, the need to shake things up has been a long time in coming, thanks to a monthlong stretch that's seen Atlanta just about completely invert after a hot start.
From Opening Day through the second week of December, the Hawks surprised many by running out to a 14-6 start sparked by smart, stingy, five-men-on-a-string team defense — through 20 games, Atlanta ranked fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool. That opportunistic D forced turnovers at the league's second-highest rate, activating a transition game that produced the NBA's seventh-most fast-break points per game and helping the Hawks get more easy looks in the paint and at the rim; as a result, Atlanta led the league in field-goal percentage within the restricted area, making 67 percent of their point-blank tries.
All that helped make up for a just-north-of-middling offense (102.6 points-per-100, 12th in the league on Dec. 13) that didn't create many free points at the foul line (Atlanta had the league's fifth-lowest free-throw rate through 20 games) and was heavily predicated on making jumpers — only the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets) got a higher percentage of their points from 3-point range. Since Dec. 14, though, things have changed, starting on the defensive end. (We'll drop out Monday night's results for the sake of not skewing the stats too terribly.)
The Hawks have fallen from a top-five D to the league's 19th-ranked unit, allowing 104.1 points per 100 possessions in their last 16 games before Monday's meltdown. They'd forced turnovers on the fifth-lowest share of opponents' possessions in the league during that stretch, slowing their open-court game some and forcing them to create offense against more set defenses, which has gone poorly.
Through 20 games, the Hawks ranked eighth in the league in corner 3-point attempts and third in accuracy on those attempts (44.4 percent); they're still taking a lot, tied for eighth-most over the 16 games before Monday, but with more set defenders meaning quicker closeouts and fewer open looks, their conversion rate dropped to 11th in the league (38.4 percent), which means they're not getting nearly as much bang for their buck as they did in the early going. Combine that with a drop from the restricted area — not a plummet off a cliff, but a dip from that league-leading 67 percent mark to a fourth-best 63 percent — with a decrease in easy buckets off turnovers and on the fast break and a continued inability to get to the free-throw line and you've got the makings of an offense that can't reliably score points.
In the 16 games before Monday night's disaster, the Hawks had managed 100.8 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the league during that stretch. If Atlanta's defense doesn't pick up, that kind of offensive production just can't cut it, and you see stuff like, as Kris Willis of Hawks blog Peachtree Hoops noted, a team that's lost six of seven, recently posted a nine-point third quarter against the Boston Celtics and has fallen behind by 10-plus points in each of the past seven games.
Coaches seemingly always tie sound defensive performance to solid, determined effort; perhaps most troublingly, that's what Drew says he's not seeing, according to Viviamore:
“The disturbing thing is the effort part,” Drew said. “I shouldn’t have to come out and coach effort every single night. Effort is something that they should bring. They are being paid to bring effort every single night. Maybe it’s the chemistry right now. I don’t know but I’m going to have to do something to jump start us because right now we have flat-lined. Not just from a physical standpoint. Mentally, we have flat-lined and I’ve got to find a way to resuscitate this team.”
Maybe the prospect of a pair of games against former teammate Joe Johnson and the resurgent Brooklyn Nets will shake the Hawks out of their doldrums. If not, what felt like rock bottom on Monday night might just be a bump on an even longer, more lonesome road.