Hawks’ poor shooting leads to loss to Thunder
ATLANTA — For a time, the gulf between the third-best team in the Eastern Conference and the third-best team (technically) in the Western Conference did not look so cavernous.
The Atlanta Hawks had cut the Oklahoma City Thunder’s lead to three points with 2:06 remaining in regulation. They held the league’s leading scorer to a 9-for-21 shooting night and his All-Star sidekick point guard to a 6-for-21 night.
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Alas, the Hawks picked the wrong night to have an atrocious shooting night themselves and could not bridge the gap, as they fell back to .500 in a 101-92 loss at Philips Arena.
The Hawks shot 35.6 percent, as only one player on the roster, Shelvin Mack, who powered a fourth-quarter rally, shot above 50 percent. With the only other exception of guard Lou Williams who went 3-for-6, the Hawks had ugly shooting nights: DeMarre Carroll went 2-for-10, Paul Millsap 5-for-18, Al Horford 3-for-10, Kyle Korver 4-for-10 and Jeff Teague 5-for-15.
“We all missed easy shots,” said Teague, who finished with 17 points. “I had a wide-open lay-up, it rolls out. I had two of those like that. We got the shots we wanted, just couldn’t make them tonight. You have nights like that. We still played hard. They just had a better night shooting than us.”
One of the many frustrating parts of the performance is that the Thunder are not exactly a top defending team. They entered as the league’s top-scoring team at 104.7 points per game and the Hawks played well enough to hold them below that. However, opponents average 42.3 percent shooting against the Thunder and the Hawks got nowhere near that.
“I feel like we played hard, we competed,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But we didn’t play real well and I will take a competitive group. I’d like it if we played well also, too. I think we left a lot of points — in the first half with layups and free throws and just some really good opportunities in the first half where it probably could’ve been a closer game at halftime.”
The Hawks kept it close through most of the first half and with 3:22 remaining in the second quarter trailed by two. But the Thunder closed the half on a 10-3 run to earn a 48-39 halftime bulge. Budenholzer liked how the Hawks defended but they let the Thunder get to the free throw line too often. Oklahoma City was 13-for-18 from the line in the first half.
After the Hawks had closed the gap to five points to start the third quarter, the Thunder went on an 8-0 run and expanded their lead to 13. The Hawks found themselves scraping to stay in it and when they got as close as three with 10:19 left in regulation on Williams’ 3-pointer, Kevin Durant began to take over for Oklahoma City.
Within a two-minute span, he blocked a 3-pointer by Korver and another shot by Mike Scott. That led to a free throw by Serge Ibaka on one possession and then a field goal by Ibaka. Durant continued the effort with an offensive rebound after which he got fouled and made a free throw. After another basket by Ibaka, Durant delivered a thunderous dunk in transition with 6:47 left, pushing the lead again to 13.
To the Hawks’ credit, they whittled the lead to three again with 2:06 left. But Russell Westbrook, who struggled with that 6-for-21 effort, drove and connected with a reverse layup. One of those shots that Teague mentioned rolled in and out and after Durant made two more free throws with 1:16 left and the lead was back up to seven and the game was essentially over.
Coming off a week in which the Hawks lost 102-100 at San Antonio (16-4), then came home and beat the Los Angeles Clippers, now 14-8, and followed it up with another win over Cleveland, Korver was not ready to play the measuring stick game.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We lost. We have room to grow. We have to keep getting better. I don’t know. We played great against the Clippers. It’s like a game-to-game thing. It’s so hard to really measure in the NBA. You kind of go by stretches, five-game stretches, 10-game stretches. Tonight, offensively, we just couldn’t get good shots. I thought we played hard. I thought we had our good moments we just had a couple of stretches during the game where we couldn’t get a good look.
“In transition, they’re a really hard team to guard. If we’re not getting good looks up at the rim, they’re getting it out and they’re running on us. Obviously, they have some really great, great players. We just couldn’t get it done tonight. But as a measuring stick, we’ve got to keep getting better.”
At 15-4 coming in, Oklahoma City might have had the third-best record in the West but only because they stand second in their division to conference-leading Portland. Overall, they came in tied for the third-best record in the NBA.
On Tuesday, the Hawks were close, frustratingly close. But the distance that separates them, an up-and-coming team in the East, from an elite team in the West was too much to bridge.