Vivlamore reporting from Philips Arena.
Welcome to the Hawks’ new style of basketball.
Oh yes, this is going to be interesting.
The Hawks couldn’t contain James Harden. They were killed on the boards. They trailed by as many as 16 points.
Yet, they barely lost.
Harden finished with a game-high 45 points, including seven straight when the Rockets erased a two-point Hawks’ fourth-quarter lead, en route to a 109-102 victory Friday night at Philips Arena. There is still much work to do for the Hawks and a revamped roster.
“We have some things that we really have to focus in and work on,” coach Larry Drew said. “There were area in this game where we weren’t very good, very polished, particularly on the boards. We didn’t do a good job on the boards.” And it wasn’t just our big guys. It was our perimeters not being in position to chase down long rebounds.”
After losing the late lead thanks to Harden, who finished with 18 fourth-quarter points, the Hawks had a chance to tie the game late. Trailing by three points, 97-94, DeShawn Stevenson and Jeff Teague passed on potential game-tying 3-pointers. Teague instead passed to Josh Smith, who missed from long range. Chandler Parsons hit a 3-pointer off the miss as the Rockets went up by six and sealed the win from the free-throw line.
“I saw Harden running at me and it was just a basketball play to make an extra pass,” Teague said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in Josh. I see him work every day on shooting drills after practice. I’ve got all the faith in him. If I didn’t have faith in him, what kind of teammate would I be? I saw him wide open and thought he could knock it down. He happened to miss it but it’s part of the game.”
Since being acquired by the Rockets earlier this week, days ahead of their season opener, Harden’s has scored 82 points in two victories. Jeremy Lin added 21 points and Marcus Morris added 17 in the win Friday.
The Rockets (2-0) held a 58-36 rebounding advantage. They pulled down 23 offensive rebounds and many led to points in the paint. Center Omer Asik had 19, including seven in the first six minutes of the game.
“Giving up 17 offensive rebounds in the first half and 23 for the game, you are not going to give yourself a good chance to win. You have to be able to get in there and gang rebound. … We have to find a body, box them out and limit them to one opportunity.”
Lou Williams led the Hawks (0-1) with 22 points. Smith added 18 points and 10 rebounds. The Hawks also got double-digit scoring from Al Horford (14), Teague (14), Zaza Pachulia (13) and Stevenson (12).
The Hawks made their late run by going to a bigger lineup with Pachulia at center, Horford at power forward and Smith a small forward. Drew also elected to go with the hot hand as Williams played all of the fourth quarter when he had 13 points.
“We have to play how we played at the end of the third and into the fourth quarter,” Williams said. “We have to play like that for four quarters. We have to put four quarters of good basketball together in order for us to be successful.”
The Hawks had trouble with their offensive and defensive assignments. They often conferred with Drew during the course of the game to clear up where they were supposed to be on specific sets.
“It’s still a process,” Smith said. “We are still getting acclimated to the new guys coming in with our defensive principles and getting a feel for where they have to be. It’s still a work in progress.”
The Rockets led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter, 68-52, but the Hawks worked to close the gap. They entered the final quarter trailing by seven points, 81-74. With 7:10 remaining the lead was gone. Smith converted in close for an 88-87 lead capping a 14-6 quarter-opening run. Williams and Smith each had six points in the stretch.
The Rockets took a 53-44 halftime lead. Their lead was 14 points, 49-35, with 1:50 remaining in the second quarter when Harden drained a 3-pointer and was fouled by Stevenson. The Hawks closed the gap to nine points by ending the half on a 9-4 run, punctuated by Stevenson’s 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Rockets held a decisive rebounding advantage – 20-8 after the first quarter and 34-20 at the half.
“We made a run and they handled it,” Horford said. “They took it and got their composure back so you have to give them credit. I don’t think we played well enough to win the game tonight.”
The Hawks travel to Oklahoma City to take on the defending Western Conference champion Thunder Sunday.