ATLANTA – Prior to the game, Stan Van Gundy praised the Atlanta Hawks for their defense despite not having a shot-blocking threat down low, pointing out how they do an exceptional job of defending both the paint and the perimeter without fouling a lot. The Hawks are allowing the third fewest free throw attempts in the NBA.
In a bit of irony, it was the Hawks intentionally fouling, implementing the Hack-a-Dre strategy at the end of the second and third quarters, that impacted the game. The Pistons attempted 12 more free throws than the Hawks (26 to 14), but they missed 11, with Andre Drummond accounting for nine. The Pistons lost by 11.
Of course there was more to the difference in the final score than missed free throws. The Pistons only hit nine of their 35 threes and they couldn't stop the Hawks in the fourth quarter. And there were more reasons.
But the free throws had a major influence on how Van Gundy was going to play the final 12 minutes of a relatively close game, and that was to not play Drummond at all. Nope, Drummond did not see a single second in the final frame. He of 13 points and 18 rebounds watched the final 12 minutes of the game from the pine.
Drummond was fouled intentionally to end both the second and third quarters, but the Hawks were far more aggressive against Drummond in the third, sending him to the line whenever they possibly could. Drummond missed eight free throws in the third in an otherwise closely-played quarter (24-20).
"I thought we played well in the third quarter and had a chance to maybe be ahead going into the fourth," Van Gundy said after the game, "and the free throw shooting just rocked us. When you get a point blank shot and come away with nothing three straight times, it's just hard to overcome that against a really good team."
Down seven instead, Van Gundy felt like the Hawks forced his hand.
"What made the decision for us is we got behind. Basically, if you run a pick-and-roll, you're not going to get a chance to score. They're just going to foul him. The way he was shooting them just made it tough to come back with him. That was the decision. I wasn't upset or angry with him. I actually thought he played well. But it was clear they were not going to let him get a layup. We were going to be playing four-on-five on the offensive end. Maybe you can get away with that when you're ahead, but not when you're behind."
Without Drummond in the game, the Hawks shot 58 percent in the final quarter to hold off the Pistons. Detroit tried to compensate by taking 14 three-pointers in the fourth, but they missed their final 10 from behind the long line.
The Pistons didn't lose because Drummond sat the entire fourth, though. Drummond still played 27-plus minutes in the game and the Pistons trailed nearly the entire way. If Drummond played in the fourth, the third quarter was an indication that the Hawks were going to continue subjecting all to more Hack-a-Dre torture. While the strategy isn't fun to watch and feels bush league, teams will continue to employ it so long as Drummond continues to miss 75 percent of his attempts.
"When teams do that, they are obviously playing the percentages," Greg Monroe said following the game. "It does take you out of a rhythm. I think that's why teams go to it. It kind of stops the game and you really can't get into a rhythm on offense and get into a good flow."
Van Gundy's job is to mitigate the damage and put the Pistons in the best position to have a good flow on offense. Monroe's three turnovers in the fourth didn't help the flow, but he was a better alternative than watching Drummond get beat up and lay bricks at the line.
Some fans might not like the strategy to bench the future of its franchise for a full fourth quarter, but it was the right decision on Monday.
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