John Collins scored 26 points and Trae Young added 24 points and 11 assists as the Atlanta Hawks beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 142-126 on Tuesday at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Russell Westbrook had 31 points, 11 assists and five steals for the 26-17 Thunder, who have lost four of their last five games. The Hawks improved to 14-30.
OKC's Struggling Defense Significant Cause for Concern
The Thunder have given up 128.6 points in their last five games. To put that number into context, the Hawks entered Tuesday last in the league in scoring defense with 117.7 points per game allowed.
During that stretch, the Thunder allowed 154 points to the San Antonio Spurs in double overtime (56 of which came from LaMarcus Aldridge). They also lost 116-98 to a then-16-24 Washington Wizards team without All-Star point guard John Wall and dropped a 119-117 decision to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were led by Andrew Wiggins' 40 points.
The Thunder's loss against the Hawks on Tuesday may have been the breaking point here, as Oklahoma City allowed 90 combined points in the second and fourth quarters alone. The Hawks shot 62.2 percent from the field, and Collins hit his first 11 shots. Atlanta also went 18-of-37 from three-point range.
It's one thing if the Thunder had a bad defensive game against a team like the Golden State Warriors, but the Hawks have lost more than twice as many games as they've won. Atlanta is also second-last in offensive efficiency, ahead of only the 10-33 Chicago Bulls, per ESPN.com.
In fairness, Royce Young of ESPN gave the Hawks credit for an impressive night:
But he also said the first half was "pretty easily the worst defensive half" of the year for the Thunder.
The problem is there isn't a quick fix. The team's best defender (and one of the league's best defenders) in guard Andre Roberson is not coming back soon:
Nerlens Noel, who suffered a concussion against the T-Wolves, is still in the league's concussion protocol, per Brett Dawson of The Athletic. He offers solid defensive depth down low behind Steven Adams.
The good news is that the Thunder have some breathing room in the West, where they are still in third place after the loss.
But some tough games await before the All-Star break, including road matchups with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. The Thunder need to figure out their defensive issues soon to avoid a prolonged slump.
John Collins Has Potential to Be Perennial All-Star
Andy Bailey of Bleacher Report made an astute point about Collins on Friday:
And Sam Vecenie of The Athletic backed him up:
On that day, the second-year power forward out of Wake Forest scored 25 points, including the game-winning bucket, in a 123-121 upset win over the Philadelphia 76ers on the road. The 21-year-old experienced more offensive success Tuesday, as he made his first 11 shots en route to his 26-point night.
D.J. Foster of The Ringer offered lofty praise for Collins in a Jan. 9 piece, drawing some comparisons to ex-NBA power forward Chris Bosh. The former Toronto Raptor and Miami Heat player made 11 All-Star Games and averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 boards for his career.
Foster also said Collins has an "undoubtedly high" floor, and that's hard to argue after watching him of late. He's effortlessly contributing 20-point, 10-rebound stat lines and is also top 25 in the league in player efficiency rating among those who play at least 30 minutes per game, according to Basketball Reference.
The key point to remember is just how inexperienced Collins is on the NBA level. He hasn't even played the equivalent of 1.25 NBA seasons (102 games total), and yet he's taking down eventual playoff teams with monster performances in the paint. What is his ceiling when the Hawks build more around him, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter?
On an individual basis, that would seem to be a perennial All-Star, much like Bosh was during his heyday. From a team level, though, the Hawks could be making a precipitous rise up the standings within the next couple of seasons.
The Thunder host the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET. The Hawks will play the second matchup of a four-game homestand on Saturday at 7:30 versus the Boston Celtics.