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Starting lineup shines for Atlanta Hawks in Big Apple victory

Atlanta’s young core came through.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season, the Atlanta Hawks have been getting mauled in the opening minutes of the first and third quarters. It looked to be more of the same Friday night in New York when the hometown Knicks torched the Hawks for 39 points on a torrid 15-for-23 shooting performance from the field. Rookie Kevin Knox in particular was unconscious in the first 12 minutes, putting together what might end up as the best individual quarter of his first season in the NBA. Knox hit seven of his eight shots from the field on the way to 17 first-quarter points. However, that explosion would be the end of the line for Knox, who made just one of his next nine attempts as the Hawks climbed back into the game and eventually walked out of Madison Square Garden with a 114-107 win.

While the starting lineup began just about the same way as they have all season, it was that group that was also fully responsible for the Hawks fighting their way back from the early deficit and coming out with the win. In particular, the long-term three-man core of the Hawks (Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins) all showed why they are highly regarded within the organization.

After a bit of a slow first half, Young turned it on after the break, putting together 12 points and four assists in the final 24 minutes. Huerter’s aggressiveness was apparent throughout the game as he poured in 12 second-half points of his own. Most of Collins’ damage on the scoreboard came in the first half, but his second half was just as impressive, as he pulled down nine rebounds and dished out a trio of assists, including this beauty in pick-and-roll to Alex Len:

Collins is sure to draw a crowd every time he rolls to the rim and his ability to make this particular pass will go a long way toward making him an all-around offensive threat. The nuances to the game still elude him as he mostly plays on athleticism, energy, and instincts, but as the coaching staff continues to work with him on the mental side of the game, we should see more of this sort of high-IQ pass from the young big man.

Speaking of gorgeous passes, Young and Huerter each had a jaw-dropping one-hander in this game. Young’s came early in the first quarter, when he found Dewayne Dedmon with a left-handed fireball that deserved a better finish than it got:

The pass from Huerter got the same result as Young’s but was no less impressive. Off a scramble situation after an offensive rebound, Huerter unleashed his own right-handed missile to a wide-open Jeremy Lin:

Huerter’s floor game was strong throughout the contest as he continues to ease his way into the NBA. After a slow start that saw him passing up opportunities for his own shot or drive to the rim, he’s become much more aggressive over the last several games, a mentality switch that’s paid dividends for himself and the team. Aggressive Kevin Huerter is the best Kevin Huerter for Atlanta and they’re going to need him to continue building on that in order to fulfill his long-term potential.

Huerter’s willingness to assert himself in a variety of circumstances has been a breath of fresh air for an Atlanta offense that is still climbing out of a massive early-season hole. Rather than coming off screens and passing right back to Young if he’s not open, he’s putting his foot in the ground and curling hard into the paint or backing out into his own pick-and-roll.

A massive part of his appeal in the draft was his vision and passing, which helps him to stand out above the other shooters in the league. The Kyle Korver comparisons will come throughout his career — he’s a white shooter who’s longer than you expect defensively — but there’s more to his floor game than Korver has ever had. At his absolute ceiling, Huerter’s going to be a lot closer to Washington’s Bradley Beal than he is to Korver. Whether he can get there is still an open question at this point, but the past few weeks have been a good development in that area.

For as well as Young controlled the game on the offensive end of the floor, there’s just no getting around his defensive struggles against teams with larger guards. Emmanuel Mudiay dominated Young physically throughout the game, getting in the post for easy hooks and turnaround jumpers as Young hopelessly flailed underneath him.

How Lloyd Pierce and his assistants solve this particular problem will be interesting to monitor, both this season and into the future. This isn’t much of a development issue for Young — unless he comes back one summer three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, he’s going to be a constant point-of-attack for opposing offenses. In today’s NBA, point guards don’t have to be overwhelmingly great defenders (though it helps), but at the highest levels, Young’s weaknesses on that end of the floor will hurt Atlanta. It’s obviously a bit early to start thinking about the Hawks in the context of deep playoff runs, but he’s clearly a big part of their long-term future and if this team is going to get back to the conference finals and beyond in the next 5-10 years, it’ll likely be Young running the show for them.

Mudiay had the game of his life for New York, not all of which came at Young’s expense. Atlanta threw a few different defenders at him and he let everybody have a bucket or two on his way to 32 points on just 20 shots from the floor. He hit every kind of shot you would never expect him to – from long fadeaway jumpers at the end of the shot clock to pull-up three-pointers in pick-and-roll.

It was a banner night for the fourth-year guard and while the strong buckets over Young generated a lot of attention, he was far from the only one who had no answer for Mudiay on Friday night. That said, Mudiay hitting most everything he threw at the rim isn’t a long-term problem for the Hawks; Young’s small stature and the fact that teams go out of their way to target him is.

Pierce ran a relatively short rotation against the Knicks — eight players played more than 20 minutes and the tenth guy, Daniel Hamilton, had a short stint in the first half and was never seen again. Vince Carter gave the team 14 mostly-ineffective minutes; the Knicks had the athletes at the power forward position to give Carter quite a bit of trouble. There continues to be no space for Justin Anderson in these situations where Carter has proven ineffective. Instead, the Hawks went to an unusual arrangement in which Dedmon played the power forward position next to Alex Len for a four-minute stretch in the first half.

They acquitted themselves well enough in that spot but it’s likely not something we’ll see too heavily from them, especially when Alex Poythress and Omari Spellman return to action. Still, Pierce’s willingness to trot out Dedmon at the 4 rather than dust off Anderson might be telling as to the team’s trust in what Anderson can give them. If he can’t get on the floor for this Hawks team, as banged up as they are at the forward spots and as low as they are in the standings, then that bodes incredibly poorly for his NBA future as his rookie scale contract concludes at the end of this season.

Len had a strong game off the bench for the Hawks, giving the team 12 points and seven rebounds, four of the offensive variety. The fact that it took him 13 tries to get to 12 points isn’t fantastic, but a lot of those attempts came on tips or other put-back attempts, which can be forgiven when he’s the one who earned that extra possession in the first place. Rebounding in general was a surprising positive for Atlanta on Friday night; they’ve been mostly poor on the glass this season but dominated in this matchup. 15 offensive rebounds tell the story on that end of the floor, but it was the four New York picked up that helped push the Hawks over the finish line. Enes Kanter has earned a deserved reputation as a ferocious offensive rebounder — Atlanta’s big men didn’t let him vacuum up a single offensive rebound.

This was a good outing for Len as he continues his roller coaster season. One game, he’ll look like a player deserving of a starting gig somewhere, the next he’ll look like he’s slowly working his way out of the league. That same inconsistency shows up on a possession-by-possession basis as well, as it did in the first quarter on a pair of trips down the floor for the Knicks:

In the first clip, Len does everything right defensively — he knocks his guy off balance so he can’t set a solid screen, plays the middle ground between Knox and Noah Vonleh to take away the pull-up jumper and pocket pass. Knox ends up hitting the jumper over Hamilton, but there’s no issues with how Len handled this possession.

The second clip is the very next play for the Knicks. In a scrambled transition play, Jeremy Lin had to pick up Vonleh, leaving mismatches across the floor. Once Vonleh passes the ball out and Lance Thomas cuts through, Len’s job is to scram Lin out of that bad matchup and take Vonleh himself. Instead, he gives no help to his point guard and while DeAndre’ Bembry makes the smart play to get Lin out of the matchup, he’s only slightly better equipped to handle Vonleh – it really should be Len in this situation. The karma for this mistake was swift for Len; Bembry overcommitted to the entry pass and Vonleh dunked all over Len’s head.

Bembry and Lin provided opposite boosts for the Hawks off the bench. Bembry’s impact came on the defensive end, as it usually does, but he was also able to keep the Hawks afloat in that awful first quarter with a pair of three-pointers. Lin continues to show off his offensive prowess with a variety of dribble moves, a varied layup package, and a right-handed pull-up jumper that you can’t help but compare to Chris Paul’s signature move. Lin finished 5-of-6 from two-point range in the game to go with five rebounds and four assists.

Atlanta will take their two-game winning streak into Detroit, where they’ll meet a very tough opponent in Blake Griffin. Collins will have to be on his game, especially defensively, where Griffin poses a very different threat to many power forwards in the league.