The Atlanta Hawks entered play against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night needing a win to boost their confidence. The team was wrapping up a brief, three-game homestand in which they dropped the first two games to the Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards. A victory would be beneficial as they head out to play all three of next week’s games on the road.
Denver entered the contest with the best record in the Western Conference, but they were playing on a road back to back and facing their third game in the last four nights. They were also shorthanded. Paul Millsap injured his foot in Friday night loss in Charlotte, and they were already missing starting shooting guard Gary Harris and combo guard Will Barton. They had just 12 players available and Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone decided to deploy just an 8-man rotation.
The Hawks had just 11 players available and that included a recently recalled Jalen Adams (on a two-way contract) from the Erie Bayhawks, Atlanta’s G-League affiliate. They were lacking the services of Taurean Prince, Jeremy Lin, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee and Alex Poythress (also on a two-way contract).
It appeared that the blueprint for Denver was to try to come out and deliver a knock out blow early in the game and hope for some extended garbage time minutes in the second half in hopes of avoiding playing their rotation players for more than 30 minutes. And they nearly accomplished that. The Nuggets put up 45 points in the first quarter and established a 15-point lead with two minutes remaining in the frame. But the Hawks were able to manage a 7-2 advantage prior to the end of the period to get back to within 10 points.
From that point, the Hawks limited Denver to exactly 21 points in each of the three remaining periods. They found their confidence on the offensive end and saw their opponent, understandably, eventually run out of gas.
Getting a bit casual with their double digit lead in the second half of the fourth quarter opened the door a bit and the Nuggets almost capitalized. It wasn’t the strong finish Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce was looking for. But they managed to steady themselves enough to get their sixth win of the season by the score of 106-98. It was the first time they had held an opponent to fewer than 100 points since a November 17 loss in Indiana.
“I didn’t think we finished very well,” Pierce said when asked about his team closing the game to secure a win. “Trae with 2 turnovers, Baze with a turnover, just sloppy play down the stretch. We had a 15-point lead, I get it, we have a nice little cushion. That’s part of the education, I brought the group over with about 30 seconds (left) or whatever it was and reminded them this is why we emphasize finishing. Luckily we had a cushion tonight but the understanding of how to finish a game especially when we have a lead, or to finish a quarter. All of those things start to tie in and then they start to add up. So that’s just an education for a young team.”
John Collins was the star of the show. For the third straight game, he set a career high mark in scoring, this time hitting for 30 points. Playing in just his 11th game of the year after missing extended time to start the season due to injury, he could be in the infancy of a breakout period. He was 12 for 20 from the floor in this game including hitting on 3 of his 6 attempts from beyond the three point line.
He showed an improved perimeter game in summer league but had hit on just 2 of his 17 attempts entering play on Tuesday versus the Wizards. But he has hit on 5 of 10 attempts in the last two contests and looked steady doing so. He also had 5 assists for just the 6th time in his 86 career games. An improved ability to function as an initiator and facilitator is emerging in his recent play.
Additionally, he is starting to demonstrate and ability to score at all three levels: at the rim (where a bulk of his points came last season), in the mid-range and on the perimeter.
“It helps when he makes threes; he was 3 of 6 tonight,” Pierce said of Collins’ performance. “We know what he can do at the rim. But when he gets out there and their helping off of him, when he can knock some of those down, now they have to run out and guard him. I think he had a dunk where he attacked a close out because they were sprinting out to him at the three point line.”
“The education for him is if he starts knocking some of those down,” Pierce added on Collins. “He’s going to get a little bit of everything. They tag his rolls, they are going to have to close out to his threes. Now he can be John Collins… a lot of new toys for him. For him to shoot the three, and to drive from the perimeter in addition to rolling in the pick and rolls. You’re seeing more and more of his growth, his development, which is why he’s getting new career highs every game.”
“Super satisfying, especially a team coming on an East Coast trip number one in the West,” Collins said about the victorious outcome. “We needed this win. We all played together. We had a lot of assists tonight, which I think helped us get the chemistry right. Everyone was playing for each other tonight and that’s why we got the win.”
“I feel like once I get a couple shots at the rim early, the three opens up,” He said of his own performance. “It’s going to open up with lanes like you saw tonight with me driving to the cup and possibly finding other guys, or hopefully scoring the ball.”
“He did everything tonight,” said Nuggets head coach Mike Malone when discussing Collins’ performance. “He hit threes, he got behind us for lob dunks, he worked the offensive glass, and he made plays for his teammates. I believe it was a career-high for John and Bembry, so anytime you give up two career-highs in the same game it’s usually not going to end well. John Collins had a heck of a game for them and he hurt us in every way possible tonight.”
DeAndre’ Bembry also had a career best mark with 18 points on 6 of 9 shooting; he connected on 3 of his 4 three point attempts. He is 8 for 17 from long distance in his last three games after shooting just 30.8% from deep in his first 21 games of this season. He also had 5 assists and 3 blocked shots.
“He’s everything for us,” Pierce commented regarding Bembry’s play. “He’s a backup point guard, he’s a lockdown defender. He’s a guy that gets out and runs for us on the wing when he’s playing with the other guys. He just fills in a lot of different gaps, a lot of different holes.”
“I think everyone was being aggressive and unselfish,” Bembry said when asked about the Hawks getting some separation from Denver in the second half. “The ball was swinging and we all made some shots. That’s what happened, we passed the ball together and made some open jump shots. We had a lot of good energy coming off the bench and we just played well together tonight.”
Rookie point guard Trae Young had a really ugly start to the game having 5 of his shots blocked in the first quarter. He would play more constructively in the second half and ended up with 9 point and 4 assists to go along with 4 turnovers.
Vince Carter contributed during a critical stretch as the Hawks tried to get distance from the Nuggets in the second half. He amassed 13 points on 10 shooting possessions and was a steadying presence when Atlanta’s confidence looked to be slipping even with a decent lead.
The other three Atlanta starters, Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon and Kevin Huerter, were active on both ends of the court and helped set the tone on defense and in pushing the pace.
Bazemore was just 2 of 10 from the field but had 8 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots. Dedmon scored just 6 points but also had 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots.
The rookie, Huerter, had 8 points on 8 shooting possessions but added 4 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot.
Tyler Dorsey was in the rotation for the second straight game after seeing mostly garbage time or being active since the first couple of weeks of the season. But he showed that he is putting in the work to be ready when he is needed.
He had 7 points and 5 rebounds in reserve play. Those aren’t big numbers but he was an important part of lineups that were making an impact on defense and helping push the pace. The Hawks outscored Denver in transition by a margin of 24-10.
“Yeah, just getting back in the rotation,” said Dorsey of his recent opportunities to contribute. “I’ve got two months of energy in me so I’m going to come out every night and bring that energy off of the bench whenever my number is called. It was good to get a win, finally, to get a win… to get one at home. And we’ve just got to keep it going, keep this intensity up.”
To nobody’s surprise, Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 24 points and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes of play. Juan Hernangomez was a spark for Denver when they made a fourth quarter push. He had 17 points on just 10 shooting possessions and secured 10 rebounds.
Local product Malik Beasley led all bench scorers in the game putting up 19 points for the visitors. He came up just a single point short of tying career his career best mark in scoring. He was trying to step in and carry some offensive workload normally handled by starting point guard Jamal Murray who had just 4 points in 24 minutes of play. He was coming off of a workload of 82 minutes in Denver’s last two games and missed time in this game with an apparent ankle injury.
Collins was ejected with less than 10 seconds to play on a significantly questionable flagrant 2 that he was assessed. With time winding down, Beasley was unexpectedly dashing toward the rim with the ball (maybe he knew a bucket would give him a new career high) when Collins hip checked him in what looked like a mostly instinctive reaction to Beasley. There is some possibility that could be downgraded to a flagrant 1 foul if not rescinded all together.
“It’s a foul; it’s definitely a foul,” said Pierce about the play. “I didn’t think it was a flagrant 2. I didn’t think it was worthy of an ejection. I understand what they were trying to do in a game that was almost over... that there were no more extra commotion or energies out there. But I didn’t think it was a flagrant 2. And we will try to get that taken off.”
This possession is representative of what play looked like early in the contest. The Nuggets were looking for Jokic early in the shot clock before the Hawks could set their defense and identify from where the help should possibly come.
Murray connected on the hit ahead pass to Torrey Craig who delivers the ball to Jokic for the easy score.
This play is an example of how the Hawks were trying to counterattack early in the game. Bazemore diagnosed this play and jumped the passing lane for the steal. Collins was proactive and got loose in transition. Bazemore hit him for the uncontested dunk.
Even when the Hawks were able to get set defensively, Denver was looking to play through Jokic in the post. Despite the best effort of Dedmon on this play Jokic converts the shot.
There is no need to review all of Young’s rejected shots in the first quarter. The idea is OK in that he is trying to attack and get to the rim early as opposed to getting perimeter shots up. But he struggled to measure the space he had with which to work as seen on this play.
This is a nice play in the half court by Dorsey to help get back within reach of Denver by the end of the first quarter. He operated with Dedmon in the dribble hand-off (DHO) and used a hesitation dribble to freeze the defense which creates a path to the rim.
Young demonstrated a nice adjustment early in the second quarter. Rather than get downhill alone, he uses the gravity of Collins to find a path to the paint for a lay up.
Another nice adjustment by Young is seen on this play. He uses his speed to penetrate and draw defenders toward cutting off his path to the rim. Rather than forcing the shot, he finds Huerter in the left corner for an uncontested three point attempt.
Here we see an example of Collins attacking a close out defender. If he can consistently do this while also knocking down three point shots with some regularity, it would be a significant development for him and the franchise.
Huerter operates in the DHO with Collins here. He is able to see and execute the simple play which is very encouraging from the young wing. He puts his length to use and finishes impressively with the left hand.
This is an example of what is hoped to see more of from Young as the season progresses. At times work up the floor without the ball and look for catch and shoot opportunities. Given when this play occurred, it looks like this was a likely point of discussion during half time.
On this possession, we can see Young possibly following the lead of his fellow rookie. Huerter collapses the defense with dribble penetration and makes the simple pass to Young, who makes the simple pass to the unattended Collins in the corner. This is ideal execution of the Hawks’ offensive scheme in the half court.
This is another nice example. Carter drives and kicks the ball to Bembry in the weakside corner. The Nuggets defense is able to react and close out on him. As such Bembry attacks with the dribble and Carter is rewarded when a kick out pass is delivered to him for the uncontested three point attempt.
Yet another example. Simple, easy playmaking... no one forcing anything individually. Side to side passing and attention to spacing results in another uncontested three point look for Carter.
The most encouraging aspect of this play is seeing Bembry clap and demand the basketball. This reflects a confidence not often seen from him as a shooter.
The effort and activity of this final play in the third quarter energizes the team. Carter ultimately gets the tip dunk and the Hawks are feeling good about themselves heading into the final frame.
But play gets a little sloppy as the Hawks try to put away the game. Young works the ball to Dedmon in the paint. But the spacing is a mess and three Hawks end up in the paint. Dedmon tries to score in very heavy traffic. The result is any easy run out score for the Nuggets who start to feel a little more optimistic about their chance to get back into this game.
Another careless possession which is not the fault of any one player. Collins could have initiated a dribble when Trey Lyles drops in his positioning. A dribble likely would have forced Lyles to close out a bit and forced Mason Plumlee to take a step or so toward the paint. Dedmon could have showed more urgency in preventing Plumlee from jumping the pass.
Even risking a foul to cut off the path of Plumlee would have been better. A dead ball turnover is far less harmful than a live ball turnover that leads to another run out score.
Pierce calls a timeout in an effort to steady the play of his team.
This is much better. The Nuggets have to trap as to try to force another turnover. When facing this defensive scheme it’s most effective to spread out even more so than on a normal possession. It creates longer passing lanes but as long as the open player is identified and, very important, solid, two hand passes are executed you usually find an open shooter.
Collins sticks the dagger shot from the right corner.
The Hawks will face the Mavericks in Dallas on Wednesday night. Naturally, the focus will once again be on Trae Young and Luka Doncic. Both players are probably beyond ready to get this season series behind them.
The Hawks got their first win of the season in their home opener versus the Mavericks. Doncic had an impressive clutch performance to help his team secure a comeback victory on Saturday night over the Houston Rockets.
Dallas shares the league’s best home record of 11-2 with the two-time NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors.