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Taurean Prince game-winner lifts Hawks over Suns in chippy affair

Things got heated in the final period and it was Taurean Prince who had the last laugh after he hit the game-winner.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks bounced back from their narrow loss on Friday night with a win on Sunday afternoon against the Phoenix Suns 113-112.

The Hawks were led by Taurean Prince’s 22 points (including the game-winner) and a career-high six three-pointers while Dennis Schröder added 21 points.

For the Suns, they were led by T.J. Warren’s 35 points while Devin Booker added 20 points. Elfrid Payton also added a triple-double: 11 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.

The fourth quarter: The altercation and Prince’s takeover

Let’s be honest: this game was absolutely dreadful for three quarters. Some really poor defense, sloppy offensive possessions (often) by both sides, some really poor shots, many turnovers (especially in the first half), sloppy turnovers... it was just not an enjoyable game to watch.

But at least it was tight — a one-point game heading into the final quarter — and that had the potential to set things up for an interesting fourth quarter. That’s exactly what happened.

Both sides — as they had done for the whole game, 24 lead changes and 11 game-ties — went back-and-forth in the final period and it was clear that this game was going to go right to the wire.

But tensions boiled over with just over two minutes remaining, after Prince was called for a goal-tend on a layup by Josh Jackson. Close-up replays showed that Prince had some choice words for/toward Jackson after the whistle (getting right up into his space to say it too) and this prompted a push from Jackson on Prince — a ‘get away, man’ kind of push as he’s walking away, it was really a nothing push. But Prince doesn’t like that at all, and stormed right after Jackson to get a shove in on him and that’s where it all kicks off.

Then, Isaiah Taylor comes flying in from behind and leads with the chest into the back of Jackson. Payton gets in there quickly to push Taylor away and security and the officials (and some players acting as peacemakers) get in between Prince and the Suns, who continues to chatter a whole lot.

Here’s the incident:

For the incident itself, Prince initiates it by chirping right into Jackson’s ear (like Jackson isn’t going to respond in some way to that) and escalates it by shoving Jackson. Taylor escalates it further by barrelling into Jackson.

The aftermath of this was that Taylor and Payton were both ejected and techs were handed to Prince and Jackson. And, really, you can’t argue that Taylor didn’t deserve to be ejected for his part in this.

Anyway, this left the Hawks in an interesting situation.

Malcolm Delaney picked up an ankle injury in the third quarter (more on that soon) and Dennis Schröder didn’t play in the fourth quarter (though he picked up a knock in the third quarter, his fourth quarter absence was not due to an injury, just a coach’s decision). With Taylor ejected, the Hawks didn’t go back to Schröder and, instead, ran a lineup of Tyler Dorsey, Jaylen Morris, Prince, Mike Muscala and Miles Plumlee.

Ejections aside, the game on the court was still there to be won and if the Hawks were to do that, they would need someone to step up in the absence of their best two offensive players in Schröder and Kent Bazemore (who was sat out of this one to help the possibility of the Hawks losing rest), who could only watch from the bench.

That person was Taurean Prince.

Prince scored the team’s final 10 points in the final 3:26 and was clearly feeling very confident, with “...other things” (more than likely the scuffle and trash talk) getting Prince fired up for the stretch run.

Coming back to the court after the ejections, Prince comes off of a Plumlee screen after the hand-off by Morris. Josh Jackson can’t get around it and Dragan Bender doesn’t step up to meet Prince, who walks into an uncontested shot and he drains it:

One thing about Prince: he will keep on shooting, no matter what kind of night he’s having — perhaps he was, realistically, the only person was going to take the big shots down the stretch.

The Suns respond with a 5-0 run to take a 112-110 lead through T.J. Warren with 20 seconds remaining.

The Hawks elect not to call a timeout with the shot clock now turned off (they had two to burn). Prince handles the ball and gets a cracking screen from Plumlee to create some separation. Prince leans into a pretty tough three-pointer, but on a night where the three-ball has fell for him of course this one went through and the Hawks find themselves back up by a point with just under eight seconds remaining:

Credit to Prince here: that’s a difficult shot (difficult looking at the very least) with the game on the line (if this had missed, the Hawks would’ve been forced to foul). A career-best sixth three-pointer for Prince and it came in style.

However, the job isn’t finished yet for the Hawks: there’s one more stop to be had if they wanted to walk away with a win.

Coming out of the timeout, the Suns run an isolation play for Booker against Dorsey (which, in theory, is a pretty sound strategy). However, Dorsey does a good job sticking with Booker and gets up a good contest and the shot is off — Hawks win:

Credit Tyler Dorsey here: that’s not an easy task to achieve. To basically go out and there and the situation is: ‘Hey, go stop Devin Booker to win the game.’ But credit to him, he did just that.

For the Suns, they have no regrets about the final possession: it’s the shot they wanted.

“Yeah (that’s the look we wanted),” said Suns head coach Jay Triano. “If you bring a screen, they’d probably trap it. But we got the look that we wanted on the clear side.”

“I got the shot I wanted,” said Booker of the play. “I picked a point on the floor. I got to it. The ball was up. I just missed it.”

Again, it was a sound strategy in theory to have an already accomplished scorer in Devin Booker (who has already scored 70 points in a game and recently passed 4,000 career points in just his third season) take on a rookie one-on-one in a clear-out.

Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer was pleased with Dorsey’s defense on the play while also acknowledging that the Hawks caught a break with that the shot missed.

“Devin Booker’s such a good player,” said Budenholzer postgame. “(They) put it in his hands, let him play one-on-one. He has great explosiveness. He rises up, gets a good look. But I think Tyler’s defense, and the contest…it looked like it was right on target, just a little bit long. Good defense, good shot, it didn’t go in, a break for us.”

For the Hawks, they ended their four-game homestand with a win, and Budenholzer praised his side for stepping up in their respective and increased roles.

“It was a great opportunity for a lot of different guys to be in different situations, to step up and make big plays,” said Budenholzer postgame. “Taurean’s (big play) is the no-brainer, hitting the game-winning shot. Miles (Plumlee) and Muscy (Mike Muscala) off the bench, to play down the stretch. Jaylen Morris is a guy that’s been great for us with our G League team, and Tyler (Dorsey). Just happy a lot of those guys stepped up in situations they’re not in a lot. A lot of good stuff for the whole game. We got better. Guys are getting better individually, and collectively we’re getting better. Today was a good day.”

For Prince, his sixth three-pointer of the game (and the Hawks’ 17th, which tied a season-high) proved to be the game-winner, a moment he’s dreamed of.

“It’s something you dream of growing up or at least imagine – you know what I mean – when you’re in your backyard or playing (NBA) 2K,” said Prince of his game-winner. “Things of that sort. It’s a great feeling. Hopefully, (I’ll) put up more.”

“TJ (Warren) made a good shot,” recounts Prince of his game-winning three. “I looked at the backboard. I just grabbed the ball, looked at the clock, 17 (seconds) and counting, but we told Miles (Plumlee) the quarter before to start setting screens higher, he did. So on that play, I knew I was going to pull up for the three. Whether it went in, I didn’t know, but I’m glad it did.”

Prince deserves his fair share of credit for this win: the three-ball was falling all game for him (he shot that efficiently, 6-of-8) and took over when the Hawks needed someone to takeover. He gets a lot of shots up but he made them tonight.

The aftermath: Draft lottery implications

The Hawks won this game and Taurean Prince hit a game-winner. All of that is great and all, but there’s an immediate aftermath to address — an elephant in the room.

Look, we all know what the Hawks are doing and what they wanted to achieve heading into this season when they assembled this roster: they wanted to be players when it came to the draft lottery, hoping for a high draft pick and the opportunity to select a potential star in the draft (a draft that Hawks GM Travis Schlenk is on record saying he’s ‘excited’ about).

And most people/fans/analysts understand that. We (collectively, not ‘we’ the team) all know what’s going on.

The Hawks envisioned a tough season on the court, but what they couldn’t have envisioned was that there would be so many other teams fighting it out for the league’s worst record with them.

Memphis Grizzlies: 18 wins
Dallas Mavericks: 19 wins
Phoenix Suns: 19 wins
Sacramento Kings: 20 wins
Atlanta Hawks: 20 wins
Orlando Magic: 20 wins
Brooklyn Nets (pick owned by Cleveland): 20 wins
Chicago Bulls: 21 wins

No one envisioned this many teams being this close together heading toward the draft lottery, making this Hawks-Suns game game even more important in that regard, with the Suns also right in the thick of things.

That, surely, is the reason why Kent Bazemore — who has been the Hawks’ best player this season — was sat out of this game, to increase the possibility of the Hawks losing this game against a fierce lottery opponent, with the margins so tight not only against the Suns themselves but with the surrounding teams.

And, look, obviously having the worst record doesn’t guarantee that team the number one pick, but it sure helps to have the highest odds of doing so. The margins are so tight. One/two wins could end up being the difference between the ping-pong balls bouncing your way for the 2nd/3rd pick and possibly the 7th/8th pick. If the Hawks end up with the 8th pick in the draft...that’s very little return for such a tough season. That’s why this game was so important in the context of this season and the objectives heading into it.

This was such an important game to lose (as bad as that sounds) and the Hawks won it.

And how the Hawks actually managed to win this game is quite something: no Bazemore, no Schröder in the fourth quarter, no point guard down the stretch (Delaney injured, Taylor ejected and Budenholzer talked about wanting to give the younger guys learning opportunities in what was a close game), a tough night for John Collins and even 25 minutes of Miles Plumlee (who did have a good game, to be fair).

It obviously goes without saying that players and coaches don’t ‘tank’ — they play to win every game. And that’s completely fine, that’s their job — their livelihood depends on it.

Example: Jaylen Morris isn’t going to care about what’s going on in the front office or the Hawks’ rebuild: he’s on a 10-day contract and he’s going to play his socks off every second he’s on the floor so that he’s either signed to a contract by the Hawks or another NBA team. And if he’s signed to a contract for the rest of the season, he’s going out there to prove he belongs in the NBA long-term, to show sticking power. He’s playing for his NBA life, and he’s not the only one. Others may not be playing for a roster spot specifically but they’re all playing for something (perhaps a bumper extension).

And it’s good that the players and coaches want to go out there, play hard and win every game, you don’t want them to develop losing habits and losing culture and this side definitely haven’t fallen in that trap.

But it’s backfired on the front office, and the Hawks could still end up with the worst record when it’s all said and done (the upcoming schedule is not kind). When it’s all said and done and the ping-pong balls drop, his game might not even matter. But right now it matters, it matters a lot and this opportunity to help solidify themselves as one of the teams that will have the more favorable odds to land the number one pick, for now, has slipped away.

Again, time will tell but this could be a game that’s discussed as the one that got away, the one that may have cost the Hawks three, four spots in the draft...

It’s also worth mentioning that having a top pick doesn’t guarantee you a star player but with this class looking as promising as it is, it would sure help...

Malcolm Delaney’s injury

Moving back onto the game itself, Malcolm Delaney rolled his ankle late in the third quarter on a drive to the rim, from which he did not return from:

Postgame, Delaney was seen wearing a protective boot on his left leg and the injury has Mike Budenholzer concerned.

Budenholzer didn’t have an update when he addressed the media postgame but said he was “worried for sure” when it came to Delaney’s injury. An update will likely come tomorrow, but it’d be safe to assume that Delaney might not play on Tuesday when the Hawks face the Toronto Raptors.

Bench bounce-back game

After scoring just 16 points in the last game, the Hawks’ bench had a strong bounce-back game.

Miles Plumlee recored his first double-double for the Hawks with 10 points and 11 rebounds in 2, his first double-double since Nov. 17, 2014, Mike Muscala had a strong game with 10 points and a team-best plus-14. Malcolm Delaney was having a good game before his unfortunate ankle injury with 12 points and three three-pointers, while Jaylen Morris posted a career-best seven points and Isaiah Taylor was playing well before his ejection.

It was interesting to see Muscala and Plumlee close out this game as the 4/5 combination and, as a two-man lineup, they registered a plus/minus of plus-14 in 22 minutes. They played well together, so it’s no surprise that Budenholzer elected to play the pair over Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, who both struggled in this particular game.

John Collins will (attempt to) dunk on you

On two separate occasions, John Collins attempted to really spike it on Marquese Chriss, but to no avail as Chriss denied Collins not once but twice.

While these didn’t end in points for Collins, they’re fun to watch — it’s fun watching Collins trying to dunk on anyone and everyone he can (and these were two very nice defensive plays by Chriss, to be fair) is just fun.

Once in the first half:

And once in the second half (he really tried to hammer this one):

The Hawks (20-44) head north to Toronto, where they’ll take on the Eastern Conference’s number one seeded Toronto Raptors on Tuesday.

A tough game, for sure. Should be interesting. Stay tuned.