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Hawks flash considerable upside in upset win over Clippers

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One to file away.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — The scene in the visitor’s locker room at Staples Center on Monday night was as joyful as any in the Atlanta Hawks’ recent history. The team had just exited the court after a 123-118 win that wasn’t really as close as the final scoreline indicates and were as playful with one another as they were with the Clippers on the floor. As usual, the center of the jokes was Dewayne Dedmon, who came flying out of the shower cursing up a storm and cracking on everybody and anybody, from Omari Spellman, who was too shy to interrupt John Collins’ post-game interviews to grab some lotion from his locker, to Trae Young: when another player said, “There are children in here,” after Dedmon was cursing left and right, he immediately quipped, “Sorry Trae,” which drew an amused glare from the Hawks’ star rookie point guard.

A 10-10 stretch over 20 games might not sound like much, but to a Hawks team that has done a lot of losing over the last year and a half, there haven’t been many nights where the locker room was as upbeat as it was on Monday. Losing is difficult, not just because of what it does to the team in the standings or how it affects players’ next contracts, but because of the day-to-day moroseness that invades and infects the locker room. Some teams are strong enough to ward off the negativity when things aren’t going well, but there’s really only one way to eradicate it entirely — winning.

The Hawks aren’t winning on the same level they were two years ago or they will be two years from now, but through the prism of the last season and a half, this 10-10 run is as magical as any, save for the undefeated January Atlanta posted in 2015. Young is coming into his own as the team’s point guard of the future. John Collins is fully returned from an ankle injury that kept him out for the first month of the season. Dedmon and Alex Len man the middle, offering different sides to the same coin at the center position. Kevin Huerter will be a rotation player in the league, at minimum, for as long as he cares to play basketball, and with each passing game flashes a higher skill level than almost anybody thought he had coming out of Maryland. And the two young guys who were with the Hawks the last time they were in the playoffs – DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince – are slowly but surely showing the kind of improvement and consistency that can elevate the team to another level.

It’s a special group playing an immensely fun brand of basketball, the foundation of which was evident in the early 6-23 stretch but was difficult to see through all the missed pull-up threes, turnovers, blown defensive assignments, and losses. Head coach Lloyd Pierce has emphasized the right things all season, from a culture of teamwork and accountability to the granular details of how he wants his men to perform on both sides of the court. Everything Pierce has taught his young team has come together over the last 20 games and though there’s no guarantee it will continue into the future, the hope and vision of a long-term contender is apparent in what the Hawks have been able to do over the last six weeks.

The key performers against Los Angeles were the usual characters – Young posted 26 points and eight assists against just one turnover on 10-for-18 shooting, while Collins was his ultra-efficient self once again, scoring 22 points on 7-for-10 from the field. Between the two of them, they dominated the interior, hitting 12 of their 16 attempts from inside the three-point arc. Consistent play from Dedmon throughout the game supported Young and Collins, while Len’s strong contributions in the third quarter helped to push the Hawks from a deadlock to a 13-point lead heading into the final frame.

However, it was Taurean Prince who stepped into the spotlight in the fourth quarter in a resilient attempt to make false prophets of his critics (myself included). Up 10 with about eight minutes to play, Prince entered the game with a single assignment – shut down the league’s second-best fourth-quarter flamethrower. Lou Williams, who had been mostly dormant through three quarters, is liable to erupt at any time, and it was Prince who got the call from his head coach to ensure that Williams was not the one to beat his hometown Hawks on this night. Nothing on the defensive end is ever a one-man operation, but Prince acquitted himself about as well as one could reasonably hope, flashing the tantalizing 3-and-D upside that has waxed and waned over his three years in the NBA.

As a rookie for the 2016-17 Hawks, Prince worked his way into the starting lineup for the team’s playoff run on the back of his defensive versatility and effort. The first true small forward the Hawks had had in a long while, he was seen as a defensive stalwart and an offensive project. If he could only shoot, the thinking was, he’d be exactly the player for which every team in the league is looking. The last year and a half have flipped the script entirely – his defense mostly fell off a cliff while his offense thrived. Armed with a high-30s three-point shot on high volume, Atlanta’s Prince Problem had reversed itself. He was now the offensive player they always hoped he’d be – not perfect, by any means, but certainly a net positive on that end – but it had come at the expense of his defense.

An ankle sprain in early December sidelined Prince for about a month, during which time he watched his team soar (relatively speaking), with whispers abound that his exit was precisely what had inspired the resurgent Hawks. While not entirely just, there was a fair amount of truth to the accusation. Prince’s defensive tools haven’t been on display consistently since the 2017 playoffs and while his offensive repertoire is strong, he has a tendency to stop the ball and hunt for his own shot, rather than play within the pass-happy system Pierce has created (with an assist from the past). The defense ticked up, as did the ball movement, in his absence, and the results started to fall Atlanta’s way. The correlation was not lost on the coaching staff, who have moved Prince to the bench since his return from injury, though he is still playing starter’s minutes and has been closing games.

Before their contest against the Clippers, Pierce summarized Prince’s time on the sidelines: “We started to play some pretty good basketball while he was out…[for Prince], it was just being able to see where we were without him, and how we could plug him right in and have the same impact.”

When it mattered most against the Clippers, Pierce called on his mercurial forward to do the job most thought would have gone to fellow 2016 draftee Bembry, a defense-first wing who had been guarding Williams most of the night. Atlanta was able to close out the game in those minutes, playing Los Angeles even and retaining their 10-point advantage in the four minutes Prince was tasked with stopping the nearly-unstoppable Williams.

“That just shows [Pierce’s] trust in me,” Prince told Peachtree Hoops after the game. “I want that trust going forward and to be put in a bigger role as far as guarding the best players down the stretch or whatever that may be. Hopefully it continues.”

For one night, the defensive upside of Prince — and, by proxy, the upside of the team itself — was fully evident. Whether the third-year forward can turn out those performances on a consistent basis remains a key fulcrum of his value at the NBA level, but make no mistake, the talent is there and it will be up to both player and coaching staff to work together to find the role, and the motivation, that brings out the best nightly.