On a night that started without John Collins and finished without Kevin Huerter, nobody would have blamed the Atlanta Hawks if they had walked out of Denver with another loss on their resume. The Nuggets have one of the best homecourt advantages in the league and have a significant talent edge over this version of the Hawks. Led by All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and a cast of strong role players around him, including ex-Atlanta man Paul Millsap, Denver was tabbed as one of this year’s preseason picks to make a deep playoff run. The early 12-0 hole for the Hawks made it look like the game was going to be a massive blowout to a very good Western Conference opponent.
Instead, the shorthanded Hawks fought to the end and walked out of the Pepsi Center with a 125-121 victory over Jokic and the Nuggets, captained by the heroics of point guard Trae Young.
Young was ridiculous yet again on Tuesday night as he threw up 42 points and 11 assists in one of the best all-around performances of his career. Other than a brief respite for the last two minutes of the third quarter, he was on the floor for the entire second half on his way to 41 minutes. He commanded the team through Denver’s 14-3 run to tie the game with about eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and took over the game after that, scoring 15 points in the last 8:16 to clinch a tone-setting victory for his team.
He’s a one-man offense, the sort of talent who can single-handedly take a team from the dregs of the league and drag them to respectability. There aren’t a lot of those around the league at any given time and Atlanta’s ability to rely on Young game in and game out to do what he does puts them in a very special position going forward. And to think that he’s still only ten games into his second season and still has potential to explore.
Young was magnificent throughout the night. He never got so caught up in his scoring prowess that he forgot about his teammates, even when he was closing in on another 40-point game. In a situation in which most stars would think to themselves, “this is my time, I have to score,” Young remained the multifaceted lead guard Atlanta drafted him to be less than two years ago. That dual threat is what makes him one of the best offensive players in the league already and has the potential to make him stand out historically; in an era of shooting point guards, Young’s ability to add elite playmaking has already made him nearly impossible to defend, even with a depleted group around him.
For young players, consistency is the thing that separates the good from the great. Most NBA players are capable of having individual nights when they’re unstoppable; the list of 50-point games in NBA history is littered with one-hit wonders. Consistently being able to provide significant positive value as a team’s primary creator separates average point guards from the best players in the league, and as we moved into the 2019-20 campaign, consistency was the key to Young’s season. He had enough great performances in his rookie season to let the world know what he could do; now, it’s about putting those performances together night in and night out, even when defenses are preparing specifically to stop him. Young is nearly there; other than one dud against Chicago on November 6, Young has scored at least 25 points and notched at least nine assists in each full game he’s played this season. Tuesday’s performance against the Nuggets was his third consecutive game with at least 30 points and ten assists, making him the youngest player in NBA history to achieve that particular milestone.
Young’s effectiveness against Denver is particularly notable because the Nuggets are known for their aggressive pick-and-roll scheme. While he’s had no issues slicing and dicing teams who drop their center back into the paint in pick-and-roll, traps can be his kryptonite against teams who deploy them well. That aforementioned performance against Chicago was one such example; the Bulls let loose with a hard trap way out past the three-point line and Young was mostly unable to make the right plays to beat them. The Nuggets employ a similar scheme, with head coach Mike Malone instructing Jokic and Miles Plumlee to defend way out on the perimeter to stop primary ball handlers from getting to their spots.
Rather than being flustered with the length and activity in his face, Young had all the answers on Tuesday night, stepping through and around traps with ease to get to the rim, rejecting screens for yet another long bomb or drive to the basket, or slipping impossible passes through traffic to his teammates for open dunks.
Atlanta had 33 possessions that ended in Young handling the ball in pick-and-roll, per Synergy. They scored points on 19 of those possessions and posted a total of 39 points in 33 possessions, good for a 118 offensive rating. That’s not just good, that’s incredible, considering that the average pick-and-roll possession nets roughly 0.94 points per possession. Even among high-usage lead ball handlers (defined as players who have run at least 150 pick-and-rolls this season), that average is just about at 1.00 points per possession. 1.18 points per possession is an outlier performance for Young and the Hawks, but for them to do this against a team that seems to already have an installed defensive scheme built to stop them, it was particularly impressive.
Outside of Young’s performance, one of the big stories for the Hawks coming out of Tuesday’s contest was the performance of Alex Len, who turned in his best game of the season in his first off the bench. Earlier in the day on Tuesday, head coach Lloyd Pierce announced that he was moving Len to the bench in favor of Damian Jones, a move that was somewhat puzzling but will remain intact going forward. Len still played more minutes than Jones despite coming off the bench and acquitted himself very well in that time. After struggling all year with his shooting, both at the rim and beyond the three-point line, Len posted 17 points on 12 shooting possessions, a level of efficiency that was only bogged down by his 4-of-8 performance from the free throw line. He was (finally) able to finish at the rim after an awful start to the season and added his usual strong defense to the winning effort.
Jabari Parker continued to fill in admirably for the suspended John Collins. Any worries about Parker’s athleticism coming off multiple knee surgeries in the last few years have been entirely mitigated; he looks as athletic as he did when he first broke into the NBA and his ability to retain that explosion while playing starter-level minutes has been key to the Hawks surviving this stretch without Young’s primary pick-and-roll partner.
It’s odd to say this about a game in which he scored five points on eight shooting possessions and was a team-worst minus-12, but Tuesday might have been Cam Reddish’s best game as a Hawk in his young career. He looked far more comfortable with the ball in his hands as a secondary playmaker and while the shot still isn’t going down for him (he’s back under 20 percent from three for the year), there is plenty of reason to believe the shot will come around with time. Nothing about his form is broken; the shots just aren’t hitting the target right now. Flashes of secondary playmaking are relatively new for Reddish with the Hawks; he played well in that role in preseason, but the regular season brought with it a lot of struggles in that role for him. Against the Nuggets, Reddish wasn’t making decisions at 100 miles per hours anymore; the game is slowing down for him.
Kevin Huerter’s shoulder injury was perhaps the only negative on the entire night. He went out in the third quarter after a collision with Jokic left him holding his left shoulder. He disappeared into the locker room and was ruled out with “left shoulder pain” and doesn’t have a more specific diagnosis as of this writing. Huerter was just on his way back to form after recovering from a right knee injury that contributed to his rough start to the season. After consecutive games in which he looked like his old self, Huerter was well on his way to another good performance with 11 points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting from the field to go with four boards and three assists when he had to exit the game.
Atlanta plays three games in the next five days to close out the rest of their Western Conference road trip before returning home; it remains to be seen how much Huerter will be involved in their upcoming schedule.