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Hawks finish strong, hold serve in victory over Suns

It took a significant effort from the starting five on the second night of a back-to-back.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Teams looking for a path to success on the second night of a back-to-back tend to lean on their bench units more than in other situations. Depth is key in these spots, but the reserve unit of the Atlanta Hawks was unable to find a way to produce points on Saturday night, apart from an important stretch from Omari Spellman in the fourth quarter. As the bench suffered, the starters had to carry the workload as the Hawks downed the Phoenix Suns, 120-112.

The Hawks might have entered the contest feeling a little more set up for success — given they had defeated the Suns just a few weeks ago on their home court — if not for the loss they took at the hands of the Detroit Pistons on Friday night despite having a two-possession lead with less than a minute to play. The Hawks won in Phoenix 118-112 on Feb. 2 largely being carried by their two young, gifted offensive players. John Collins had 35 points and 16 rebounds in that contest. Trae Young used an incredibly productive fourth quarter performance to contribute 27 points and 8 assists.

On Saturday night, it was clear from the opening minutes of the contest that Phoenix was going to force the Hawks to generate offensive production from players besides Collins and Young. The Suns were sending a second defender to the rim when Collins was diving in pick-and-roll and they were pulling a lot of help from the weak side of the defensive formation in an effort to keep Young from penetrating, where he is lethal as a passer and possesses a strong floater game.

The young team from the desert had success in redirecting where Atlanta would have to generate offense. To that end, Collins and Young generated fewer field goal attempts than the other three starters, although were able to collectively produce 21 points on 22 shots from the free throw line.

Taurean Prince had the best game he had since returning from injury and carried the scoring workload for much of the first quarter. He compiled 21 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. It wasn’t a super efficient game for the third-year wing but he showed aggressiveness on both ends of the court even in moments when things weren’t going his way.

Kevin Huerter was inactive again in this game due to a lingering ankle issue. Kent Bazemore started in his spot for the second straight night and scored 23 points on 19 shooting possessions. He also took the assignment of defending Suns’ star shooting guard Devin Booker down the final minutes of the fourth quarter after Prince had drawn that assignment for roughly the first three and a half quarters of the game. Bazemore’s steadiness of play regardless of situation, opponent, record and the rest continues to be a positive dynamic for the team.

Young pitched in 23 points of his own, sharing the scoring lead with Bazemore for this game. He also had 8 assists compared to just 2 turnovers. Phoenix threw a ton of defensive pressure right in his face in the defensive half court and the ability to use his advanced ball handling skills to navigate the defensive pressure was probably how he best helped his team win this game.

Despite just putting up just ten field goal attempts, Collins produced 19 points. He was perfect on each of his ten attempts from the free throw line. He also had 14 rebounds, reaching double digits on that category for the first time in his last seven games.

When Phoenix was trapping Young most aggressively late in the fourth quarter, it was the play of Collins in “short roll” opportunities that was his most important contribution to help his team close the game strong and secure the win. After the Suns would use two defenders to force the ball out of the hands of Young, it would fall on Collins to turn and attack and make solid decision in 4-on 3 opportunities. If he can demonstrate the ability to do that against some of the better defensive teams in the league it would be a significantly positive development. There hasn’t been much to complain about with respect to Collins’ offensive game this season, but elevating his playmaking skills in these situations would put yet another feather in the second-year big man’s cap.

Dewayne Dedmon is never one to be outworked. He had 18 points and it seems that each of them could not have been at more critical points in the closely-contested game. He also finished the game with six blocked shots and eight rebounds, but even those numbers don’t reflect how important his defensive activity was throughout the game.

“I was just trying to be aggressive, especially on the defensive end,” said Dedmon about his focus defensively. “That’s something I kind of hang my hat on. Just being able to block some shots made it a good night tonight.”

Omari Spellman and DeAndre’ Bembry were the only noteworthy contributors from the reserves in this game. Spellman had nine points and three rebounds. Bembry had five points, six rebounds and two assists. He also drew a handful of important defensive possessions, during which he tracked Booker.

Prior to the game, Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce noted a couple of areas of play that were a struggle for his team in the earlier matchup with the Suns that, despite the win, would be critical to correct. 24 Atlanta turnovers led to 33 points for Phoenix in that game. Also, the Hawks allowed the Suns to amass 38 fast break points in that contest.

On Saturday evening, Atlanta committed just 14 turnovers (which led to 15 points for Phoenix) and limited the Suns to just 12 fast break points.

For the visiting team, Tyler Johnson, acquired from Miami at the trade deadline, led the Suns with 29 points on just 19 shooting possessions. He was aggressive throughout the night and had Young and Jaylen Adams on their heels defensively.

Devin Booker, to the surprise of no one, tried to put his team on his back and lead them back to victory. He wound up with 26 points, eight assists and 7 rebounds. Atlanta made him earn that offensive production; he was 8-of-23 from the field.

The league’s first overall draft pick in 2018, Deandre Ayton, had 14 points and 12 rebounds. He obviously still has a lot to learn but he played with a lot of intensity in this game. Much like the Hawks’ top rookie, Ayton started out the season slowly but has picked up his play very nicely in the last couple months. While the Rookie of the Year race looks to be all but over, it will likely come down to Ayton and Young for the second spot on most voters’ ballots.

“Better job for our guys to finish tonight, which was encouraging,” said Pierce after the game. “Our guys stayed together, and that was important for tonight, especially after yesterday’s loss.”

“It definitely feels good especially coming off that loss yesterday,” commented Dedmon. “It was a tough one. But being able to bounce back like we did today and fight the way we did today was good.”

“It’s big,” said Prince when discussing bouncing back from the loss to the Pistons on Friday night. “Growing. Mentally, not letting things that happened in the past effect our future. We were able to put the last game behind us and capitalize on our opportunities. Play another game today. I think we did a good job.”

This play offers an example of the Suns forcing the Hawks to generate offensive actions that don’t involve Collins and Young. A successful pick-and-roll is executed by Prince and Dedmon, who gets the bucket. Collins helps by sealing a would-be rim protector.

This possession offers an example of Prince being successful with some of his secondary skills when he sees and makes the simple play. He makes an easy drop-off pass in transition to Bazemore who knocks down the uncontested 3-point attempt.

Here you can see how the Suns’ five-man defensive unit was allocating their attention to the primary action. Young makes the skip pass to Dedmon in the weak-side corner, who makes the extra pass to a wide open Prince.

Dedmon makes so many small plays that often go unnoticed. He did so often in this game and the above play is an example. He sets the screen for Bazemore, then hustles in to seals Ayton. Bazemore benefits and converts the easy layup.

Despite the Hawks putting up an impressive 120 points, the Suns were successful in getting the Hawks into late shot clock situations with solid frequency. Bazemore was often the player calling for the ball and being a willing shot taker, as he was on this possession.

This was the point in the final period that Phoenix was getting really aggressive and trapping at the point of the ball screen. Here they get a turnover and and easy score in transition.

Atlanta was able to limit the Suns’ points produced via the fastbreak in this game, but Phoenix did have a lot of success pushing the pace early in the shot clock and attacking before the Hawks were confidently matched up. Here, Booker uses that technique to get to the rim for an easy score.

About halfway through the final period, the Suns decide to go to a small lineup to set up for those quicker defensive traps. One risk associated with a team making that move is ensuring it’s clear which player is responsible for matching up with the other team’s power forward. That happens on this play and Spellman gets as wide open of a look from the arc as you will see.

This play is an example of the Suns defenders pouncing on Young just after he crosses the midline. He moves the ball to Collins who attacks the 4-on-3 opportunity in the “short roll” action. A few solid dribbles with his head up allows him to connect with Dedmon, who is cutting toward the rim for a game-sealing dunk.

Up Next

The Hawks will next play in Houston versus a potentially undermanned Rockets team. James Harden missed a nationally televised game with the Warriors on Saturday night and his status is not known for Monday night’s contest.