The Atlanta Hawks entered Phoenix on the heels of a tough loss to the Jazz in Utah Friday night, a loss that put them at 2-3 so far on what’s been the most challenging road trip of the season. Despite the back-to-back and the grind of being away from home for almost two full weeks now, the Hawks showed up to play in many areas of the game on Saturday evening.
Coach Lloyd Pierce made a change in the starting lineup, electing to go with Taurean Prince over DeAndre’ Bembry on the wing. Prince was joined by the remainder of the normal starting lineup: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Dewayne Dedmon.
Phoenix started Elie Okobo, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, and the 2018 No. 1 overall selection in the NBA Draft, center DeAndre Ayton.
It was a back-and-forth affair that featured 18 ties and 16 lead changes, with neither team able to establish a lead of more than ten at any point during the game. The first three quarters were all decided by three points or less before the Hawks pulled away late in the fourth to seal the victory.
The ever-present turnover problem surfaced throughout the night for the visitors (the Hawks nearly matched a season-high with 24 giveaways, leading to 33 points for the Suns), but another huge performance from Collins (35 points, 16 rebounds) kept the Hawks hanging around throughout the game until Young (27 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) exploded for 17 fourth-quarter points (16 of them came in a 4:47 span) after struggling with his shot during the second and third quarters.
Young was 6-for-10 in the final period while Collins added 13 fourth-quarter points of his own on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field. All-in-all, Collins and Young combined for 30 points of the team’s 32 points in the fourth.
Young turned in a phenomenal fourth-quarter performance, catching absolute fire over a five-minute stretch in the fourth when he was pretty much unguardable. Teams are forced to respect his passing at this point, which is leading to plenty of one-on-one possessions for the rookie guard.
If Young can continue to score when given the opportunity, defenses will continue to struggle keeping him contained. “...It’s time to take over” Young said in walk-off interview. “... Me as a floor general, me as a lead guard on this team, I’ve gotta do what it takes to help our team win, whether it’s getting my teammates involved or scoring when I need to.”
“Gotta be tough to come down and take some of the shots he took,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the game. “... He doesn’t mind the big moment, he doesn’t mind taking the shots or making the plays down the stretch.”
It was the first 30-plus point, 15-plus rebound performance of Collins’ career, while Young set a career high for points in the fourth quarter (17). Collins had a career-high ten offensive rebounds, and 16 in total. Collins helped the Hawks to a 53-37 advantage on the boards and 23 second-chance points to Phoenix’s eight.
“...Kind of what I do, go out there and give effort and energy. Tonight it paid off big-time,” Collins said. “My teammates were able to find me tonight, I was playing well, felt the groove, kept crashing the glass.”
Collins posted 23 points and nine rebounds in the second half alone, while Young had 19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the second half himself.
Since a 1-for-12 shooting night in Chicago, the opening game of the current road trip, Young has averaged 26.8 points and 8.2 assists per game on 53.5 percent shooting (42.9 percent from three-point range) in the ensuing five games.
Collins and Young started the game off almost as well as they finished it for Atlanta, with 17 combined points in the opening period. The two rising stars worked together some as well as created for themselves early in the contest.
Huerter had ten points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals in a quietly productive night. While Collins and Young provided most of the fireworks, Huerter was present, making plays for himself and others as he has done in abundance when healthy this season.
Booker led the way for the Suns with 32 points, ten assists and eight rebounds. However, the Hawks did shut Booker down when it really mattered (2 points, 1-for-5 from the field, 0-for-3 from three-point range in the fourth). Booker played almost 43 minutes in the game, so perhaps he was fatigued as well.
Pierce spoke about what the Hawks tried to do in order to slow down Booker: “(He’s) the guy we had to chase all night, had to use different coverages, especially to blitz (him) late in the game...he’s a special player, he can get it going at any point and he did tonight, so we just wanted to slow him down and make someone else beat us.”
Jackson added 25 points for the Suns on an efficient 10-for-15 night from the field. The second-year wing also added three steals and one block in over 36 minutes of play. Ayton struggled despite posting a double-double, going 5-for-15 from the floor, while the rookie big-man did grab 11 rebounds to go along with his 13 points.
Dedmon added 11 points, four rebounds and three more three-pointers for the Hawks, going 3-for-6 from behind the arc for the second straight night. Bazemore had nine points in 15 minutes off the bench as he continues to find his rhythm after missing extended time with an ankle injury.
Prince had 9 points on just six shots in his return to the starting lineup. He was employed as the primary defender on Booker, a task with which he struggled for much of the night, but he did come up with three steals, including a key one on Booker late in the game.
Bembry played just 15 minutes after being moved to the bench, though these things aren’t great to harp on in the second game of a back-to-back. He was relatively quiet in the box score, though he did post a +8 mark in the plus-minus department in his limited role. Pierce’s lineup decisions were curious over this Utah-Phoenix back-to-back — Alex Len barely played against Utah, when one would think the Hawks would benefit from having someone bigger on the floor to contend with Rudy Gobert, and Bembry didn’t see many minutes against Phoenix, despite their best player being a shooting guard with whom Bembry matches up well.
While it’s not the best win, or even the best road win of the season by any means for the Hawks, pulling to 3-3 for the West Coast-Super Bowl excursion on the second night of a back-to-back, during the dog days of a grueling trip around the country against a well rested team in their own building is no small feat for any NBA club.
The Hawks were down by as much as eight in the second half, but were able to battle back and get the win due to good team play by the bench late in the third and the heroics of Collins and Young in the fourth.
Atlanta, now 17-35 on the season, has genuinely been a different team since late December, they’ve been better to watch and also better by the numbers. Since Dec. 18th, the Hawks are 11-12 after starting the season 6-23. Over their past 15 games, they rank 16th in offensive rating at 109.7 (they still rank 26th for the season at 105.2), despite playing ten of those games on the road.
Perhaps the biggest Atlanta sporting event of the decade takes place on Sunday, but the Hawks will be traveling to Washington to get ready for the final game of the Super Bowl road trip Monday evening.