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Nets prevail over Hawks in ugly, close-fought contest

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A lot of free throws, a lot of bad defense, and a lot of missed shots in this one

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

In the closest contest of the three-game season series, the Atlanta Hawks were once again defeated at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night at State Farm Arena. The 114-112 victory for the visitors completed the first sweep for the Nets over the Hawks since January 2005, another game that featured Vince Carter and a power forward named Collins, though on that day, the then-New Jersey Nets were the ones who employed Carter and power forward Jason Collins. And just like that 2005 contest, which finished 85-84, the final game of the 2019 season series was ugly as sin, with the two teams combining to shoot less than 38 percent from the field and a combined 59-for-86 from the free throw line.

The key performers for the Hawks were the usual suspects: Trae Young completed his first career triple double with 23 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds, while running mate John Collins notched the first 30-point, 20-rebound performance of his career and just the 26th across the entire league in the last five years. The numbers were quite good for the Hawks young duo, though those lines potentially overstated their total contributions to the game.

Young told assembled reporters after the game, “The numbers are cool. They go in record books and things like that. But at the end of the day, all that matters to me is a win. If we don’t win, it doesn’t mean anything to me.” That particular quote is in line with Young’s normal statements to the media, in which he almost always says the right thing and does his best not to create waves. Still, it was impossible that he didn’t know what he needed to complete the arbitrary statistical feat at the end of the game, when he was crashing in to try to pick up free throw rebounds and made sure he got his tenth board with less than a minute remaining on a play that would have otherwise been an uncontested rebound for Collins.

Critics of Young’s play have often pointed to his size as a major detriment in two key areas: finishing at the rim and defense. While his defense was as advertised in this game, his finishing was underrated by his 2-for-10 shooting inside the three-point arc. Young has been able to get to the rim throughout his rookie year but hasn’t always had the best luck once he’s actually gotten there. In general, a 2-for-10 night around the rim wouldn’t go down as a particularly memorable performance for positive reasons, but Atlanta’s overall performance on those possessions require a closer look.

Of Young’s eight misses at the rim, Atlanta rebounded five of them, with four immediately being converted into two points for the Hawks. Young himself finished one after being blocked at the rim and Collins and Alex Len combined to notch three baskets off his misses. These plays, nominally named “Kobe Assists,” show how Young’s drives to the basket are met by defenses; he draws so much attention that his teammates are able to easily put the ball back in after his shot falls off the rim.

On all three of the above plays, Brooklyn center Jarrett Allen has to give Young a strong contest at the rim, jumping to help deter his shot. These sorts of plays are what make Allen one of the league’s best rim protectors, but it also opens the Nets up to offensive rebounds, which the Hawks were happy to vacuum up. 18 offensive boards for Atlanta helped them win the rebounding battle and matched their second-best performance of the season, only behind the 21 second-chance opportunities they grabbed in their New Year’s Eve tilt with the Indiana Pacers.

For this current iteration of the Hawks, the combination of Young’s play and the massive drop-off to his backup, Jaylen Adams, has done quite a bit to boost the former’s on/off metrics. Throughout much of the season, the club didn’t lose as much when Young came off the floor for former backup point guard Jeremy Lin, but now that Lin has moved on to the Toronto Raptors, Atlanta has been rolling with Adams as the primary backup. To say that it’s gone poorly would be an understatement; Adams just isn’t an NBA-level player at this point.

Given that they have very little future-facing investment in him, it’s worth considering whether or not the possessions he’s being given in that spot are worthwhile. It warrants a deeper look, which will be coming to Peachtree Hoops in a few days, but suffice it to say that the Hawks have a few better options they should use between now and the end of the season, while results don’t yet matter and some other guys can be given the opportunity to be the primary playmaker. In particular, a game against a team like the Nets, who employ two over-sized point guards in D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, could have served as a nice opportunity to play a lineup with no traditional point guard.

Collins’ 30/20 is in line with his season-long performance against the Nets. In the three-game season series against Brooklyn, he averaged more than 30 points and 14 rebounds, including more than six offensive rebounds per contest. After the game, he was asked about what makes it so easy for him to get his individual numbers against the Nets.

“Honestly, I think it’s their lack of size or athleticism at the four position,” Collins said. “I’ve just been able to take advantage. I think they have a couple guys out of position and I just tried to abuse the mismatch.”

As with much of Collins’ game, his immense box score numbers inflate his actual contributions toward winning basketball; despite those gaudy individual statistics against the Nets, the Hawks were actually better without him on the floor and they were outscored by Brooklyn by 39 points across the three games. Whatever mismatch exists for Collins such that he can pick up a lot of points and rebounds clearly affects him negatively elsewhere. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where his demerits lie; there aren’t many power forwards in the league today who are worse defensively than Collins. Perhaps things will change for him with more experience, but there are very few positives for him on that end of the floor, which gives back a lot of the advantages he creates with his play offensively and on the boards.

Kevin Huerter, the third member of the Hawks’ young core, continued his curious trend of having a poor game and yet somehow contributing to the team winning the minutes he’s on the floor. Saturday was the 16th game in which he’s shot worse than 30 percent from the field, yet he’s posted a positive plus/minus in eight of those games, including his team-best +16 against the Nets.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about Huerter’s game against Brooklyn — he didn’t get to the line excessively, only notched one assist, and committed four fouls — but he continues to have games in which he doesn’t perform individually but the team is better for his presence on the floor. Should that trend continue over a larger sample size, it will be worth diving deeper into exactly why it happens.

It was one of the better games of the season for forward Taurean Prince, who scored 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting to go with three rebounds and four assists. His game sometimes seems to have a feast-or-famine element to it; he’s either throwing the ball wildly off-target or putting it right between his teammates’ numbers on pocket and skip passes. Against the Nets, it was more of the same from Prince, who finished with just one turnover but had at least four or five passes that were off-target and put his teammates in bad positions. In between those misses were hits, where he’d drop the ball perfectly in Collins’ path for an easy dunk or throw the ball right into a shooter’s pocket in the corner.

Prince was also charged with defending Nets point guard Russell and did an admirable job, holding him to 6-for-23 shooting for just 18 points. It was a team-wide effort against Russell, though some of the same caveats that apply to Young’s game apply to Russell’s — Brooklyn picked up 15 offensive rebounds of their own and retained possession on five of Russell’s eight two-point misses on the evening. Still, Prince did a solid job defensively, something that hasn’t always been a part of his game on a night-to-night basis, to say the least.

Atlanta will welcome in the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday evening on the second half of their home back-to-back playing just one game during the work week before another back-to-back in Boston and Orlando next weekend.