The Atlanta Hawks picked up a rare win on Friday night. The 121-120 victory over the Spurs was their first win in San Antonio since 1997. In addition, it was far from a certain victory and, in fact, looked like it might be all too familiar of a loss as Atlanta struggled to get even in the contest until the final possessions.
A team doesn’t win just nine games during the first half of the NBA season by playing well late in close games. The execution at the end of this particular game, however, was superb and it was a big reason why Atlanta was able to emerge victorious. Even if the sample size is minuscule, it is worth digging in to see what they were able to make happen.
Down by two points with 25 seconds remaining, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce opts not to use the last timeout available to him. This decision allows his team a potential second opportunity to tie the game or take the lead if they are not able to score on this possession, but it wouldn’t come to that.
The play above is a very simple action. This most impressive aspect of the execution is that none of the young Hawks are sped up. They each are under control, reading the defense and looking to make the right play as a five-man unit.
The are running high pick and roll with the center, John Collins, and the power forward, De’Andre Hunter, involved as screeners.
It may look like a trap by the Spurs, but it technically is not. This is “show” technique from San Antonio big man Jakob Poeltl. Notice how he looks to recover back to Collins after helping on the ball handler, Trae Young, after the screens.
This technique, in this situation, does have the same effect as a trap, and they are able to force the ball out of the hands of Young. Collins works toward the paint while Hunter moves to the top of the key and (critically) opens his body toward Young as to make himself available for a pass.
After getting the ball, Hunter, who is operating in the “short roll,” has a read to make. Have the other Spurs defenders failed to help on Collins while Poeltl is still trying to get back to him? No. As the defender in the weak side corner, Dejounte Murray is expected to help on him and he does. (We will come back to this.)
As such, Hunter is reading the floor looking to make a pass to to either the right corner, where Cam Reddish is situated, or the left corner, where Kevin Huerter is positioned, depending upon how San Antonio helps toward the paint.
With Murray, as traditional NBA principles dictate, helping at the rim the correct pass is to Huerter and that is where Hunter delivers the ball.
Upon a close look, this seems to be the design all along. Notice how, instead of racing toward the rim, Collins runs directly towards Murray and works to occupy him. Also notice how Hunter takes a single dribble toward his right. This moves DeMar DeRozan away from the left side of the formation as to eliminate him as a potential close out defender on Huerter.
Imagine if Murray is able to chase Huerter out of the corner, such that he has to re-situate himself closer to the three-point break. Without the subtle manipulation from Hunter, DeRozan might have a chance to get to him to contest the shot.
The design of this play was to stress the help defender. Collins occupies Murray. Hunter further isolates Murray with the dribble to his right.
The result is a made catch-and-shoot three from the left corner to give the Hawks a one point lead that they would never relinquish.
In observing a bit more about this play, the Hawks have very likely worked on this. A young team does not execute with the type of patience and timing unless this has been well practiced in the “time and score” portion of the playbook.
The Hawks were playing for the lead. None of this action opens the door for a shot at the rim or a foul unless the Spurs allow Young to get downhill off of the ball screen, which they were very unlikely to do.
Each player did his job.
Now the Hawks simply need a defensive stop to secure the win.
San Antonio uses a timeout to design a play and advance the ball with 6.3 seconds remaining. Pierce substitutes DeAndre’ Bembry for Young, putting more size and switchability on the floor.
The assumption, in this case, must be that DeRozan will take the final attempt. He’s a master in isolation and loves to take the big shot for his team.
The play design from the Spurs does not call for a screen for DeRozan. There is not effort to force a switch which could cause Atlanta’s youthful defenders to scramble and make a mistake.
Instead, the Spurs essentially clear out and work the ball to DeRozan as to allow him to get a head of steam as he gets downhill toward the rim. The leverage the play is designed to produce is to allow DeRozan to get a step on his defender, which is Reddish in this case.
However, it never happens. Reddish stays with DeRozan stride for stride. His technique is basically perfect. His weights moves directly toward the baseline and not towards DeRozan as to reduce the likelihood of a foul call that would result in free throws. His right hand is in the frame of DeRozan’s body while his left hand is up and ready to contest the shot.
Ultimately, DeRozan has to take the shot with his body falling away from the basket and he misses.
It is interesting that Collins is matched up with Derrick White as opposed to the bigger Trey Lyles, But, that’s likely just because the Hawks’ coaching staff wanted him defending the inbound pass. That leaves Bembry on Lyles.
Atlanta caught a bit of a break in that ball caught the front of the rim and bounced off just as White appeared ready to tip the ball in (with plenty of time) which would have very likely given the Spurs the win.
Although, Pierce has saved that last timeout for exactly this scenario.
When they look back at this play, it will likely be pointed out that Huerter and Hunter need to be much more proactive and involved to help rebound once each of Reddish, Collins and Bembry commit to contesting the shot of DeRozan.
It is nice, though, to be afforded learning opportunities like this after a victory instead of a defeat.