All things considered, Friday evening’s performance from the Atlanta Hawks was encouraging. Despite the absence of Kemba Walker (illness), the Boston Celtics were expected to handle the Hawks with ease as double-digit favorites but, after more than 47 minutes of action, the game was very much in doubt.
On the game’s pivotal possession, the Hawks trailed by two points in the final seconds, with Trae Young operating in 1-on-1 fashion against Celtics big man Daniel Theis. The final result was not a positive one for Atlanta, though, with Theis making an impressive defensive play to secure a game-sealing blocked shot.
“Daniel (Theis) made a great defensive effort on Trae (Young),” said Lloyd Pierce during his post-game address to the media. “I thought Kevin (Huerter) did a heads up play. He sets the screen. He gets the five man on to our point guard, our closer. Hell of an effort by Daniel. Credit them.”
“Resilient effort by our guys,” Pierce said earlier in his postgame availability. “We talked about toughness. We talked about being resilient, knowing these guys would put together a run. We talked about that before the game. This is how these guys play. And it’s how they play especially in Boston. I thought our guys did that tonight. They were tough. They competed, and they were resilient all night. You ask for it. You ask for an opportunity, with the ball, with the shot, on the road, to win the game. And we had that.”
While that sequence seemingly determined the win-loss result, more fireworks would arrive, with Young, Marcus Smart and Alex Len coming together for a scuffle that generated technical fouls and plenty of outrage.
Did Trae Young foul Marcus Smart here? pic.twitter.com/IyHKY7q11O— FOX Sports: Hawks (@HawksOnFSSE) January 4, 2020
This took place immediately following the Theis block so, in theory, the officiating decision could have affected the final outcome. Following the game, Pierce and Young were both asked for their opinion on what transpired.
“I didn’t,” Pierce said when prompted on whether he saw the final scuffle involving Young, Len and Smart. “I was explained that Marcus walked over Trae and that was the first tech. Alex pushed Marcus and that was the second technical. Tough break.”
“I ain’t trying to get all up into that,” Young said of the final fracas. “I haven’t watched the video. Everyone in the locker room was telling me different things. I ain’t trying to really get into that. I think people can watch and see and judge what happened.”
If nothing else, the last two-minute report will be worth monitoring on Saturday, though nothing that appears can change the final outcome. Once Smart headed to the free throw line and made 1 of 2, the final buzzer sounded and the Hawks suffered a disappointing, yet promising, three-point defeat.
The other headline of the night arrived in unfortunate fashion in the third quarter, with John Collins suffering what the team described as a back contusion. The third-year big man immediately removed himself from live action and went to the locker room, though initial reports appear to be positive on the avoidance of a long-term issue.
“The play he made was a no-layup mentality,” Pierce said when asked about the collision between Collins and Boston’s Jayson Tatum that created the injury. “Protect the paint. He comes over and does a good job of doing that. Just lands on his tailbone enough to send him out for the rest of the game. I think he’ll be alright, but tough break.”
Pierce also indicated that Collins “seemed fine” and that no X-ray was taken. Collins himself told Sarah Spencer of the AJC that he didn’t “think there’s any structural damage or anything of that nature,” with further evaluation to come when the Hawks arrive back in Atlanta in advance of a Saturday night showdown against the Indiana Pacers.
Though Collins is still getting up to speed after an extended absence, Pierce was encouraged with his play before the injury took place.
“I’m just begging for a break one night,” Pierce said with a smile. “We play half games with Trae and John. We’ve got three half-games out of the eight games they’ve played together. I thought John was great for us. He’s tough to guard. The way he started the first quarter, we’re getting him behind the defense, getting him for layups. I thought he was great and tremendous.”
Collins finished the night with 16 points and eight rebounds in just 22 minutes of action, joining Young (28 points, 10 assists) and Huerter (17 points, seven rebounds, five assists) in providing the lion’s share of Atlanta’s offense. If not for the injury and end-of-game fireworks, the headline takeaway of the evening might have been a starting lineup and rotational change that was both tethered to this game and also instructive for the future.
Against Boston’s relatively small lineup with Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward on the floor with a point guard and center, Pierce elected to match up in a “small-ball” manner. That meant that Collins played all of his minutes at center on Friday, and he was joined in the starting lineup by Young, Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. Hawks fans have undoubtedly dreamed of this alignment and, while it doesn’t appear to be a full-time change, a small window into the future was certainly pleasurable.
It was more positive in conjunction with a lights-out first quarter performance, with the Hawks using a 14-0 run to grab complete control. Collins scored seven quick points to key the run and, in the first 5:11 of the game, the young “core” lineup outscored the more established Celtics by a 10-point margin. That was headlined by heartening defense, especially from Young at the point of attack, and the Hawks led by as many as 18 points during the early onslaught.
From there, the Celtics slowly asserted their will (particularly in punishing Atlanta on the offensive glass at times), closing the gap and leading for most of the second half. Still, the Hawks proved to be resilient, battling through controversial officiating and coming together despite a short-handed second half roster.
“I think that’s what resiliency is,” Pierce said. “Whatever the case may be. Find a way. Find a way to keep competing. Find a way to stay together. Find a way to overcome whatever is going on. No excuses. That’s not what we’re looking for.... They were going to be tough. They were going to make runs. They were going to make big shots. And we had to keep competing regardless. I thought our guys did that.”
The Hawks face a difficult challenge on Saturday evening with a back-to-back against the Pacers and, with the potential of another missed game for Collins, Atlanta could be in for an uphill battle. In addition, the Pacers were off on Friday evening, giving the visitors the rest advantage, and Indiana is already established as a playoff-caliber team.
Still, there were positives to take away from Friday’s performance, from the resilience (Pierce’s word of the night) to bounce back on multiple occasions, to the high-end play of Young and the overall defensive aptitude in a tough environment. Atlanta will need to duplicate that effort to pull off an upset on Saturday but, after the game, there were no mentions of lackluster energy or effort as there have been many times during the 2019-20 season.
“We played really hard,” Young said. “We fought really hard tonight. It’s tough. John goes down early in the second half and it’s tough. That’s a big piece. We’ve been playing all year without him and it’s been tough. We had a chance at the end and I couldn’t make a play at the end. It’s tough, but I’m happy with the way everybody fought.”