The final preseason game for any team in any season is usually the least relevant game of the season. But for the five millionth example that nothing is normal in the year 2020, Saturday’s night matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies felt like an important one for the Atlanta Hawks.
Atlanta is incorporating, depending upon how one counts, nine new players and a host of schematic adjustments on both ends of the court as to hopefully set up the new roster for success. The Hawks need every opportunity available as to try to work toward some amount of familiarity with the new stuff, and they have had just a couple of weeks and four preseason games with which to work to do all of this.
Also, there is the recent history with Memphis. After losing two games last year by a combined 56 points (which probably doesn’t reflect how ugly the games actually were), the Hawks lost to the Grizzlies on Thursday night 128-106 and had a countless number of unsightly defensive possessions.
Another blowout loss to a team that’s something short of a lock to make the playoffs this season would have looked bad and could have had, perhaps, a negative impact on the team’s confidence as they look ahead to the start of the regular season. But, after a slow start on both ends by the starters, the second unit made several pushes throughout the contest that finally set up a game that would go to the final ticks on the clock. With a serious advantage in the closing minutes in the form of players with actual NBA experience, the Hawks were able to secure a 117-116 victory.
From an offensive standpoint, in exhibition games, shots just fall or they don’t. What really mattered for the visiting team in this tilt was the defense. After giving up 48 points in the paint to Memphis on Thursday, Atlanta made it a clear priority to pack the paint with bodies as to deny dribble penetration. They were also more solid defending at the point of attack and had far superior timing and awareness in providing defensive help from the weak side.
In their victory on Saturday evening, the Grizzlies had just 30 point generated in the lane. This is of important interest considering that last season the Hawks allowed a league worst 53.6 point in the paint per game.
As to compare their mark of 30 points allowed in this game, the Milwaukee Bucks had the best performance in the association last season allowing just 38.7 points in the paint per game.
What Atlanta allowed, defensively, at the three-point line was almost a mirror performance from Thursday’s game. Memphis was 19-for-48 from the arc in this game after posting a mark of 19-for-50 on the previous matchup.
There is more progress to make in terms of how Atlanta contains quality shots by the opponent from the perimeter, but they worked noticeably harder in this one closing out on shooters. Also, some of the shots the Grizzlies generated an opponent will choose to live with. As an example, De’Anthony Melton, a 28.6% shooter from deep last season, knocked down four of his five attempts from the line in this game.
If Atlanta earned a hypothetical D-minus for their performance defending the three point line on Thursday evening, they probably should get a C-plus in this one.
In this game, they also showed a willingness and ability, as a team, to fight back when they found themselves in a hole. On numerous occasions, Memphis threatened to put the game seemingly away. But each time, the Hawks regrouped, played with more focus on defense and trusted themselves to make shots on offense.
Trae Young’s struggles shooting the ball continued in this contest. He had just 12 points and two assists but asserted himself with more consistency on the defensive end of the court including four steals. He fouled out, in odd fashion, with fewer than 22 minutes of activity.
Cam Reddish led all starters in scoring in the game, making his only start in the brief preseason. He used an aggressive mindset to generate nine free throw attempts on his way to 18 points.
A persistent level of activity up and down the court served John Collins well en route to 15 points and six rebounds. He looks a little more hesitant so far this year to put up shots from the three-point line, but he’s working with an almost entirely new cast of teammates at the center and power forward positions.
Leading all scorers with 19 points, Danilo Gallinari brought an efficiency in this game that was part of his lure as Atlanta signed him to a lucrative contract in the offseason.
Continuing to respond well to the increased competition on the wing, Kevin Huerter did a lot of good work including finding his shot in this game. He had 16 points on just 10 shooting possessions. Critically, he was a trustworthy offensive creator after Young was disqualified, including being an individual plus-11 in the second half, in which the Atlanta outscored Memphis by 11 points.
Bogdan Bogdanovic helped initiate the offense for important stretches as well. Playing on the second unit for the second time in the preseason, he had seven assists to go along with 10 points providing value even as he struggled to make shots in the game.
The rest was a team effort that ended up being just enough. The silver lining, if there is one in a win, is that the Hawks managed to generate 117 points in a game in which their star point guard was their fifth leading scorer and played roughly two-thirds of his normal volume of minutes.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Reddish was, presumably, inserted into the starting lineup for the purposes of taking on the challenge of defending Ja Morant who had 18 points and 13 assists on Thursday.
Here is what his activity on Morant looked like in the opening minutes:
Now, it might be a bit confusing to hear that Reddish was deployed on Morant because of how often Young ended up matched up him in the game.
But, by all appearances, Young had the responsibility to get back in transition defense (after missed shots and live ball turnovers) and account for the Memphis point guard.
As the Hawks were just 7-for-24 from the floor in the opening quarter, Young drew Morant quite often on defensive possessions.
Here is what a bit of that looked like:
Young has been more assertive in these preseason games, although he still has more to show in the form of making an effort to have a defensive impact.
On this possession, he fights in between a dribble hand off (DHO) between Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks to create a steal and a transition opportunity:
Hunter struggled to shoot the basketball in this contest but was decisive in moments.
Here, the Grizzlies prioritize denying Young the opportunity to possess the ball so Hunter pushes with the dribble all the way until he meets resistance which opens the door for the drop off bounce pass to Clint Capela:
Bruno Fernando is struggling in a number of areas of play thus far this season but never let it be said that he doesn’t work hard in his screen game.
He works with Bogdanovic on this play who displays his mastery at getting and keeping a defender on his back as he “snakes” the pick and roll.
Fernando is rewarded with the easy bucket:
Here is a look at some of the defensive issues Atlanta had in the first half in this game.
The Grizzlies are running “strong” or “away” (called both for some reason) for Grayson Allen. If you only focus on the result of this play this looks bad (only) for Fernando.
But notice how much room Allen is allowed to work with as Young and Fernando don’t engage in the successive screen action Memphis sets for Allen who gets a full dose of momentum as he heads to the rim.
With that amount of steam heading toward the basket, there is little Fernando can do at the rim:
Contrast that with how Memphis defends the same action here as Atlanta runs it for Solomon Hill.
The primary difference is that rookie Desmond Bane “top locks” Hill but notice how ready Brandon Clarke and Gorgui Dieng are to help as he is denied a path to a pass:
In post game comments, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce spoke on how a part of the resurgence defensively was connected to his team’s willingness to play with more physicality. A bit of an extreme example can be seen on this play:
Allen, with a certain reputation, hooks Young after the initial contact and call. Not much really happened here, but a handful of technical fouls were handed out.
Further, this is evidence that Young is playing with engagement and physical presence on the defensive end.
Most importantly, Atlanta matched the Memphis physicality the rest of the way.
This next play is a wonderful example of what Bogdanovic brings to the table for his new team.
Atlanta is resetting its offense after their first action was rebuffed by the Grizzlies defense. Bogdanovic sees an opportunity materialize and put things into motion.
Notice how Collins and Huerter are contemplating a DHO but Bogdanovic directs traffic and sends Huerter around Collins.
The positions Bogdanovic and Collins to execute a DHO of their own as Memphis is left with no help defense available in the action.
Collins pivots and dives to the rim on the baseline side after Kyle Anderson steps up to help on the ball handler.
You may need to watch it more than once to take it all in:
As the second half progressed, Atlanta continued to tighten up the defense. The became more solid in “walling off” ball handlers from the paint, as seen here:
Notice how far Hill pulls in from the weak side to help at “the nail.”
This can open the door for open three-point shots but every NBA teams allocates defensive resources toward the “head of the snake,” meaning the player on the opposing team that make it all happen offensively.
Morant is definitely that for Memphis. He had 15 points and eight assists in the game but never put pressure on the rim which is what tends to open up the things the Grizzlies really want to make happen on offense.
From there, the defense just got better in focus and execution,
Audio on for this more detailed, lengthy breakdown regarding how they tightened things up on defense:
Down the stretch, the defense was good enough and Atlanta used a 36-point fourth quarter performance to get the one point win.
The regular season is finally upon us. The Hawks will play their first game on Wednesday on the road against the Chicago Bulls at 8:00 pm ET.