After taking a pair of ugly losses at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2019-20 season, the Atlanta Hawks were able to get a bit of revenge on Saturday evening with a 122-112 win on the road.
The victory moves them to a record of 2-0 on the season, not even a week old yet. If that sounds familiar, they opened with consecutive wins last year to generate some optimism that would not carry them far. They would go on to win just 20 games.
With a much stronger roster this season, there seems to be a more credible case to be bullish on the Atlanta squad. Last year, they posted 120-point performances in consecutive wins just once. They’ve already managed to do that on the heels of a blowout win in Chicago in their season opener.
It was a sluggish start for both teams. An early start on the day after a major holiday will tend to do that. Teams playing without multiple key players tend to tee up these kinds of performances as well. The Hawks were without multiple players that were expected to be key contributors in the front court this year. Clint Capela missed a second game due to a sore achilles and Danilo Gallinari was scratched because of a foot contusion. These absences were in addition to Kris Dunn, Tony Snell and rookie Onyeka Okongwo who are working through respective injuries.
The key losses on the Memphis side included De’Anthony Melton and Jaren Jackson Jr. While the Grizzlies weren’t missing a starter beyond Jackson Jr., there is little doubt that they would have otherwise leveraged the services of Melton as to try to contain Trae Young.
The priority for the Hawks defensively was to limit what Ja Morant, the Grizzlies point guard, could do in the form of taking control of the game. Morant was coming off of a 44-point performance in the Memphis season opener on Wednesday. De’Andre Hunter drew the assignment of defending him in this game, a bit of an unexpected decision on the part of Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce.
On possessions where they could get their defense set, Hunter matched up with the Memphis point guard. When needing to scramble back in transition defense, Young often drew the assignment as the natural first defender back.
But it would take a team performance to contain the dynamic Morant and the defensive game plan was to show a host of bodies in the paint and to steer him, as best they could, away from the very center of the lane.
A 28-point, seven-assist outing is plenty satisfying to the average NBA point guard. But Morant was unable, despite his best effort, to take control on offensive possessions in the final period. He managed ten points on ten shooting possessions in the fourth but was frustrated to the point of earning a technical foul in the final minutes. He was simply unable to match the production of his counterpart.
In the fourth quarter, Young had 15 points and three assists while playing almost 11 minutes. In the game, he never found a rhythm shooting from the three point line but used 17 free throw attempts and a handful of lay ups after knifing his way through the heart of the defense to put up an eventual 36 points and nine assists.
He did not find nearly the level of efficiency he had in Chicago, where he needed just 12 field goal attempts to generate 37 points. In this game, he was but 10 of 24 from the field and connected on just one of his seven attempts from the arc. But as the best scorers in the league do, he found a way to produce points when it mattered most. He had ten points in the final 2:40 of the game.
It was a shooting struggle throughout the game for the starting shooting guard and small forward. Bogdan Bogdanovic had seven points on 11 shooting possessions. He was one of nine from the three point line. His only other field goal attempt was an easy lay up in transition. Despite the shooting woes, he helped immensely as a rebounder especially in lineups where Atlanta was obviously outsized. He had nine rebounds and two assists.
Cam Reddish managed just five points. He connected on his only three point attempt but went one for seven on two point attempts. It’s perhaps not a totally unexpected outcome for him on the offensive end of the court considering that Atlanta ran few if any players intended to provide opportunities for him to operate on the ball.
Along with Young, Kevin Huerter found success as a creator and the Hawks saw fit to ride the two of them as offensive initiators throughout the contest. Huerter almost single handedly salvaged their first quarter performance with ten points on perfect shooting.
Performing as a steady hand as a scorer and facilitator, it was as if Huerter held the fort to a degree until Young readied himself for the closing stretch. He amassed 21 points, on just 12 shooting possessions, and four assists.
“We needed everything out of Kevin tonight.” Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce answered after the game when asked about the play of Huerter. “I thought we started the game hunting for three-point shots. The game plan was to make these guys work. We just, from the start, a lot of pull up jumpers and a lot of contested threes, and no movement.”
“And I thought when Kevin came in, he obviously came in and got hot,” Pierce added, “but his activity... he’d make those momentum killers, he just makes a shot to kill the momentum (of Memphis).”
“But he was tremendous”, he continued. “His offense tonight was really what got us going and settled the game.”
Starting at center, John Collins found himself in foul trouble early in the game just as he had in Chicago in the opener. He didn’t exactly fill the stat sheet on this evening (13 points, ten rebounder, two blocks) but he was steady defensively again. He was engaged as a communicator and often held up well when switched on to guards who worked to attack him on one-on-one fashion.
Pressed into the game earlier than was surely the plan, second year center Bruno Fernando had maybe the best scoreless outing of a Hawks player in recent memory. He took just a single shot but set a countless number of screens in 17 minutes of action. He was as important, in some reagrds considering the foul trouble of Collins, as any defensive player in the first half in helping mobilize bodies into the paint as to organize a deterrence to Morant’s propensity to work to the rim with his dribble.
For good measure, Fernando had ten rebounds and three assists.
As important as Fernando’s minutes were on defense in this game, it was the offensive production of rookie big man Nathan Knight that helped keep them on track during the lengthy absence of Collins in the first half. Undrafted and on a two-way contact, Knight stepped up and had an impressive 14 points on just seven shooting possessions. He also grabbed three rebounds and kept himself in position on the defensive end of the court.
“Our bench came in and gave us a lot of energy, gave us a lot of points,” Young said in post game comments. “Nathan (Knight) had a hell of a game. The way he played was unbelievable.”
Pierce seemingly had the magic when it came to managing the minutes distribution as well as rotation and lineup adjustments as his team played short handed and had to work through less than optimal foul trouble.
Impressively, his team seemed poised and on a well understood plan throughout the close game until, with a bit of help, Young took over and put the game out of reach.
There were moments when Memphis would take control of the boards but the Hawks, each time, would find a way to get just a bit more help from the weak side of the floor to stabilize their work on the glass.
The Grizzlies were able, a few times, to put together consecutive possessions on which their emerging star of a point guard would use a screen to find a path to the rim. However, the Atlanta squad would work together to generate a strong presence in the middle to force the ball into the hands of less threatening offensive players.
Atlanta’s transition defense appeared to be moving toward the point of breaking down a couple of times but they found steady footing on each occasion.
“These guys are really good in transition. They’ve got guys that are really good at pushing the pace especially starting with Ja.” Huerter said in postgame about the challenge of containing Memphis on the fast break. “So that was a big emphasis coming off of the first preseason game against them.”
“Tonight was (about) trying to keep the whole team out of the paint, out of transition,” he continued. “For the most part, I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
It’s not hard to imagine that last year’s team would have been likely to suffer a failure of confidence at some point in a game such as this one. But they stayed right in in the whole way and then trusted their young star to seize the ball game at just the right time.
And the 2-0 record they are in possession of right now feels entirely different than the one hey had early in the 2019-2020 season.
It’s it noteworthy that without Capela, expected to be their starting center this year, Atlanta matched Memphis in points in the paint (44 for each side) and was just minus one on second chance points. It speaks to the way they worked as a team to tackle the challenges the opponent faced on this evening.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Playing a smaller lineup the Hawks decided to abandon, to a degree, some of the action they’ve built in to throw more at the opposing defense prior to getting to the use of ball screens.
Instead, they used organic actions very early in the shot clock in an effort to take advantage of their quickness.
Young and Collins execute a pick and roll to generate their first points of the game:
This early defensive possession offers a look at how they were matching up with the Memphis starting five. Notice Hunter on Morant on the right wing.
The Grizzlies use a 4-5 pick-and-roll to generate a score:
But this is an example of the shot creation the Hawks defense was comfortable tolerating considering the threat posed by Morant.
Huerter went to work early in his time on the court. Here he comfortably attacks the conservative Memphis drop defense for an easy look from the midrange:
As is the case on this next play, Grayson Allen was overplaying all of the Hawks primary action. Not to worry as Huerter uses his defender’s momentum to move toward the paint and force the attention of Gorgui Dieng, who has to abandon Knight.
It was surprising to see the young big immediately ready to catch and shoot from the three-point line:
Knight was a career 28% shooter from the collegiate line. But he improved overall as a shooter in each of his four seasons at William and Mary.
Memphis would ultimately adjust and deploy this “horns” set in an attempt to provide Morant an additional screener and one fewer help defender away from the ball screen:
The thinking probably went like this: if Atlanta is going to pack bodies around the free throw line, let’s set up multiple screeners right about there and see if Morant can use it to generate some space.
Atlanta worked through this adjustment reasonably well.
A Hawks opponent can’t be late getting matched up on the defensive end of the court. Not even when the ball is in the back court... not when it’s possessed by Young.
The Atlanta point guard, as he usually does, sees the opportunity and connects on a hit ahead pass to Hunter who drops the ball to Huerter who is unaccounted for:
The result is an easy three points.
This time, it’s Bogdanovic working the pass ahead as Memphis makes a mistake recovering in transition defense:
Morant had done his job in working back to account for the first threat, but a Grizzlies big man has to get to him and relieve him of his effort at holding the fort with Collins posted in front of the rim.
Brandon Goodwin (five points, one rebound) demonstrates on this next play the type of connected execution Atlanta produced throughout the game.
He sets up to set a back screen on Desmond Bane, who is guarding Boganovic and waits until Collins threatens the rim in his dive in the pick and roll. This freezes Goodwin’s defender, Morant, which allows him to lift to the top of the key for an uncontested three:
Morant is good at a lot of things, but he’s not yet very good as an off-ball defender:
Atlanta took advantage of his tendency to be a step behind the play, if not completely lost on a couple of occasions.
This possession offers a look at Hunter taking the defensive assignment of guarding Morant:
He goes under the Valanciunas screen and tracks his path in the vicinity of the rim but cuts it off with a block.
Other players had to pitch in. Here, Young draws Morant after Memphis forces a switch:
If Morant drops it off to a lesser scoring threat, that’s a pretty favorable outcome.
This play is an example of where Memphis had scrapped a Pierce after-timeout play (ATO) with good defense. But the familiar duo of Huerter and Collins improvise to generate a scoring opportunity:
“That pass he made to John in the fourth quarter,” Pierce said of this play. “Kind of a give-and-go was just a great Kevin Huerter play.”
Young is in the process of taking over as this possession unfolds:
He fakes the behind the back pass to clear both Allen and Valanciunas out of his path to the rim for the easy score and the two-possession lead.
On the next possession, Morant tries to attack the paint and get it back to a one-possession game, but Young and Collins provide just enough resistance to generate a miss:
Morant briefly loses his composure and draws a technical foul.
And here is the dagger (volume up):
The Hawks will play their home opener at State Farm Arena on Monday at 7:30 ET. They will host the Detroit Pistons.
Multiple players that have been missing action due to injury are scheduled to be reevaluated on Monday, so there could be game day updates as to which players will be available for the contest.