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Hawks survive late Pistons scare, improve to 3-0 as Capela and Rondo make official debuts

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One of the last unbeaten teams remaining in the NBA.

Detroit Pistons v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks continued their perfect start to the season as they knocked off the short-handed Detroit Pistons — playing without Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose — 128-120 in their home opener at State Farm Arena on Monday night.

The Hawks — missing Danilo Gallinari themselves — were led by Trae Young’s 29 points while Bogdan Bogdanovic added 17 points off of the bench as seven players cracked double-digits. For the Pistons, Josh Jackson and Jerami Grant both scored 27 points in a valiant effort without Griffin, Rose and Jahlik Okafor.

Speaking honestly, I didn’t think the Hawks were especially fantastic for a lot of this game.

Sure, the Hawks’ offense continued to roll, and they used what would normally be called unsustainable shooting — shooting 62% in the first quarter, 55% from the field in the first half and 50% from three on 24 attempts — to carry them to an eight point lead at the half, and that was on the heels of a strong finish to end the second quarter.

That first half typified exactly the kind of fears you would have for the Hawks this season. Without Rose and Griffin, the Pistons were still right there with the Hawks in the first half despite the Hawks’ elite shooting numbers and percentages.

On another night, where the Hawks aren’t making those shots, they’re probably down by double-digits at the half — the Hawks’ defense was quite poor in the second quarter.

I like Delon Wright quite a bit but this drive inside — with a plus defender like Cam Reddish guarding him — was too easy:

In transition, De’Andre Hunter is caught napping somewhat here as he fails to contest Saddiq Bey’s transition three-pointer:

Speaking of poor transition defense...this is bad, this is a bad, bad possession for the Hawks as Josh Jackson is allowed to go the distance for the bucket plus the foul:

“...we watched our transition defense and it was pretty pathetic at first...” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce postgame.

Bruno Fernando had some decent moments defensively last night but he needs to pick up the pace here heading back down the court, his laxness allowing Jerami Grant to get inside for the finish at the rim in transition:

After Solomon Hill knocked down a three-pointer, Bruno Fernando is beaten on the pick-and-roll, the Pistons move the ball around, De’Andre Hunter is left in no-mans-land and Josh Jackson hits the three-pointer:

That possession was a huge missed opportunity for the Hawks: they were leading by 14 points at that point and that conceded three — in addition to another to two late Grant free throws — meant that the Hawks entered the half up nine rather than 14.

Again, if the Hawks don’t light it up from the field and score another 65 points in the first half, you’d be very worried about the outcome of this game — and you should still be worried that the Hawks conceded as many points as they did without Rose and Griffin playing last night.

The majority of the third quarter was much of the same but the game really turned at the end of the third quarter, where the Hawks held a six point lead with 1:10 left after a Delon Wright layup.

Bruno Fernando flashed some strong moments last night, this play being one of them as he links up with Rajon Rondo before producing a nice fake at the rim to get the inexperienced Isaiah Stewart off of his feet and draws the foul plus the finish:

After Fernando makes the free throw and Delon Wright makes two free throws himself, the Hawks move quickly in a 2-for-1 situation as Rondo finds Bogdanovic for the quick three-pointer:

To cap off the strong end to the third quarter, Rondo drains the pull-up three-pointer to give the Hawks a 13 point lead to enter the final frame:

To start the fourth quarter, Solomon Hill hits a three-pointer before a burst of activity from John Collins propelled the Hawks to a very quick 18 point lead, forcing the Pistons into a timeout with 9:51 remaining. The Hawks then quickly jumped out to a 24 point lead, leading 115-91 with 7:43 left in the game.

At this stage...the game should be over. Right? No Blake Griffin, no Derrick Rose, the Pistons are on the road and the Hawks are on a run and now up 24 points in the fourth quarter. Right?

Wrong.

The Pistons then went on a 15-0 run as the Hawks’ offense fell-off and the defense relaxed (as well as the Pistons hitting some outside shots themselves) but you still felt this game was relatively safe as Trae Young’s three-pointer put the Hawks up by 10 points with two minutes remaining:

A Mason Plumlee alley-oop and a Jerami Grant three-pointer cut the Hawks lead to an almost unforgivable five points with a minute remaining in the game — a far departure from the 24 point cushion the Hawks had just six minutes earlier.

“I thought we got a little complacent,” said Solomon Hill postgame. “I think we did the same thing we did in the first half: we got out to a good start, capitalized on their mistakes ... the past couple of teams that we’ve played have been desperate at the end of games and that desperation can lead to easy points, which it did for them. We went into setting our own pace to end the game to having — when Jerami Grant made that three on the right-hand- wing — we had an ‘oh shit’ moment. We can’t have those moments in the fourth quarter against a team that’s missing a few guys. Our ability to finish games is going to be a big determining factor on how we end the season.”

Coming out of the timeout, the Hawks went to Hunter, whose spin move as the shotclock wound down is missed, and the Pistons come up with the rebound and the opportunity to close the lead to one possession:

I didn’t particularly like this play at the time and I didn’t like the quality of the shot itself.

Peachtree Hoops’ Glen Willis made a point of this in the Peachtree Hoops slack chat (and the only reason I mention that is to credit Glen for this, because this is not an original thought of mine): Hunter had a good matchup here against rookie Killian Hayes (who was put in the cycle by Young last night). A post-up on Hayes with Hunter — with Grant guarding Young out front — would’ve been a good option to go-to here in the circumstance but with the shotclock winding down, the time to work that didn’t materialize and the shot is the one that everyone saw above...

Off of the miss, the Pistons come the other way, and the subsequent shot from Josh Jackson is well defended from both Bogdanovic and John Collins, and the rebound falls into Young’s hands. Off-balance and falling out of bounds, Young is able to call a vital — potentially game-saving — timeout, and the Hawks are able to secure the game at the free throw line to seal the game to remain perfect on the season:

“I was actually thinking about doing that last night,” said Young on the timeout. “I’ve never done that: falling out of bounds (calling a timeout). It’s crazy that it happened today. At the end of the game, I was falling out of bounds and it was either give them the ball or call a timeout — I made that split decision. I think I only made that decision because I thought about it last night, so it’s good I thought about it.”

Postgame, Pierce, while satisfied with the ball movement (30 assists on 40 made baskets), wanted a little more from the Hawks but was still relatively happy nonetheless.

“The 30 assists is the big number,” opened Pierce. “16 in the first (half), 14 in the second half but I thought it probably could’ve been a 40 assist night. We keep preaching the ‘we’ and the extra pass, the ‘one more’. This was one of those games where it got going early and our efficiency and our execution... If we can sustain that, we can create those shots all of the time, we keep talking about our ability to create shots because of our shooters, because of our spacing — you’re trying to be greedy, I thought tonight we wanted to be greedy, we wanted to move the ball a little bit better.

“Pleased with the guys, happy with the guys, it was a really balanced effort from a minutes standpoint, a scoring standpoint and ball movement standpoint but we always want a little more.”

Speaking later in his comments, Pierce had a little more to say on the Hawks’ ball movement and their ‘fun’ factor.

“If you’ve got a game and 30 of your 40 makes are assisted, I would imagine your team is having a lot of fun,” said Pierce. “I thought we could have more, I thought we should have had more. That’s the ‘we’ mentality we keep talking about: sharing the basketball, encouraging each other, supporting each other and cheering each other on. I think our guys had tremendous energy on and off the court and when the ball is moving the way it was tonight it’s going to be fun, the guys are going to enjoy it and they enjoy seeing each other’s success as well.”

With the Pistons short-handed, Pierce said the Hawks knew to expect a scrappy effort on the road, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds (five apiece from Mason Plumlee and Isaiah Stewart) on the night.

“These are tough games,” said Pierce when asked about his side’s defense last night. “We talked about it before the game. Coach (Nate) MacMillan gave a speech prior to the game about taking care of home and understanding how to execute when you’re in this situation. We knew they were missing three of their key players in (Jahlil) Okafor, (Derrick) Rose and Blake Griffin, we knew this team was going to come out and be scrappy and try to attack and play fast and jump the game up with blitz and hits. It’s no surprise, it’s really ‘how can we be solid when we know a team is going to do that?’

“That was part of the lesson tonight. We were trying to gamble, we were over-helping when we didn’t need to over-help and they were able to create some threes, some slashes and some attacks to the rim. Our defense suffered late in the game but I thought for the most part we were solid. We knew this team was going to come and try out-work us and out-scrap us, and two of their bigs get five offensive rebounds apiece. That’s just par for the course, you know that kind of things happens when you’re missing some of your players and you just turn up your energy and try and create a different advantage.”

This almost fell under a classic ‘trap game’ situation: a game where everything points to a win and, naturally, a loss would ensue. Trae Young spoke to the influence of Nate McMillan pregame motivation that Lloyd Pierce referenced.

“This is a game where, looking at their roster, people would automatically expected for us to win and that’s where teams sneak up and beat you,” said Young. “They didn’t have their two main scorers out there tonight, but for us it was about keeping that same mentality, keeping same approach and following the game plan ... coach McMillan has been in the position to be around multiple teams — playing and coaching. His advice about coming out and playing with that same mentality I think gave us all a different look and a different type of motivation coming into the game and we were more ready than I think we would have been.”

Other than the Hawks’ near collapse, last night’s game was most notable for the official debut of Rajon Rondo and the long-awaited debut of Clint Capela, returning from Achilles soreness.

Let’s start with Capela, who the Hawks traded for a lifetime ago at this stage.

Capela scored seven points and grabbed nine rebounds — as well as blocking two shots — in just under 20 minutes last night.

Capela’s minutes were married to when Young was on the floor (all of Capela’s 19.9 minutes coming when Young was also on the floor) giving the two plenty of time to further acclimate themselves on the court and show some flashes.

In transition, a nice rim-run from Capela and he’s rewarded by Young for his efforts:

Here, Capela slips the pick-and-roll and is found by Young for the alley-oop with a ludicrous pass over the top after the momentum had seemingly been killed on Capela’s roll:

Capela showed a flash himself as he fakes the dribble-hand-off into the drive, getting the step on Plumlee and finishing with a flourish at the rim:

On the defensive end, Capela showed flashes of the anchor in their backline they’ve been searching for, producing two blocks and other shot altering contests. Now, Capela wasn’t excellent last night but for someone still getting firmly back into the fold of things after a long injury layoff — as well as continuing to acclimate himself into a new team with new teammates (something Bogdan Bogdanovic also spoke about postgame, how the Hawks are still trying to learn each other and what they like to do) — last night was a decent start for Capela, even if he looked a little tired in the fourth quarter.

“Getting back out there, a little bit of rust to get out of it but I’m sure I’m going to feel better now that we play every two days,” said Capela postgame.

“Clint was probably a little tired in that last stint but he had some key blocks for us and obviously two offensive rebounds is where we’ll need him and use him the most,” said Pierce of Capela postgame. “His ability to secure defensive rebounds and create extra possessions on the offensive end and really be that back-line defender...”

Much is going to be made of how Capela and Collins play together, and they shared nine minutes on the floor last night. There’s the potential for a lot to be said here but the best thing to do is not overreact to the one game they’ve played together — everyone just needs to see more of them together before forming some sort of opinion on the partnership (and other hot topics).

Out of the two debutants, Rajon Rondo was probably the player who had a bit more of an impact on the game last night in his official Hawks debut, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field, 2-of-3 from three while also dishing out eight assists in 15 minutes.

Rondo was productive in the short time he was on the court and while you can’t expect him to knock down 2-of-3 from downtown every game (or most games for that matter), what you can expect is what he provided from a ball-handling point of view and a playmaking point of view on the offensive end.

“Rondo just settles us,” said Pierce of Rondo. “His eight assists were all timely assists. Great ball movement, great organization, he was playing out there with a bunch of shooters. When he got caught, he was able to knock down the two threes that he needed as well, but he just does a good job of organizing our guys and keeping us settled.”

“He did unbelievable,” said Young of Rondo’s debut. “That’s something that didn’t surprise me. He’s a vet, he’s been in the biggest moments of this league so I knew him coming in and getting adjusted to the game wasn’t going to be hard for him. I was just excited for him to actually do it, and you got to see a little bit of what he’s going to be able to do for us tonight. I’m excited about Rondo.”

Hill put it very eloquently when it came to describing Rajon Rondo’s impact.

“He’s a pro in every sense of the word,” said Hill of Rondo. “He’s a champ. He just came off of winning a championship, so he’s prepared. This is nothing new to him. Coming into camp he probably knew more about how we wanted to play and what we wanted to accomplish more than any of the players on the roster. That’s the reason why he’s here: he brings that professionalism and guys love playing with him. I kind of look at it like ‘I know I’m going to make a three when he’s out there on the court.’ He’s going to find me and he knows where to get guys involved. He even found JC on a couple of duck-in plays to get him to the line, and that’s great for the guys. It’s great to get easy ones. We don’t want to be a team that just wants to make tough plays all through the game. He makes the game a lot easier for everybody.”

The Hawks also received significant help from their bench, outscoring the Pistons’ bench 55-37. The Hawks ran with a 10-man rotation and all five of their bench players contributed in a meaningful way: from Bogdanovic’s 17 points and five three-pointers, Fernando’s energy off of the bench, Hill’s four three-pointers, Rondo’s experience and Kevin Huerter’s four free throws off of the bench as well as offensive versatility (even if the shots didn’t fall last night).

Speaking of Fernando, he played 10 minutes — the lowest of those coming off of the bench — but showed some nice flashes, including the ‘and-1’ that we already looked at but also this block:

Fernando was a game-high plus-18 (a little easier to do in limited minutes) but was impressive in the short time he was on the floor. Pierce spoke about Fernando postgame, with some interesting things to say about the second year big.

“He’s going to play short stints,” said Pierce of Fernando. “He’s got to be a guy that brings the physicality to the court, and energy. That’s the DNA, that’s got to be his career, that’s got to be his impact on the game. He had a great finish around the basket for an ‘and-1’ — we need that when he’s on the court. We need the same thing defensively where he can protect the rim. He got caught with Delon Wright a couple of times, that’s just understanding tendencies from guys driving downhill but I thought his energy was great.”

When Young was off of the floor, the Hawks still looked like a competent NBA team and were able to extend their lead, and this was most notable to end the third quarter and start of the fourth quarter when they pulled away from the Pistons — all of that was done when Young was off of the floor. A notable improvement on last season, undoubtedly.

All in all, this wasn’t the greatest game for the Hawks last night but their 20 three-pointers (shooting 47% from three overall) and 12 free throws in the fourth quarter (and a perfect 15-of-15 on the game from Young, 6-of-6 in the fourth) helped them eek over the line in a game that should have been dead buried and never a game again after building that 24 point lead earlier in the fourth quarter.

Hill put it excellently postgame as to the concern the Hawks might face defensively from this game heading to the Hawks’ next opponent: the Brooklyn Nets.

“We know we can score,” he said. “We have one of the best scorers in the league. Our thing is going to have to be defense, we have to stop teams from scoring. We gave up a lot of drives. Between Josh Jackson and Grant, they had 27 apiece. We’re talking about a matchup between Kyrie and Kevin Durant in our next game. Defense is going to be our calling card, we have to hang our hats on defense.”

A very worrying thought indeed...


As Hill eluded to, the Hawks (3-0) are back in action on Wednesday night as they begin a two-game road-trip against the Brooklyn Nets (that’s two consecutive road games in Brooklyn) in what is going to be the biggest test for the Hawks of the season so far.

Should be a very interesting pair of games indeed.

Until next time...