The Atlanta Hawks seem to have made the most of the All-Star break. They have managed to rejuvenate their offense, operating at a high level for a while at this point. The Hawks have performed as a league-average offense since Jan. 1 despite having a roster without a ton of perimeter shooting. Additionally, a number of the players they need to make shots are young players navigating either their first or second NBA season.
It’s just been been five games now that the Hawks have played since returning from the break. Following a 141-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night, though, Atlanta now boasts the third-best offensive rating in the league since league play resumed.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this game’s offensive performance is that they were not able to ride the shooting performance of their young all star point guard. Trae Young, who has been battling an illness of late, struggled to make shots. He connected on just six of 18 attempts from the field and knocked down just one of his six three-point attempts. He still used his play making and an uncanny ability to get himself to the free throw line to generate 22 points and 14 assists.
To Young’s credit, the Brooklyn defense focused on him as the proverbial head of the snake throughout the game, and he helped take advantage to create good shots for his teammates.
Atlanta’s other starters benefited from the volume of attention the Brooklyn defense was allocating to Young. They used excellent ball movement to power a 19 for 39 shooting performance from beyond the arc.
The foursome managed to generate 92 points on a mere 59 shooting possessions. They were a scalding 32 for 49 from the field and 16 for 25 from beyond the three point line.
Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce had an interesting decision to make as game time approached. Dewayne Dedmon has mostly functioned as the team’s starting center since he was reacquired at the trade deadline. The veteran would miss miss his second consecutive game on Friday, however, leaving the Hawks, once again, shorthanded at the center position.
Looking to avoid a series sweep (Brooklyn won each of the first three meetings this season), Pierce would have to decide to start with a traditional lineup — perhaps including Bruno Fernando at center — or to start the smaller lineup he has often turned to with John Collins started at the five position.
There was no obvious solution as the Nets used double digit offensive rebounding performances to help them secure the first two of their three wins over Atlanta this season.
On top of that, Brooklyn entered play on Friday evening third in the league in points in the paint. They have also been in the top ten in the league in second chance points for the duration of the 2019-2020 NBA season.
Furthermore, Atlanta is among the worst in the league allowing opponents to score in the paint (29th) and on put-backs (28th). Dedmon and Clint Capela were acquired just before trade deadline to help improve the team’s interior defense, but neither were available to help in this match up.
On choosing to start Young and Collins, flanked by Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, Pierce was banking on a couple a things. The team would need to work together to protect the rim and secure rebounds. From there, the team would need to make shots with enough frequency to allow them to get their defense set more often times than not.
At the NBA level, almost any defensive game plan is going to be nearly impossible to execute if missed shots and turnovers force a team to race back and scramble to find some feasible way to get matched up with any regularity.
His team came through rewarding the decision by making shot after shot throughout the contest. That helped them to, in fact, set their defense. They ended +10 in second chance points (giving up just seven offensive rebounds to the Nets) and +4 in points in the paint. They generated eight more shot attempts in the lane than Brooklyn.
The game plan was not producing the desired results from the outset. The Nets put up a 36-point first quarter performance by way of 16 points inside the paint and 18 points at the three point line.
With that said, the young Atlanta team stayed the course with the game plan to perform well enough on the defensive end of the court to get the victory, pushing their record since the break to 3-2.
“It was all about our defense,” Pierce commented after the game. “They shot it extremely well, and they shot it well in the third quarter and they shot well in the first half. But I thought our defense was still what we were trying to do.”
“If you’re not doing it with effort and you’re not on the same page, that’s where you have the issue,” Pierce continued. “I thought we were on the same page pretty much all night. We made a couple efforts within what we were trying to do. They made some tough shots but our defense in the fourth quarter was tremendous.“
After struggling to make perimeter shots the last few games, Cam Reddish used the best offensive performance of his young career to post a season-best 26 points (9-14 FGA, 6-9 3PA). He was aggressive seeking and getting up shots when he had even the least bit of space to do so. After a rough start to his rookie campaign, he has converted 38% of this three point attempts since Jan. 1.
Collins continued his torrid offensive pace with 33 points and 13 rebounds (five offensive boards). He flirted with his career best mark (35 points) despite using just 20 shooting possessions.
The third-year big man was content to put up shots from the arc when Brooklyn decided to drop their bigs into the paint. The Nets also struggled to keep him off of the rim.
Kevin Huerter, in comparison, had a mostly quiet performance, but he was efficient and knocked down a number of timely shot attempts. He had 15 points, four rebounds and three assists.
In this game Pierce decided, largely, to stagger the minutes of his starting back court. Huerter helped keep the offensive moving while Young sat. He was a game best +31 in the box score.
Considering that he started at the power forward position, Hunter’s ten rebounds might have been the most important part of his stat line. However, he also did his part in generating efficient offense, with 18 points on just 11 shooting possessions.
Rookie Bruno Fernando played key minutes off of the bench and had an impact on the game. He manned the center position when Collins or Hunter needed to rest. He had nine points, nine rebounds and two assists. Additionally, his two second-quarter steals seemed to spark the Atlanta defense.
Additionally, Brandon Goodwin and Jeff Teague made a handful of key plays on both ends of the court. Goodwin had 10 points and three assists while Teague contributed six points and two steals.
“The second unit was great,” Pierce responded when asked about the play of his reserves. “I really explained to the guys that I need to trust some other guys a little bit more. Hopefully I did that tonight.”
Pierce opted to deploy a zone defense, again, for portions of this game. Enough can’t be said about how the Hawks’ reserves were the unit to first start to deliver some success with it.
They ran the increasingly familiar 1-2-2 zone at times with Treveon Graham at the head of the defensive formation (usually occupied by Reddish) and he helped get them organized.
It was, perhaps, the best team effort from the Hawks this season.
For the visitors, Spencer Dinwiddie paced his team in the losing effort. He had 24 points and 13 assists. Caris LeVert and Joe Harris had 18 points each. Garrett Temple carried the Brooklyn reserve unit with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
To no one’s surprise, Brooklyn was dropping their starting center, Jarrett Allen, against the pick and roll early in the game. The willingness and ability of Collins to take and convert above-the-break threes has been a key to Atlanta elevating their offense in recent weeks.
A look at another possession with the same result makes it obvious that this is something the Hawks were looking to go to early in the game.
In this example, Young adds value by creating some traffic for Allen to work around to buy Collins just a bit more time.
Starting with the smaller lineup and the impetus it created in the areas of protecting the rim and controlling the glass, it was interesting to see this defensive wrinkle early in the first quarter.
Typically it is the responsibility of the defender in the weak side corner to help by “tagging the roller.”
Atlanta, however, dropped the defender closest to the free throw line into the path of the roller to generate more resistance. Notice Reddish beating Allen to the dotted circle.
While the results weren’t there from the get-go, it did force Brooklyn to look for more perimeter shots as the game unfolded.
This play looks simple, but it offers a look at how much the Nets were prioritizing putting defenders in between Young, as a ball handler, and the paint.
Reddish get the look from the short corner and gets it to go.
Here, the Hawks catch the Nets in a switching scheme coming out of a timeout.
It appears as though Young and Collins recognize this and abandon the after timeout (ATO) play call and just look to punish the mismatch. Ultimately, they do so to a successful outcome.
On this possession, Brooklyn generates one of their successful shots at the rim.
It is noteworthy because this is Collins’ first defensive possession after sliding to the power forward position. He now needs to recognize based upon where his man spots up that it’s his responsibility to help on DeAndre Jordan in the paint. He is a tick late getting there.
This is one aspect of splitting Collins’ time across the four and five positions that requires him to be able to shift gears on the fly.
In this situation, it is Fernando that ends up with the mismatch after some switching and scrambling in the part of Brooklyn. Atlanta is not able to enter the ball to him but he keeps working hard recognizing the advantage he has as a rebounder.
He gets a put-back after a Hunter missed three-point attempt.
This play offers a look at a bit of the good defensive execution by the Hawks in the first half.
As a counter to what Atlanta is doing defensively, Brooklyn runs a flare screen for LeVert on the left side of the floor with Temple operating as the screener.
Huerter and Goodwin demonstrate excellent communication and exchange defensive responsibilities in real time as to cover the action.
The Nets would also start to run Harris off of screens on the weak side of the play in an attempt to punish the Hawks, drawing extra help defenders from there into the paint.
This time, Brooklyn executes the play and gets three points.
Reddish gets another attempt from the corner to go down on this possession.
This is also another opportunity to see Atlanta using the attention Young is getting to open up space for shooters on the perimeter. Notice the number of Nets’ defenders tracking him toward the baseline.
He doesn’t get the assist, but Young makes the right play.
Perhaps the favorite way for the Hawks’ coaching staff to see their team generate three-point looks is on drive-and-kick action.
Here, Hunter becomes a creator by beating his defender off of the dribble and collapsing the Brooklyn defense. Huerter benefits and knocks down the three-point attempt.
A tremendous benefit of forcing your opponent into missed shot attempts from the perimeter is long rebounds. That can, at times, work against a defense in the form of offensive rebounds.
But, when you can secure the rebound in these situations, running opportunities arise.
On this possession, Huerter gathers the board and hits Reddish with the hit ahead pass.
“(Assistant Coach Chris) Jent did our offensive edit before the game and the whole edit was defend to run,” Pierce shared on the subject after the game. “Defend to run. Get stops so we can get out and run, and that’s what we did tonight.”
An adjustment Atlanta leveraged early in the second half was going to some side pick and roll action. On this possession, notice how much it gets the Brooklyn defense gets spread out.
As the defender in the weak side corner, Harris had to help at the rim. The side pick and roll forces him to cross the entire rim.
He can’t beat the ball back to Reddish, who hits another attempt from the corner.
Atlanta can have more success if they can, for example, do more of what they demonstrate on this play. Brooklyn is still in the process of making minor adjustments to how they want to try to cover the weak side of the play.
Here, Graham improvises and walks down into a back screen on Temple. It’s a new wrinkle, so it takes Brooklyn’s defenders a moment to figure out who should close out on Huerter at the three-point line.
Later in the game, Brooklyn just flat-out tried to deny Young the basketball but, on this play, it was to no avail. Young works with Collins and eventually gets the lay-up, and the Hawks start to get what would be some permanent separation in the contest.
Atlanta will not have to wait long to try to turn the Friday night win over the Nets into a winning streak. The Hawks host the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday evening at 7:30 PM ET.