In a game that almost felt like an afterthought on the day before the NBA trade deadline, both the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves prepared to play with shortened rotations. The Hawks have been struggling to put together a full starting and reserve lineup for the past several weeks due to a slew of injuries. The Timberwolves entered the week with a fairly healthy roster, but had a handful of players unable to suit up due to their reported involvement in trades that are pending completion.
Each team did feature most of their young core players. Atlanta started Trae Young, De’andre Hunter, John Collins and Kevin Huerter (along with Damian Jones). Minnesota deployed Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jarrett Culver.
Both coaches struggled to sustain lineups that could play with defensive cohesion. Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce used a zone defense, at least for stretches, for the second consecutive game. This provided a mechanism to control potential foul trouble to key players and to simplify rebounding responsibilities.
Over the course of the second half, the Minnesota offense adjusted to the defensive game plan of Atlanta. After a lopsided third quarter dominated by the Hawks, the Timberwolves climbed back within reach, using a 43-point final period to make the game close in the final minutes.
As is often the case, though, the home team seemed to use all of their energy to get back in the game, but could not find the defensive stops it would have required to get a win. The Hawks closed the game strongly enough to secure a 127-120 victory.
Offensively, it was a performance that was reminiscent of how the Hawks surged over the second half of the 2018-19 season on the production of Young and Collins. The second-year point guard contributed 38 points and 11 assists. He was just 4 of 10 on two-point attempts, but Young presented an immense challenge for Minnesota to defend without fouling him. He converted 12 of his 13 attempts at the free throw line. He was efficient from beyond the three-point line as well, connecting on 6 of his 13 attempts from long distance.
Collins produced 27 points on 21 shooting possessions. He was 9 for 14 on two-point attempts and 2 of 5 on three-point attempts. He also collected 12 rebounds. It was the fourth time in the last five games that Collins went for at least 20 points and ten rebounds.
Each of Atlanta’s five starters scored in double digits. Damian Jones had 14 points and eight rebounds. He was able to slip behind the Minnesota defense consistently in the game.
Hunter had 12 points on eight shooting possessions. He had a handful of ugly turnovers, but shot the ball well. The rookie lottery pick had missed the last two games with an injury and was on a 30-minute restriction in this contest. Huerter put up 11 points and three assists.
The back-up point guards, Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin, led the reserves with nine points each. Goodwin also had eight rebounds.
Defensively, whether in a man-to-man or zone scheme, the Hawks sunk their defenders toward the paint and challenged the Timberwolves to knock down perimeter shots. Minnesota connected on just 9 of their 35 attempts from beyond the arc.
Despite the home team ending up with an edge in points in the paint (66-56) and fast break points (14-7), it was not enough to overcome the volume of points put up by the Hawks by way of their superior shooting in the game.
In defeat, Wiggins had 25 points and seven rebounds. Georgia Tech product Josh Okogie had an efficient 23 points (on 15 shooting possessions). Towns, looking exhausted of more roster change taking place around him, had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
To begin the game, and for most of it, Minnesota was switching on defense 1-4 positions (everyone except the center). The Hawks appeared prepared and attacked.
On this possession, Collins gets a mismatch on a rookie in Culver and receives the ball in the post. He is able to work inside of his defender and get the lay-up.
The Hawks were also able to work against the scheme to generate desirable shots from the perimeter. Young is able to measure how far Towns is willing to venture from the paint and put up a comfortable three-point attempt on this play.
Similarly, here, Huerter is able to measure the space in between Towns and Culver as to put up a comfortable perimeter shot of his own.
Since Teague was traded from Minnesota to Atlanta, the minutes of Timberwolves reserve point guard Jordan McLaughlin (on a two-way contract) have increased. He’s a solid shooter and passer, but lacks the ideal size to defend.
Pierce draws up a play to be run out of a timeout (after timeout - ATO) to let Huerter work against McLaughlin. He is able to knock down a jumper from the middle of the paint.
This possession offers a glimpse at the Hawks zone defense they used at times throughout the game. It simplifies the responsibility of each individual defender.
In an attempt to counter the Atlanta zone, Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders draws up an ATO play to generate a decent perimeter shot. Kelan Martin (also on a two-way contract) knocks down the corner three.
This play offers a look at how little ball and player movement the Timberwolves demonstrated on offense. The Hawks are not in a zone defense here, but it almost looks as though they are playing one, due to the lack of offensive movement.
More Minnesota offensive dysfunction can be seen on this play. After a few Atlanta switches, Towns flashes to the left block ready to post Huerter. However, Culver either doesn’t see him or ignores him. He eventually dribbles straight into a Jones block.
The Timberwolves eventually sorted out some of these issues but it was too little, too late.
The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3:00 pm ET. After that, the remaining roster can, perhaps, breathe a sigh of relief. From there, it’s on to Boston to face the Celtics on Friday evening at 8:00 pm ET.