It wasn’t that long ago that Trae Young had fans of the Atlanta Hawks wondering what happened to his ability to make shots, whether they were from inside the paint or beyond the three-point line. Barely a week ago, the star point guard produced just four points in an ugly blow out loss to the Utah Jazz. Atlanta would go on to lose their sixth in seven contests the following night in Portland.
What a difference a week can make! And how different a team can look when its best player finds his rhythm.
Young posted 43 points on incredible efficiency on Friday night, as the Hawks cruised to a 116-98 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With Young connecting on 5-of-10 from beyond the arc in the previous two games, both Atlanta victories, there was some encouragement that Young’s shooting was coming around. But in those games, even, it just never looked like he was attacking with his familiar aggressiveness.
It is certainly easier for fans to have patience when the team they root for is logging victories. Still, it all came together in a way that it hadn’t in quite some time, on Friday night, for Young and his team now owns a modest three-game winning streak.
Taking advantage of numerous wide open looks, Young connected on eight of his 12 attempts from the arc. Additionally, he made six of his ten shots inside the three-point line and converted all seven of his free throw attempts, which allowed him to post 43 points on just 25 shooting possessions. He added five assists.
“I think we were locked in from the beginning of the game until the end,” Young said in postgame comments. “We were focused on our game plan and we all just hit shots. We were in a good flow and I think it was good for us to come out and play the way that we did.”
As wild as it might sound, it is not certain that Young had the best performance on the evening. Starting center Clint Caplea posted his first career triple-double on 13 points, 19 rebounds and a staggering 10 blocked shots.
Enjoy the block party:
“I think his confidence is really high,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said of Capela’s performance after the game. “I think he’s starting to realize he’s capable of doing more.”
“Obviously what he’s doing behind the defense with the anchoring and the blocking of shots and I think there’s more,” Pierce continued. “He’s not blocking a lot of shots on his own man. He’s doing it on penetration and he’s doing it as we’re funneling the basketball to him. So I just challenged our group. We know what Clint’s bringing. What can we do to continue to bring guys down the floor to him so that he can be in that position more often.”
“What he did tonight was unbelievable,” Young commented regarding the play of his big man. “He’s been doing this consistently for us. You’ve got to give credit where it’s due.”
Capela has been dominant of late on both ends of the court. This game stood out as perhaps the one in which he’s had the biggest impact, but he came into this contest with a streak of three games with at least 25 points and 15 rebounds.
He has changed things for Atlanta in several fundamental areas of performance. The Hawks were a bottom-five rebounding team last season, as measured by defensive rebounding percentage. This year, they have the best mark in the league.
The Hawks are also first in second-chance points (12th last year). Additionally, they are roughly league-average in second-chance points allowed and overall points in the paint allowed after being, basically, the worst team in the league in those departments last year.
“I just felt last year there was not really any defense,” mentioned Capela when asked about the difference. “They were just going and scoring. I just feel that now that you have a guy under the rim that can challenge every shot, change shots from the opposing team it just changes everything. And it makes a difference.”
Capela’s presence was especially noticeable in this game as it seemed that when he left the court Minnesota would start generating points at the rim. The Timberwolves had 56 points in the paint, a good number of which were produced while Capela was resting.
It was different to see the statistical production be so tilted to Young and Capela, especially on a night where the Hawks got so many players back from injury. De’Andre Hunter returned to the starting lineup after a brief absence, and Danilo Gallinari and Cam Reddish returned to the second unit.
Hunter was the only other starter that posted points in double figures with 11. Huerter and John Collins managed just four points apiece.
But Young was just taking what the defense was giving him.
“He got his rhythm going,’ said Pierce about Young’s performance. “They were messing up some of the small-small pick and rolls. So he ended up with some wide open threes.”
After getting a minuscule amount of offensive production from the reserves on Wednesday, Atlanta took advantage, in this game, of the depth they were designed to leverage all season.
Reddish generated 15 points and five rebounds. He didn’t shoot it great from the field (3-of-10) but was aggressive attacking the paint which led to ten attempts at the free throw line.
Gallinari had 10 points and four rebounds. From there, his presence spotting up on the line opened up a lot of space near the rim for Young and Capela to attack.
Rajon Rondo may have had his best overall game of the season producing nine points, seven rebounds and six assists. Like Young, he was getting wide open looks as Minnesota struggled with how they were supposed to be defending ball screens.
‘You see more comfort and more rhythm playing Rondo with that group,” said Pierce about his bench unit. “It was the group he had been warming up and training with in the preseason. So, finally he’s got some of his guys he was going to be accustomed to playing with. And you could see their connection tonight.”
It was a steady push toward a commanding lead for Atlanta, who won each of the first three quarter by margins of six, seven and six points which set them up with a 19-point lead heading to the final period. Things got a little sloppy at times late for the Hawks, but the game was never in doubt during the final twelve minutes.
For Minnesota, who continued to play without Karl-Anthony Towns, Atlanta product Malik Beasley led them in scoring with 17 points. The other names that showed on that side of the ledger belong to young players still working to get themselves respectively established in the league.
Naz Reid had 13 points and eight rebounds. Jarred Vanderbilt had 10 points and four boards. Playing from the bench, Jarrett Culver, oddly, led Minnesota in field goal attempts (13) and managed 15 points. Timberwolves starting point guard D’Angelo Russell just never got it going in this contest.
Certainly, the look of a young Minnesota team struggling to string together stretches of solid play looked familiar to Hawks fans, which is what much of Atlanta’s last two seasons looked like.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
An example of the aggressiveness with which Young attacked the Timberwolves defense can be here:
Until the final minutes of the game, the center position for the Hawks was manned by their starting bigs, Capela and Collins, with a brief flash by Gallinari. When Capela went to the bench, it allowed Collins to get engaged in the high pick and roll action.
To the credit of Collins, he worked hard to help his teammates even as not many scoring opportunities were coming his way.
On the other end, this is what the defense, or lack thereof, at the rim looked like when Capela was not on the court for Atlanta:
It’s interesting that, with the return of Gallinari, that Capela and Collins split so much time on this game.
One potentially significant revelation for Atlanta while they were missing Gallinari was how strong their defensive numbers are when Capela and Collins play together (95.2 defensive rating in 228 minutes).
This will be something to watch as Gallinari gets further integrated back into the rotation.
Gallinari’s return also allowed Solomon Hill to slide back over to the small forward position for a portion of his minutes, as was the case on this possession:
Apart from Young, this is a relatively massive lineup for the Hawks. And deploying it when Minnesota was playing Vanderbilt at center and rookie Jaden McDaniels at power forward was almost unfair.
The continued rim running by Capela is encouraging:
Hill manages to get the ball away from Russell to create the transition opportunity.
Undoubtedly, this level of shot-making is something the Hawks have been missing on their second unit the last few weeks:
A look at another play where Collins working hard opens up a play for a teammate:
It’s a beautiful pass from Rondo to Huerter. It’s also a look at a rookie, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards, getting lost playing defense away from the ball.
The rediscovered rotation depth allowed Pierce to experiment with playing Young and Rondo together for a bit, which led to this open shot for the veteran point guard:
It’s also a look at how much the Timberwolves struggled to stay organized on the defensive end in this contest.
It was good to see a few of Young’s floaters go in:
This possession is also a look at the play they used relentlessly versus Minnesota and Detroit earlier in the week, mostly in the second half of those games.
You may have noticed, in this game, Collins frequently spotting up in the right corner, something we’ve seen little, if any, of recently. That very well could have simply been about making an adjustment because of the return of Gallinari, who is in the right corner here:
It was an effective wrinkle and opened up a ton of space for Young, even if it’s not the most exciting thing for Collins (who will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season).
An example of how confused Minnesota was dealing with ball screens for Young:
And here is a look at Collins moving to the right corner to create space for teammates:
This is a nice end zone view of a somewhat rare “stack” or “Spain” pick and roll by the Hawks. The key is Hunter stepping up to set a back screen on Capela’s defender, Reid.
Minnesota head coach Ryan Saunders would put his team in a 2-3 zone defense in the third quarter, to no avail:
And from there, the Timberwolves had, essentially, no answer for Young on one end and Capela on the other.
Young ended up with 15 points in the third quarter alone on perfect shooting at all levels.
The Hawks mostly cruised down the stretch, which helps considering they were coming off of an overtime game on Wednesday while playing very short-handed.
The Milwaukee Bucks will host Atlanta on Sunday at 8:00 pm ET. In addition to playing at home, the Bucks will have a bit of a schedule advantage because their game with the Washington Wizards on Friday evening was postponed.
The Hawks will have to prepare to deal with two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the team that has finished atop the Eastern Conference standings in each of the last two seasons.