It’s a weird and tough season for the entire NBA, but no team has probably had it rougher than the Washington Wizards. The Wizards have had no consistency of routine nor schedule, and very little continuity of players available to man any sort of consistent rotation.
However, It’s hard to garner empathy in a year when every team is trying to simply keep moving forward while dealing with adversity, in whatever form it comes, as it appears. The Atlanta Hawks showed no empathy to the Wizards on Friday night on their way to a 116-100 win highlighted by a 41-point scoring performance by Trae Young.
Overall, it was an ugly game that included a staggering nine technical fouls, three ejections and a lot of frustration for the home team. Washington is now 3-12 on the season, in possession of the worst record in the league and have lost seven of their last eight games.
Atlanta moved back above .500 with a 10-9 record ahead of a tough stretch of games that will challenge them to maintain a winning record in the coming weeks.
On top of getting the victory, the most important takeaway from this game might be that the Hawks had a second half lead start to slip away from them. Atlanta was able to steady themselves and take control of the game again, however, before potentially losing grip.
That didn’t happen in losses earlier this month to the Cavaliers and Knicks. And as much as fans sometimes, understandably, want to point at things the coaching staff could have handled differently in those types of losses, sometimes teams, especially newly constructed teams, have to learn how to navigate those situations by way of a shared experience.
At one point, the Hawks held a 23-point lead and the Wizards were almost able to get it back to a single-digit game (they got it to within ten points) in the middle of the fourth quarter.
What could have been a familiar feeling didn’t seem to phase them. They looked like a team that had been in the very same situation before, but one that had learned a lesson or two about how to navigate these types of tenuous moments and secure the win.
“Déjà vu. We’ve been there before,” Hawks power forward John Collins said about the fourth quarter. “Up early, late in the game you just want to finish. I feel like I’ve seen a million situations where we’ve given up that lead. So, I feel like it was just a sense of urgency for us to play smart. Maintain the lead. Some very big shots by Trae (Young) down the stretch to kind of keep that gap. And defensively we tried to close it out.”
“For me I just wanted to stay solid, slow the game down,” commented Young on dealing with the lead that was dwindling. “I know they needed a lot of possessions to get back into the game. So I just wanted to slow the game down and get the best shot we could each possession.”
“We were executing extremely well for most of the game. Then the game was sloppy and it slowed down,” head coach Lloyd Pierce responded when asked about the final quarter. “When you’re behind and the game’s slowing down it kind of favors you. We needed to slow it down with the clock running and get some movement and create some shots.”
“Obviously (Young) hits two big threes and gets a layup that make sit easier,” Pierce continued. “But I thought his poise, his composure down the stretch was tremendous.”
It’s probably been since the Hawks second game of the season, a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, that we’ve seen Young take over a game as a scorer in the second half to put it out of reach to this degree. He had 28 points in the final two quarters on just 16 shooting possessions.
Overall, Young connected on five of nine field goal attempts both outside and inside of the three-point line and converted 16 of 17 tries at the free throw line to post 41 points with rare efficiency.
After seeing his free throw rate drop after a staggeringly high volume to start the season, Young now has ten attempts at the charity stripe in six of his last seven games.
This contest got increasingly physical and chippy as the officials tried to maintain some form of control of the game. As such, the whistle got tighter on both ends of the court, and Young put his skills to work to make the most of the opportunity to generate easy points.
“I’m thankful for Trae, for his composure and his ability to finish the game,” said Pierce about the play of his starting point guard. “I thought our guys executed the game plan extremely well. As ugly as the game was, as wild as the game was we got the win and Trae really closed us out down the stretch when we needed it to be what it should have been, just a solid win for us.”
If you like games that profile the officiating, this was your game. That’s not to say the referees were looking for attention.
Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo each took part in a double technical foul in the second quarter. Both would be ejected in the second half, in separate incidents. And Wizards starting center Robin Lopez, who must have said something way across the line, got a pair of technical fouls in mere seconds — both while off the court — which resulted in his disqualification.
Rondo seemed to have his sights set on Westbrook to some degree even during his first minutes on the floor. Westbrook has a bit of a reputation for having a sharp conversation with young guards on the opposing team (which could have been Young in this case) and no one would be surprised if it were a strategic decision on Rondo’s part to attract his attention upon himself.
Young stayed largely free of the uglier moments in the game on the way to massive offensive performance.
De’Andre Hunter left the game midway through the second quarter with a right knee injury and didn’t return. Very little information about his condition was known after the game.
His absence shorted the Hawks bench in the second half but they were able to manage by getting six minutes of play from Tony Snell and increasing the workloads of Cam Reddish and Solomon Hill.
“That’s what we need to do every night,” Danilo Gallinari said about the play of Atlanta’s second unit. “The more we play together the better we’re going to get. And that’s something that we need to bring night in and night out.”
Collins was Atlanta’s second leading scorer on the evening pouring in 17 points in addition to managing eight rebounds. Clint Capela posted his customary double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds. He had another three blocked shots in the contest.
In reserve duty, Gallinari had 11 points while Rondo scored eight, to go with four assists, and Cam Reddish contributed seven points despite a rough shooting performance. The second-year wing was two for seven overall and just one of five on three-point attempts.
But Reddish stepped in to play with the starters in the second half (in Hunter’s absence) and took on the responsibility of defending Bradley Beal, the league’s leading scorer.
“Cam’s been playing really well all year, especially on the defensive end,” Young commented about the play of Reddish. “(Kevin Huerter) started out on (Beal), did a really good job containing him, not really letting him get going. And then Cam did a good job coming off the bench doing the same.”
Huerter had just six points and struggled as a shooter himself but was solid in his areas of team play throughout the game. He contributed five rebounds and five assists and posted a game best +21 on the box score.
For the hosts, Beal and Westbrook each accounted for 26 points. Beal missed on each of his eight attempts from the arc. Westbrook was attacking in his famous downhill style but at times seemed to be going it alone, which is an odd dynamic considering how prolific Beal has been this season as a scorer.
Davis Bertans scored a single point in the game. He missed on each of his six three point attempts. It was his first action since January 11 and he looked to be struggling to find a rhythm.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Collins continues to show growth as a defender consistently staying in front of his man:
The presence of Capela seems to have freed him up to apply himself defending at the point of attack and otherwise working well in different defensive schemes.
Atlanta worked to chase Beal off of the perimeter as to force him into less desirable locations in the offensive half court:
“(Beal) was a little hesitant on some of the threes because our bigs were up on all of his screens and pin downs,” Pierce said about the Hawks defensive strategy regarding Beal. “He did a good job getting into the paint, created a couple of and-one opportunities late. But I thought our guys, specifically Cam and Kevin, did a good job just to limit his touches and making him work and running him off the three-point line.”
As they have been doing of late, the Hawks attacked via the post after forcing a defensive switch:
Collins comfortably works to a soft jumper over Westbrook.
Atlanta continued to show a presence at the rim as a defensive priority:
Capela and Collins work to the lane to protect the rim forcing a miss from Jerome Robinson.
Beal would sometimes get a bit more room to work when he would get a screen well away from the paint:
He gets downhill with some space with which to work and makes the baseline runner.
Another possession where Atlanta looks to attack via the post when Hunter is being defended by a guard:
The spacing is a little odd as Collins works toward the paint. Hunter uncharacteristically moves in the direction of the help defender, Lopez, but manages a score on the put back.
It’s so nice when you’ve got an entire second unit on the floor and you can just throw the ball to Gallinari in the mid-post during an after timeout (ATO) possession:
He can basically shoot over any defender.
The Hawks continue to increasingly run specific actions to generate shots for Hunter:
The use their split-cut series to force the switch so that Hunter can attack a smaller defender again.
The Wizards start to use Lopez to double the post, as seen here:
But that opens the middle of the paint for Capela to get a desirable touch.
This is some very old school “high-low” action.
Atlanta still runs into issues in transition defense, especially following a possession on which Young, as a shooter, ends up on the floor.
But there is a lot going on here.
After Hunter left the game with the knee injury, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks inserted Isaac Bonga into the game and took the opportunity put a talented, rangy defender on Young.
Bonga’s defense on Young is part of the reason he ends up on the ground:
As Bongo runs the floor while Westbrook is looking to attack in transition, Capela has to cover Bongo advancing on the back side of the play which opens the door for Westbrook in his penetration.
Another example of Beal using screens high in the offensive half court to get some space:
The Hawks truly had a defensive game plan to make Beal work hard for what he was going to get.
When Gallinari returned from injury Atlanta started running more four-out offense of the variety that deploys the power forward as a spot up shooter (as opposed to in double drag screen action). An example here:
Collins only took a handful of corner threes last season. This wrinkle could be helpful for him even though the design seems to have been made with Gallinari in mind.
This is probably the point where it starts to get ugly:
There is nothing dirty on the play, but Lopez looks upset that he didn’t get a call on one end, then Beal makes some risky contact on the foul on Collins on the other end.
It’s no accident this started to pick up when the Hawks threatened a twenty-point lead.
Lopez gets tossed:
After which Washington seemed to want to make it a very physical game:
Young starts attacking a tired Wizards defense:
Then, there is some timely shot making by Young after the Wizards mount a threat:
Young would go on to score the Hawks next ten points after Rondo was ejected with 5:08 remaining in the game.
And that basically sealed it for Atlanta.
The Hawks will host Lebron James and the reigning NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers on Monday at 7:30 pm ET.