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Hawks defense excels in season opening victory over Dallas

A dominant victory for the hosts to begin the new season.

Dallas Mavericks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks began their 2021-22 regular season campaign with a victory as they easily dispatched the Dallas Mavericks 113-87 on Thursday night at State Farm Arena.

Trae Young scored 19 points and dished out 14 assists while Cam Reddish scored a team-high 20 points coming off the bench. For the Mavericks, Luka Doncic led with 18 points while Jalen Brunson added 17 points.

While many expected an offensive clinic for the Hawks’ home opener (perhaps 40-plus point performances on both sides), it was defense that came to the fore in this affair.

Respective offensive leaders Young and Doncic both struggled to score in the first half (Young 2-of-9, Doncic 2-of-7) and while other Hawks stepped up to make baskets (Reddish scoring 12 points, John Collins scoring eight) the Mavericks’ supporting cast struggled to do the same.

Doncic’s struggles continued in the second half but Young found his momentum as scored 12 points and dished out nine assists in the third quarter alone as the Hawks outscored the Mavericks 35-20 to set themselves apart for good in the second half before continuing to build on their lead in the fourth quarter to as many as 30 points. The Mavericks were unable to thrive offensively — nor find a ton of scoring relief outside of Doncic — finishing with 87 points on 33% shooting from the field and 13-of-40 from three.

Conversely, the Hawks’ offense gained steam in the second half, and after shooting 4-of-16 from three in the first half the Hawks shot 11-of-19 in the second half from distance as well as assisting 20 out of 24 field goals in the second half alone.

Postgame Hawks head coach Nate McMillan praised how his team established themselves on both sides of the ball.

“I like our start,” said McMillan postgame. “I thought we went out and established ourselves both defensively and offensively. We were consistent with our play. I thought both units came in and it didn’t change the way that we were playing when we substituted. A really good start for us setting the tone with that first group defensively. I thought offensively we got out, pushed the ball, kept the pressure on their defense. The second unit came in and did the exact same thing.”

Doncic’s struggles from the field — shooting 6-of-17 — was one of the keys to the Hawks securing this victory. For most of the night, Doncic was defended by De’Andre Hunter who made life of Doncic difficult offensively; let’s look at a few examples.

Here, Hunter is able to stay in front of Doncic and contests his one-legged fadeaway well:

On this play, Doncic tries to drop the shoulder on the drive but Hunter is able to stand strong and easily stays with the drive and contests the shot:

On this possession, Hunter works his tail off to get around the Dwight Powell screen to get back to contest this three from Doncic and come up with the block:

Rinse and repeat in the third quarter (minus the blocked shot but a strong contest):

Doncic wasn’t the only person Hunter made life difficult for at times, also producing this highlight play defensively where he blocks Kristaps Porzingis’ jumpshot:

“That’s what he does,” Reddish said of Hunter.

Hunter may have only scored 11 points last night but on a game like this his ability to score isn’t as important as his ability to defend. The Hawks trailed 10-2 to start the game (their largest deficit of the game) and part of the reason for that was because the Mavericks and Doncic were able to get inside and kick the ball out. Hunter was able to stay in front of Doncic for most of the night and not only forced Doncic into a lot of jumpers but penetration/kick-out opportunities were limited.

“He always defends that way,” said Trae Young of Hunter. “When he’s playing, he’s always defending that way. It’s just all about if he’s going to be on the court. When he’s on the court our team is a lot better. You saw what he was able to do tonight. Luka is one of the toughest guards to guard in this league. The way he tried to slow him down as much as possible, he did a great job.”

“I love ‘Dre’s defense,” added Collins of Hunter. “I love his mindset when he goes and defends those guys like Luka, like James (Harden), whoever. You can stick ‘Dre on anyone and he’s up for the challenge of running over screens, getting hit and doing whatever he needs to do to be a great defender. Love having ‘Dre back on the court and healthy.”

Nate McMillan praised not only Hunter’s defensive work on Doncic but Reddish and Solomon Hill’s efforts too.

“I thought it was really good, he really set the tone for us by making him work,” said McMillan of Hunter’s defense of Doncic. “Good players like Luka, you’re not going to stop those guys but if you can make them work and make it hard for them, make it difficult for them to score over the top, not allow them to get clean looks or break you down and create opportunities for others, you’re doing a good job. I thought ‘Dre did a really good job all night long when he was matched up with him. I thought Cam came in and did a solid job and I thought Solomon (Hill) did a really good job with that second unit of guarding Luka as well as Porzingis.”

Hunter’s ability to impact the game defensively — and his ability to stay in front of defenders — raises the overall ceiling of the Hawks defensively. Postgame, McMillan discussed how having players that can stay in front of the ball impacts the Hawks defensively.

“It starts with controlling the ball,” said McMillan. “If you can control the ball then you’re not having to come over and help as much, you can stay and box out and control the paint in a sense. When the ball is breaking you down and getting into the paint and is forcing the defense to collapse then you’re giving up everything — you’re giving up opportunities from the three, you’re giving up rebounding position because you’re forced to have to scramble to help and recover. It starts with keeping the ball in front of you and that’s the one thing I thought ‘Dre did tonight. Brunson had some success in that first half but I thought we did a better job in the second half of keeping him in front as well. It starts with ball control, keeping the ball in front of you.”

“It makes everybody’s job easier,” added Young. “Whenever he’s guarding like that, playing hard, you don’t have to help as much. The point of the game is every team is trying to get a guy who draws two people towards him. When you have a guy that can play straight-up on somebody it makes the whole team defense that much better.”

Hunter will steal the plaudits for his defensive performance (and make no mistake, his defensive work on Doncic is a big reason behind the Hawks taking this victory) but Collins also played a great defensive game against Kristaps Porzingis, who shot 4-of-13 from the field.

Here, Collins takes the bump on the drive and puts up a good contest in the lane and the shot from Porzingis is missed:

As the help defender on the drive, Collins slides over and puts up a good vertical contest as Porzingis misses the shot inside:

Collins scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field, 2-of-3 from three, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. One of those assists featured this fantastic lob for Clint Capela after the feed from Young off of the pick-and-roll:

In every aspect of his game, Collins has continued to show growth year-on-year-on-year and he seems to have, again, shown that he has furthered his game. Defensively, Collins has improved leaps-and-bounds and, postgame, talked about how his positioning on defense has improved and how he has become more of a voice defensively (and this was clear to see on TNT with Collins on the mic).

“The first thing would be my positional defense,” said Collins of his defensive growth. “I feel like I can jump, I can jam and go vertical and do all the good stuff but for me it’s my positioning. I feel like if I’m in the right position, more times than not, the defense is going to be in a solid position to play well and finish out the possession — as well as my communication. I’ve taken big steps in just talking and being the vocal team leader. Coach has challenged me as well to be the voice and continue to talk to my teammates and communicate. Definitely going to try hone in on those things and continue to do.”

With Clint Capela on a (unspecified) minutes restriction — playing 20:33 minutes last night — Collins played a number of minutes at center. This is nothing new, of course, as the Hawks usually slide Collins to the five when they sub Capela out and bring on Kevin Huerter and/or Reddish off the bench and Hunter slides over to the four. Nate McMillan alluded postgame that he foresees more of Hunter at the four this season.

“I’m playing ‘Dre at the four a little more, I see him playing some four for us this season,” said McMillan. “There’s a lot of length out there with John and ‘Dre and Cam at the three, four and five. That’s a team you can switch with. ‘Dre is strong enough to guard some fours and he can handle the ball and we really can do some things when he’s at that position.”

Speaking of Capela, he registered a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds to go along with two blocks as he looked like the defensive anchor the Hawks have always described him to be.

Outside of defense, a huge area of advantage for the Hawks was their bench, which outscored the Mavericks’ 44-35. While that may not be a huge differential points-wise, it made a big difference in the first half as the Hawks established their lead. The bench’s plus/minus figure of plus-42 gives a better — though, not perfect — reflection of the impact of the Hawks’ second unit.

Reddish led the bench effort with 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field in 21 minutes.

“I thought he played a beautiful game,” said McMillan of Reddish. “I thought he took shots within the flow, the rhythm of the offense, I thought he made some plays, he came out aggressive, defensively he worked on the defensive end of the floor. If he can continue to play that way — which I think he can, he will — with Kevin, and you add Delon, you bring in Gallo with that second unit; you have a lot of players you can go to but Cam’s the guy who really established that defense for us with that second unit. I thought he had a solid game, he’s a two-way player and tonight he showed he can play on both sides of the floor.”

I wouldn’t call all of Reddish’s shots ‘within the flow of the offense’ and Reddish certainly was not shy in getting shots up. For reference, Young attempted 16 shots in just under 34 minutes. Reddish was probably allowed a little more free reign on offense in the second unit in the absence of Danilo Gallinari (absent with shoulder soreness) but his impact on last night’s contest is hard to deny.

Gorgui Dieng also had a solid impact on the game in his 14 minutes, scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds, as well as two assists, a steal and two blocks.

All-in-all, a really strong night for the Atlanta Hawks. To take down a decently rated team like the Mavericks with the ease they did and to do it with defense primarily will be extremely encouraging off of the bat. Caution is always advised after one game but there has to be encouragement that the Hawks — and Young, scoring 19 points — were not at their best offensively and still won has handily as they did.

Saturday’s contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers will be an interesting test of approach and execution. The league just saw the Milwaukee Bucks produce a great opening against the Brooklyn Nets only to be demolished by the Miami Heat mere days later and Saturday’s contest in Cleveland could easily prove to be a trap game situation.

The Hawks (1-0) head to Cleveland for their first road contest of the season; the Cavaliers playing the first game of a back-to-back tonight against the Charlotte Hornets so the Hawks will have somewhat of an advantage on that front come Saturday.

Until next time...