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Hawks ball movement back on track in victory over Wizards

The Hawks return to winning ways, now 3-0 at home on the season.

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks returned to the winning column as they exacted some revenge on the Washington Wizards on Monday night, taking the 118-111 victory at State Farm Arena.

Trae Young led the Hawks with 26 points on an efficient 7-of-16 from the field and a season-high 11-of-11 from the free throw line. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clint Capela both added 16 points (Capela adding 12 rebounds for a double-double). For the Wizards, Bradley Beal scored 24 points and Kyle Kuzma added 18 points.

Coming off of two bad showings on Thursday and Saturday, the Hawks entered Monday’s night contest needing a much improved performance, having fallen to 3-3 on the back of those two losses against the Wizards and the Philadelphia 76ers. Heading into the game Monday, there were a few areas of focus for the Hawks to get back to in terms of their play on the court.

Coming out of the gate, the Hawks’ offense and offensive choices looked much better than it has of late: extra passes were being made (eight assists on 10 made field goals in the first quarter) and better shots were being taken as a result.

Just a few examples from the first quarter...Young gets into the paint and makes the right pass to the corner to Bogdanovic for the three-pointer:

Bogdanovic turned facilitator at the end of the first quarter and got underway with this possession where he could have pulled up for a mid-range shot but kicks it back out to Cam Reddish who drives into the paint and finishes with the left-hand:

It wouldn’t have been an awful shot for Bogdanovic to pull up in front of Montrezl Harrell but it would’ve been a bit of a settle and you could see the intentional effort from the Hawks to do as little of that as possible.

Bogdanovic, here, gets by Raul Neto with ease, forces the rotation from Harrell and finds Danilo Gallinari for the first of his four threes last night:

Bogdanovic would link up with Gallinari in the same corner again for three before the quarter was out as the Hawks ran out to their best offensive first quarter of the season for 34 points:

The Hawks undid some of that good work by conceding 37 points to the Wizards in the second quarter, and when the Hawks opened up a 14-point lead in the third quarter the Wizards ended the period on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to seven points.

The margin was much the same in the fourth quarter until a crucial stretch in the fourth quarter separated the Hawks from the Wizards at last.

A 9-0 run began with a kick-out from Young to De’Andre Hunter on the perimeter, and while that shot was missed, John Collins collected the offensive rebound and finds Hunter again who hits the tough fadeaway:

Collins then bought his side another extra possession as he slides over to take the charge on the Beal drive:

Hunter — having struggled for basically the entire game offensively — got in on the action again as he gets into the paint and hits a contested shot, receiving a bit of a fortunate bounce:

The Wizards took a timeout as this junction but — as was often the case last night — their shot selection out of the timeout wasn’t ideal, and this one was no exception as Neto misses the three from the corner:

A nice rotation from Young here to cut off the drive from Kuzma down the lane and you’d absolutely trade that — and the possible rotation needed from Collins behind which might open the defense — for the corner three from Neto.

Some lax defense from the Wizards here as the Hawks get an easy three for Bogdanovic on the short roll:

Kuzma caught napping there, and he couldn’t make up for it on the other end as he misses the contested three:

Collins then essentially iced the game as Young’s long three is missed and the offensive rebound is collected by Reddish, who drops it to Collins who finishes and puts the Hawks up by 16 points:

The Hawks had a bit of a late game slip and the Wizards closed the margin to seven points late on but the Hawks iced the game at the free throw line to take a well-needed victory before heading out on the road again.

With the focus seemingly on better shot-selection and ball movement heading into last night’s game, the Hawks assisted on 24 of their 38 made baskets. McMillan was pleased with his side’s execution to that end.

“This is the basketball we’re capable of playing every night and this is the basketball we want to play every night,” said McMillan postgame.

Speaking about the Hawks’ ball movement postgame, Young believes that the Hawks are gaining a better understanding offensively and getting to their spots a little snappier, and that the improved efficiency of Hunter and Reddish will also assist with this.

“I think we’re starting to understand where we need to be on offense,” said Young of the ball movement. “Guys are getting to their spots quicker and guys are ready to make plays. It’s going to take time. We’re getting better, especially guys like Cam and ‘Dre are starting to get more of a flow. It’s good. We’ve got to keep it going.”

‘Execution’ was a word mentioned a number of times postgame, and Collins described the ease of which the Hawks are able to win when the Hawks move the ball and execute offensively.

“It always starts with moving the ball,” said Collins. “Swinging the ball from side-to-side it’s always hard to guard in this league. We have guys that can contribute at a high level and we just wanted to make sure we were executing and put guys in positions where they could execute and play their game. We continued to do that tonight. When we’re playing that way it’s always easy to win.”

‘Execute offensively’ is a very broad term in the NBA — and you’ll see it later — but a notable quote from Collins nevertheless, who believed the ball movement from last night can still be improved upon.

“Well, but we want it to be better,” said Collins of the ball movement. “We have a lot of guys who can really contribute and really make an impact on the offensive end so it’s vital for us to continue to move the ball, make sure everybody touches the ball, that the ball has energy and it’s easy to play how we played tonight when everybody is touching the ball.”

What Collins alludes to here — about everybody touching the ball — links beautifully into what Bogdanovic had to say about it all. Bogdanovic did not seem content that this problem had been solved in one game and gave a firm warning postgame that this was just one game where the ball movement was improved and hopes the isolation basketball that has occurred at times so far this season does not return.

“This is only one game,” Bogdanovic warned of the Hawks’ ball movement. “I don’t want guys to go back to that iso stuff again. We’ll see. I hope it’ll work out.”

Another item that has been made of the Hawks’ offense in the build-up to last night’s game has been the contested shots, the long twos, the lack of free throws (29th prior to the game) and the lack of three-point attempts (29th before the game).

Last night, McMillan pushed for an emphasis for the Hawks to get into the paint and making decisions from that spot on the court.

“I wanted them to get to the paint, touch the paint, get some paint on your shoes,” said McMillan. “Once you get to the paint, you have to make a read. If you have your little pull-up or floater, I’m OK with that. Get to the rim. I thought tonight we did that. We were able to get to the free throw line 29 times. Aggressively, get downhill, try to get to the rim, if the defense collapses kick it out to the perimeter. I thought we did that tonight, all of our guys. Cam was doing it, Trae pretty much always does it, ‘Dre, Bogi, they all were attacking the rim and making decisions once they got to the paint.”

A lot of this links into the analytics that surround today’s NBA, which is always an interesting subject to negotiate.

Everyone has an opinion about analytics and how they should be applied both on the NBA court and when it comes to digging up stats. The relevancy here for the Hawks is that they have been settling, at times, on jumpshots so far this season, the lack of three-point attempts and the Hawks — as McMillan alluded to — haven’t gotten to the rim as much as they would like so far this season.

Speaking postgame, Young seemed split on the subject but conceded the Hawks have taken ‘the wrong shots’ at times this season.

“I don’t know if it’s too much settling,” said Young when asked about the Hawks’ settling on offense. “I think we’re taking a lot of the wrong shots, I think we’re taking a lot of twos and a lot long twos instead of getting all the way to hole and getting layups or taking threes. I don’t like getting into analytics too much because I think a lot of it is B.S, but I think it is smart whenever you’re talking about the highest percentage shots are at the rim or at the three, and you take long twos it’s a bad shot or— not necessarily a bad shot but unless it’s open it’s just one of the toughest shots. We’ve been taking a lot of tough twos and tonight we had one of our most threes we’ve taken (in a game) all season and I think that was a good thing and that was a big reason we were able to score as we did.”

Some people are extremely pro analytics, others steadfastly against. Personally (and this does not cover the entirety how I feel about the subject), I think it depends on the player in question. In this case, when it’s Young coming off of a Capela screen into an open mid-range jumper I think that’s absolutely fine, since Young is a strong shot-maker:

“Sometimes I feel like those shots are shots that are open,” added Collins of the Hawks’ shots selection. “Take the good shots but obviously you don’t want to have an overload of a lot of shots. You want to have a nice balance of everything and you want to score in all areas of the court equally.”

I’d rather not get too into the whole debate but it obviously pertains to some of the Hawks’ early offensive issues. I don’t think the issue is magically solved with this one game and tend would agree with Bogdanovic on the subject.

Speaking of Bogdanovic, he enjoyed a strong game last night, scoring 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the floor and 4-of-6 from three to go along with six assists. Postgame, McMillan noted Bogdanovic’s aggression shooting the ball last night and praised his guard’s execution with the basketball getting into their sets.

“I thought he was much more aggressive tonight,” said McMillan of Bogdanovic. “I thought he was getting himself open, playing with pace and being much more aggressive when he touched the ball. I thought he did a good job helping Trae organize. There were a few opportunities where he called some sets and they did a good job executing. Our guards getting organized and execution is what we’ve been talking about as opposed to just playing random basketball for most of the game. I thought we did that (execute) tonight.”

We looked at some of Bogdanovic’s assists for Gallinari in the first quarter... Bogdanovic’s usage was up dramatically last night — 24% usage last night compared to the 15.8% season average prior to last night’s game.

Players who sported a higher usage than Bogdanovic in the Hawks’ first six games include: Kevin Huerter (16.3%), Lou Williams (17.2% in three games), Hunter (18.8%) and Reddish (26.2%).

Plus/minus is a subjective stat but Bogdanovic’s game-high plus-20 on the game is a good reflection of his impact on last night’s game. In short, good things happen when Bogdanovic is more involved.

“When you have Bogi and Trae initiating the offense and running the pick-and-roll, Bogi can run the pick-and-roll,” McMillan expanded on Bogdanovic. “He’s a very unselfish player, he will make the pass to the open guy and he can make the shot. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense. A lot of times the best defender is usually guarding Trae so that leaves Bogi and Cam and ‘Dre, we can put those guys in pick-and-rolls and take advantage of the defender that’s defending those guys. Tonight I thought Bogi was much more aggressive, he seemed like he felt pretty good. When he’s playing like that we want him to find the ball. I thought he was in search for the ball to make plays.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if Bogdanovic took exception with his usage so far this season — he spoke as though what has transpired in terms of the Hawks’ settling and the iso ball bothered him (I could be very wrong, of course, but that was the sense I got hearing him speak). It needs to be higher than what it is, and last night was a good trend in that direction and it should continue.

Collins also enjoyed a really strong game, scoring 12 on 3-of-7 shooting from the field, 6-of-6 from the free throw line, nine rebounds and a tied career-best six assists. That stat line won’t wow you but his performance last night was absolutely fantastic.

“John just plays,” said McMillan of Collins. “He finds a way to get involved in the game. We don’t run a lot of plays for him other than the pick-and-roll and then he has to make reads, whether to roll, pop or get into the two-man game. He shows up, he’s ready to go and he plays. Tonight we wanted to involve him in a two-man game where he was initiating the offense at the elbow. He made a good read. He had a few assists tonight but I just love him, he comes in with a smile and just plays for 48 minutes He had a solid game tonight.”

Let’s look at some of these assists from Collins last night.

His first four assists went to Capela, the first one coming on a snap read and pass with Capela matched up with Spencer Dinwiddie inside:

With Dinwiddie again inside, Collins draws the second defender and makes the pass to Capela for another assist at the rim:

On the hand-off and roll from Collins, he forces the rotation from Harrell and, again, finds Capela at the rim for the assist:

Again, Collins draws Harrell’s attention and finds Capela at the rim for the easy basket:

And to top it off, Collins slips lovely bounce-pass under the defender the path of Hunter for his fifth assist of the night:

“I definitely have a conscious effort to make the right play every time,” said Collins of his six assists. “Sometimes I feel like it might be a score or a pass but tonight it’s a night where I felt something was working and I’m the type of guy that’s going to use the well until it dries. If that’s how the night goes then I’ll keep passing the ball around.”

“It was awesome,” added Young of Collins’ assists. “He makes plays. He’s getting better, he’s learning how to make reads. He’s able to catch lobs and he has a great IQ for the game but he’s definitely growing in the area of making reads and making the right reads. Getting six assists is big time for him.”

Obviously the likes of Young and Bogdanovic enjoyed strong games but Collins was absolutely everywhere last night: on the glass, at the free throw line, making rotations, drawing charges, dropping dimes...he has played to a very high level so far this season even if the boxscore suggests otherwise and last night was no exception.

Elsewhere, the Hawks were without Huerter last night, a very late scratch as he was discovered to be on the Hawks’ inactive list.

“It was just rest,” said McMillan of Huerter’s absence. “With the schedule that we have coming up we’re going to have to do that with some of our guys, just because we’re playing every other day. It was nothing but rest. He should be ready to go next game.”

This was a very strange situation as no formal announcement came from the Hawks that Huerter — who was at the arena in street clothes — would be sitting last night’s game, nor any indication pre-game from McMillan. Huerter has played just 13 and 14 minutes in his last two games respectively. I suspect there could potentially be more to this situation that we (collectively) don’t know and likely won’t know but alas...

Last but not least, a fun subplot from last night’s game that emerged was free throws. Now, there’s been a lot of free throw talk across the NBA to start the season but last night both the Hawks and the Wizards converted every one of their attempted free throws (Washington shooting 16-of-16 from the line, the Hawks shot 29-of-29 from the line in what was a season-high for them), leading to this stat postgame.

“We got some calls tonight, it was fun,” said Young of the Hawks’ free throws. “Both teams were playing physical and the refs called it the way it should and guys were making free throws.”

Even watching the Hawks go to the line late in this game made me — and others I’m sure — a little anxious — you were left wondering if they were going to keep the perfect streak going. It was a fun little wrinkle to an otherwise ordinary November regular season game in the NBA.

Still, a good win for the Hawks and a much-needed victory too. The defense probably isn’t still where the Hawks would want it to be but the offense moving in the right direction will help offset that somewhat.

The Hawks (4-3) now head back on the road on Wednesday night for what promises to be a fascinating matchup with one of the Eastern Conference’s favorites: the Brooklyn Nets.

Should be fun. Until next time...