The Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets linked up in State Farm Arena to finish out their season series on Friday night. However, there would be no late game drama in this one, as the Nuggets used a relentless offensive attack to quickly dispatch the Hawks for a 133-115 win.
Trae Young led the home team with 34 points on 12-for-27 (44.4%) shooting from the field and 10 assists. John Collins added a 20 point, 10 rebound effort and Onyeka Okongwu used his first minutes of the campaign to flash some hustle en route to a 10 point, two rebound and one steal night.
After a 12-3 opening for Denver that forced head coach Nate McMillan to use an early timeout, the Hawks faced a 15-3 deficit after a Jeff Green triple. Still, the Young-Collins connection was strong in the first quarter, and the two helped Atlanta storm back with a 16-2 run of their own to take the lead.
Shortly after that, Okongwu checked into the game to a healthy round of ovation for his first minutes of the season. And we didn’t have to wait long to see his impact on the team. Here he shows in the lane for the Danilo Gallinari entry pass, and he drops in the floaters on just his first time touching the ball.
The next one in the second quarter was a nice roll off the side screen opportunity for Lou Williams.
Here, Okongwu is able to bail Williams out from an ominous baseline drive.
“[Okongwu] looked good,” said forward Collins. “He’s moving well. Still got that bounce to his step. Still got that floater touch to his game. It never left. I’m always in Big O’s ear. He’s always working hard with me so we’re happy to see him back in action.”
“He’s going to be big for us down this long road,” Young had to say about the young big man. “Good to see him out there. He didn’t miss a shot so it’s good to see him out there and playing well.”
“I thought he gave us some good minutes,” remarked McMillan about Okongwu’s play. “[He] was able to score a couple of points, get a couple of rebounds. It was good to get him out on the floor, and I thought the minutes that he played were good minutes for us.”
Okongwu himself was pleased with his own performance and level of conditioning as well, saying, “I feel good honestly. I haven’t played in almost six months. It was a warm welcome, a nice standing ovation from the crowd. I felt good out there. My energy was everywhere. I feel active. I feel like I’m picking up off what I did in the playoffs.”
As a rookie last year, Okongwu stepped in to defend the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo for stretches of playoff matchups last year despite missing sometime with injury. He had to do the same against yet another dominant big man tonight in brief minutes against the reigning league MVP, Nikola Jokic.
Despite the loss, Okongwu showed no cobwebs after the long layoff. Regarding his mindset, he said, “I try to be aggressive overall. Aggressive, confident, and play hard. I didn’t want to second guess myself. I wanted to be decisive and that’s what I did tonight.” Asked about his level of conditioning, he responded, “honestly I feel better than I thought I would. I’ve been conditioning my tail off this whole rehab process.”
However, despite the boost from the debut of the second year player, the Hawks would lose control of the contest midway through the second quarter through unseemly defensive play. While the Hawks would ultimately surrender 133 points and a 124.3 offensive rating to the Nuggets, Denver’s bench unit began the bleeding in earnest in the second period, and the Hawks’ perimeter players struggled to find their footing.
In this clip, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Kevin Huerter are both caught in down screens, freeing Bones Hyland to lift into a wide open three. But frankly, calling the little resistance Huerter sees here a screen does a disservice to his lack of urgency in getting out to try to bother to the rookie guard.
On the very next possession after an Atlanta miss, nobody meets Facundo Campazzo and he simply takes the ball 94 feet to the bucket. This was two of the 18 points in transition the Hawks gave up last night.
On this one, Jeff Green rolls down the lane and Collins is too late to slide from the low man position to offer any help.
McMillan was unsurprisingly not enthused with the performance or effort level from his team’s defense, saying, “[we] never really established defense. [Weren’t] able to keep the ball in front of us. We gave up 60 points in the paint. We really didn’t stop anything. Paint penetration. They’re hitting threes. Pretty much scoring at will.”
He continued later, “as I said to them, I haven’t questioned their effort, but tonight, there’s a concern. I didn’t like what I saw out there tonight. We’ve got to commit to defending or playing defense out there, it can’t be about scoring. [...] I thought tonight when our shots didn’t fall, we took that to the defensive end and didn’t compete. That’s something that is a concern when you see that. I haven’t felt that I’ve seen that from us this season but tonight they pretty much got whatever they wanted.”
Collins was asked if team’s effort was good enough Friday night, saying, “usually I’d say yes, but tonight, hell no. We’ve got to do a better job. I definitely feel like we started out the right way but we let it wane too much. You can’t do that. Now we got an MVP [Jokic] over there and a bunch of guys ready to play for him. It’s not going to work.”
“The mindset defensively, we gameplan for this,” said Collins. “We watch film. We have all the information we need. We just have to be better pros when we come out here and execute and do what we need to do defensively.”
There was a lot of discussion about the lack of communication. The Hawks lost a lot a Nuggets defensively on backcuts in half court sets, and with the distribution prowess of Jokic, that was clearly a recipe for disaster.
Collins concurred, saying “we definitely could be better communicators. There’s never a reason for us not to speak. No excuse for that.”
“[Denver] is a cutting and moving team,” said Young. “There just wasn’t enough talking and communicating out there with a team that cuts and plays off the pass like they do. You have to talk and you have to be able to get stops.”
As McMillan brought up, the Hawks ceded 60 points in the paint through penetration and interior ball movement from Denver. But they also allowed the Nuggets to shoot 17-of-38 (44.7%) from beyond the arc with shooters coming of off ball screens to burn the home team.
Young dove into specifics, explaining, “when guys go set pin downs and guys go set flair screens, you have to let them know the screen is coming. If you’re going to switch, you have to let them know early. They like to slip out of their screens, so if you don’t communicate early, they’ll slip out. And then they’ll either give you a foul or they’ll get a layup because you’re too late.”
The Hawks were able to dodge a bullet after a scary rolled ankle sighting in the below clip for their star guard.
“I rolled my ankle twice,” Young told the media. “In the first quarter, I think Campazzo came right in at the beginning of the game. I rolled it again on Clint’s foot. I got it re-taped at halftime though.”
The loss both dropped the Hawks to below .500 overall (14-15). Atlanta will look to shake off this leaky performance with a home matchup against a surprisingly solid Cleveland Cavaliers squad on Sunday night.