The Atlanta Hawks returned to winning ways on Sunday night as they toppled the Denver Nuggets 123-115 at State Farm Arena.
Trae Young assembled one of his better games of the season as he scored 35 points and dished out 15 assists (to go along with just three turnovers). Clint Capela added a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
For the Nuggets, Jamal Murray scored 30 points to follow up from his 50 point performance over the weekend but couldn’t drag the Nuggets to victory with Nikola Jokic shooting 5-of-15 from the field for 15 points. Facundo Campazzo added 16 points.
The Hawks started this game a little slow but things really picked up in the second quarter, where I think it’s fair to say the game turned as the momentum swung towards the Hawks.
The second quarter began with the Hawks getting a much needed offensive boost from their bench. Well, considering the fact the Hawks rank dead last in the NBA in bench scoring per game, getting anything from anyone off of the bench is a boost, let alone when they receive multiple efforts. On Sunday evening, it was Danilo Gallinari and Tony Snell who gave the Hawks’ second unit a big boost in the first half, with Snell hitting three quick three-pointers en route to tying a season-high 12 points.
Onyeka Okongwu also received some rotation minutes last night as he scored a season-high nine points. Even before he hit that mark, Okongwu had shown some solid activity and energy as he continues to get some reps underneath him.
Despite the efforts of the second unit, however, the Nuggets retook the lead before the Hawks responded again towards the end of the second quarter.
The Hawks caught the Nuggets out in transition on numerous occasions towards the end of the quarter, this first basket coming by way of a John Collins alley-oop from Trae Young:
A tough landing for Collins and I’m not sure why this wasn’t an ‘and-1’ given the contact but alas...
Not long after that, Young finds Danilo Gallinari streaking ahead and outlets the ball to Gallinari for the dunk:
For himself this time, Young attacks in transition, gets downhill and hits the floater to give the Hawks their first double-digit lead of the game:
The first six minutes of the third quarter were all about Young and Capela — the combination that Denver had little answer for — with the pair responsible for all 15 of the Hawks points in the first six minutes of the second half.
To start, Young gets by Murray and into the paint too easily and Jokic allows Capela enough room behind him to get up and guide the alley-oop from Young home:
I’d put a little more of this on Jokic, since he wasn’t stepping up on Young to begin with and then ended up not really covering Capela either — sometimes the worst decision is indecision.
A defensive breakdown on the Nuggets’ end between Jamal Murray and Zeke Nnaji leads to an open look for Trae Young behind the arc, which he dispatches:
Off of a miss on the floater, Young is able to grab his own offensive rebound and is faced by Jokic on the baseline. With Capela just behind the Serbian, Young lofts the ball to Capela for another alley-oop:
Young continued to cook himself as he hits this deep three-pointer as the Nuggets get themselves set:
Coming off of the pick-and-roll, Young gets the edge on Will Barton and Jokic has to step in. Michael Porter Jr., however, doesn’t rotate to the still-rolling Capela, and as a result the task for Young to find Capela for a third alley-oop of the the quarter is an easy one:
“Just knowing how to get behind the defense or get behind at least my man and make the big choose,” said Young of playing with lob targets like Collins and Capela. “Is he going to stop me getting to the floater or the lob? It’s really reading the tag guy, the lone-man with the shooter on the other side. Is he going to stop the lob or is he going to stop our shooters from hitting threes? It’s fun playing with those guys because I know the lob is always going to be there so having that option is a plus.”
Off of the ball this time, the Hawks move the ball from right-to-left and by the time Young catches, he sees enough of a gap to pull the trigger and hits the 29-footer to put the Hawks up by 13 points:
Young would go on to hit another floater and a three-pointer to cap off his 14 point third quarter, while the first non Capela/Young basket would come from Kevin Huerter with 4:37 remaining in the third quarter as the Hawks rank their lead up 22 points with this three from Young:
The Nuggets would slice into the Hawks’ lead before the end of the third quarter before cutting the lead to 11 points in the fourth quarter as Jamal Murray began to heat up.
The Hawks, however, responded well to the early/mid fourth quarter charge from the Nuggets and re-established their stronghold on the game, though things got a little close for comfort towards the end as the Nuggets got back within eight with 1:14 remaining as they scored 16 points in the final 1:53, but the Hawks held on to collect the eight point victory as Denver’s four game road-trip came to an end (technically a five-game road-trip but their match against the Hornets was postponed).
It also signified another improved effort in the fourth quarter where the Hawks took care of a fourth quarter lead (a problem area for the Hawks this season), and speaking postgame, interim coach Nate McMillan believes the Hawks are getting better at understanding fourth quarter situations.
“Just staying with it, and you do have to make timely baskets and you have to get timely stops,” said McMillan of the fourth quarter. “Understanding what we’ve been talking about with our group is the fourth quarter. That stretch where we lost a few games in the a row, a lot of those games we had leads in the fourth quarter and we didn’t finish the game. I thought we did a better job tonight of understanding time/score situation, getting stops when we needed to, making baskets, knocking down shots when they were making a run. That’s part of the game that a young time like has to learn. I’ve talked about the ‘Three C’s’ — being calm, being clear about what you need to do and being connected on the floor on both ends of the floor. I thought they showed that tonight.”
In the end — with All-Star reserve voting looming — Young finished with 35 points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field, 4-of-7 from three and 11-of-13 from the free throw line to go along with 15 assists.
“I thought he did a great of the entire floor-game on both ends of the floor,” said McMillan of Young. “I thought he worked hard on the defensive end of the floor. He had Murray to start off the game and did a good job of just trying to work to stay in front of him, fight over screens. Offensively, we wanted to force misses and get out into transition. We were able to do that. Early in the game, I thought he tried to establish his teammates by getting them the ball. We missed a couple of shots early in that first quarter but playing the right way. As we said to the guys ‘don’t get bored playing the right way,’ the right way was getting the ball to the open man. We were missing shots but we continued that and started to knock down shots.”
Capela also played a starring role in this game not just with his ability offensively in tandem with Young’s but also defensively where he was faced with freshly named All-Star starter Jokic, holding him to 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
“We wanted to keep that matchup, we went with a different substitute pattern tonight,” said McMillan of Capela. “We kept Clint in the game, tried to keep him in the game as long as possible to match up with Jokic and he did a good job. That was the game-plan the coaches came up with tonight. He did a solid job of making him work, pressuring him on the perimeter, in the post, making him score over the top — we didn’t have to go to a double-team — Clint did a solid job of staying between him and the basket.”
“I thought we did a pretty good job of not giving him easy fouls,” said Capela on Jokic. “We know that’s a guy that usually gets fouls and gets to the line pretty easily. This is how he gets his confidence to start the game. From the get-go, we didn’t give him that so from this point it’s a different game for him.”
“Jokic is probably top-3 in MVP so I really took the challenge, challenged myself to limit him as good as I could because I knew that it would impact the game and his team,” added Capela of Jokic.
It was a key matchup that Capela emerged convincingly on top of.
Still filling in for Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, McMillan is obviously running Pierce’s system and philosophies in his absence, and one of the things Pierce has talked about recently is how the Hawks weren’t making teams ‘feel them’ and McMillan was pleased with how the Hawks progressed in this area last night.
“It’s a thing that coach (Pierce) has been talking about the last few weeks is the pressure, making these guys feel us, being aggressive defensively,” said McMillan when asked about other factors that helped the Hawks emerge on top. “I thought our guys tonight established themselves on the defensive end of the floor. That first quarter we gave up 33 points but I thought we were physical and we were getting up and pressuring them. We slowly started to wear on them. 25 points in the second, 20 points in the third, those are the things coach Pierce has been talking about with our guys: get up, be aggressive, be physical. We want them to feel us and I thought we were connected out there on both ends of the floor.”
Despite not being with the team — out tonight due to Covid protocols — Pierce is still heavily involved, both in pre-game planning:
McMillan said the staff had a Zoom call with Lloyd Pierce to go over the game plan for tonight.— Brad Rowland (@BTRowland) February 21, 2021
Said that Pierce has been watching film while away from the team.
And even during the game, where McMillan chuckled that Pierce sent him a text at halftime about adjustments.
All-in-all, this was a great win for the Hawks. They shot efficiently from the field, Young was fantastic, Capela was fantastic and together they shredded the Nuggets’ poor defense. The Hawks — behind Young’s 11-of-13 — got to the free throw line convincingly more than the Nuggets, shooting 27-of-33 to the Nuggets’ 13-of-16.
The Nuggets, very briefly, intentionally fouled Capela to send him to the free throw line, and this is a tactic that continues to fail when opponents attempt to do so. Capela is shooting 56% from the line this season (personally, it hasn’t looked as bad as that) but has stepped up when teams have recently done this to him, though I think desperation in the fourth quarter drove Denver to do this last night (and they immediately stopped once he made both of his free throws). The Hawks did enough defensively, though the scoreline from the Nuggets’ side is somewhat inflated from their 16 point burst in the final two minutes.
Kevin Huerter had some strong drives to the rim which was encouraging to see, the bench had a strong game (which was sorely needed) and every Hawk that played registered a positive plus/minus (for whatever that’s worth) and Gallinari dunked twice.
The Hawks’ response to the Nuggets’ fourth quarter run was probably the big takeaway, especially given their issues there this season and to do it again not long after the first Boston game will be of encouragement to them.
One of those rare nights where there’s not really a ton of holes you could pick (other than perhaps Collins having his worst three-point shooting night of the season with 0-of-5). Winning solves a multitude of problems.
The Hawks (13-17) are back in action on Tuesday on the first night of a back-to-back where they take on the now struggling Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse (yeah, that’s still weird that it’s not Quicken Loans Arena but alas...)
Should be fun, and a good opportunity for the Hawks to notch another victory as the first half of the season begins to wind down already.
Until next time...