Well, here we are. The Atlanta Hawks dismissed Lloyd Pierce as their head coach because the results were lacking as the team was heading toward the All-Star break six games under .500. Since then, they’ve won each of their last four games sandwiched around the hiatus.
On one hand, they have not necessarily been the most impressive wins. The Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors were each missing numerous key players. And on Saturday night, Atlanta encountered a Sacramento Kings team that was on the losing end in 11 of their last 14 games with the NBA’s worst defense.
On the other hand, wins are good for the body, mind and soul. The Hawks have four victories in a row, and they are starting to look like a team with enough talent to achieve a playoff berth, building some confidence that they can find ways to win games even when all things don’t go according to plan.
Saturday evening’s 121-106 victory over the visiting Kings put them back into the field of eight playoff teams and just two games out of fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
The path is there if Atlanta can keep finding ways to secure wins while waiting for more help to return. They continue to manage without their best point of attack defenders. Among De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and Kris Dunn, it’s not completely clear which player will see the floor again first. But any and all help will be welcome.
Meanwhile, Clint Capela just continues to do enough work patrolling the paint to make the defense functional enough to keep the Hawks in games.
On paper, the game doesn’t look to have been bolstered by good defensive play in the middle. In the losing effort, the Kings were +14 in points in the paint and +13 in second chance points. They had a robust 22 offensive rebounds.
With Atlanta struggling to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor on defense, Capela’s presence and relentless effort working back to the rim gave the Hawks enough defensive stability to let them take control of the game in the second quarter. They would mostly cruise the rest of the way.
Sacramento got off to a quick start offensively, putting up 21 points in the first six minutes of play. The activity of Marvin Bagley III on the baseline and the offensive glass created a challenge in the early going. And De’Aaron Fox, defended by Trae Young, was helping generate shots at the rim for Bagley and Richaun Holmes that created a lopsided lead for the Kings in the early going.
Luckily for the home team, Sacramento, having entered with the worst defensive rating in the league, was generous enough defensively that it never got too ugly on the scoreboard.
It really wasn’t until the Hawks second unit entered that they played like the clearly better team in the contest.
To start with, Atlanta deployed “good Rajon Rondo” (10 points, three rebounds) in this game. The veteran point guard instinctively pushed the pace after Sacramento turnovers and missed shots. By halftime, the Hawks had an absurd 20 points on eight Kings turnovers. Much of which came with Rondo opportunistically making plays in transition and early half court offense.
Danillo Gallinari could have been a challenging match up issue for the Hawks considering how Sacramento plays small and fast, especially when they go small in the front court on the second unit. But he was masterful, producing 15 bench points on 11 shooting possessions and securing seven rebounds. He was a game-best +24 in the box score.
Rondo and Gallinari powering the second unit offense was the plan from the beginning of the season. In fact, the starting and reserve wings spots have been in flux all season. And maybe that was to be the case all year.
In this contest, the veteran duo played circles around their counterparts.
They even managed to carry Bogdan Bogdanovic offensively to the point where, in the third quarter, interim head coach Nate McMillan was calling play after play intent on getting him shots. It’s a luxury a team can only afford when up by a sizable margin in the second half. The stat line doesn’t reflect it, but the Bogdanovic looked a bit steadier on each possession where action was called for him. He finished with just six points and four rebounds but was +13 in the box score.
After taking an 11-point deficit into the start of the second quarter, the Hawks would win the second and third periods by a combined 28 points.
Sacramento tried to use a string of possessions on which they intentionally fouled Clint Capela as to possibly get the game back Hawks lead back to single digits. But it was for naught.
Both teams finally emptied the bench for the final minute.
“I thought our second unit really came in and gave us a lift,” said McMillan after the game. “They got some stops when they came into the game.”
“We started off the game and really didn’t establish our defense,” he continued. “They were scoring at will. I think they went the first six or seven possessions was a basket or offensive rebound. Which we knew that was a key. This was a second shot team. So I thought the second unit came in and settled us down getting some stops, getting some movement offensively. And then we just continued to execute.”
“When the bench comes in and does what they did tonight it’s always big for us,” Young commented on the play of the Hawks reserves.
“We came out with a defensive mindset,” said Rondo. “They had a little bit of a lead and we came in and tried to get stops and get out on the fast break and get some easy buckets.”
Young led all Hawks scorers with 28 points on a reasonably efficient shooting performance. He converted half of his ten three-point attempts and also managed nine assists.
Capela put up another double-double with 24 points on 16 shooting possessions. He also had 14 rebounds and two blocks.
Using a season high ten free throw attempts John Collins posted 16 points and five rebounds. Kevin Huerter was quite steady in his play in this game managing eight points and five assists.
Tony Snell had eight points and took his first free throw attempts of the season. None of his three field goal attempts were from beyond the three-point line.
For Sacramento, Fox posted 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Each of their five starters posted double-digit points. Richaun Holmes had 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Bagley, in the end, managed 12 points and seven rebounds. Harrison Barnes logged 11 points, seven rebound and five assists.
Struggling the shoot the ball, Buddy Hield had 10 points on four of 16 from the floor. Fox and Hield combined to shoot four for 21 from the arc.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
As mentioned, Bagley was active in the early going:
He beats Collins to a semi-long rebound and converts the lefty hook shot for the Kings first score.
After not generating many shots at the rim on Thursday against Toronto, the Hawks used an early possession to reverse the ball and set up a Young to Capela lob:
It was an encouraging sign.
Capela also got loose in transition:
There are not many games in which Holmes has to worry about getting beat switching ends of the court.
This possession was also a foreshadowing of how the Kings rim protection would look whenever Holmes sat and they slid Bagley to the center position.
The ball movement was crisp early for Sacramento:
When Hield connected on the three-pointer, things were looking a bit grim for Atlanta.
Under McMillan, the Hawks are doing a lot more of this:
Spreading the opposing defense out and attacking the creases. Young gets a floater to fall.
Rondo wasted little time attacking Bagley:
More of the same:
It’s kind of amazing that the Kings operate without a plan C defensive anchor.
The Hawks show their first 2-3 zone look in the second quarter:
They create a turnover on this possession. They would use a good bit of zone the rest of the way.
They quickly create another turnover:
This one leads to a Huerter three and a Kings timeout.
Fox gets to the middle going to his left (a no-no):
Young and Collins were trying to “ice” this side pick-and-roll action, but Young leaves Fox way too much room to operate to the middle.
The Kings catch Young matched up on Barnes:
The shot falls but this is still an encouraging possession from the Hawks. Young immediately looks back to Collins to see if it might be advisable to switch.
Since Collins has Holmes, he stays home and communicates that to Young, who does his best to resist the bigger offensive player.
If Collins has anyone other than Holmes there they probably execute the switch. They made the right decision here.
Gallinari gets a shot to fall at the buzzer:
Or did he? Somehow that counted.
Young starts to get the perimeter shot going early in the third quarter:
Huerter helps create another Kings turnover that leads to points.
Sacramento runs as much of the back screen action as any team in the league:
It uses “Spain” or “Stack” concepts. The Hawks don’t communicate on this one and it costs them points.
Atlanta returns the favor on the next possession:
By rotating the ball, they empty the weak side by overloading the strong side. The result is that the Kings have no “low man” on the weak side baseline to help at the rim.
Young catches the Kings in a zone coming out of a timeout:
Fox and Hield hesitate ever so briefly and Young puts up a comfortable three.
Even Gallinari attacks the rim when Holmes is off the court:
Reminder that this is the plan the Kings use every game for the second unit defense. It’s pretty wild.
Here is an example of Atlanta running plays for Bogdanovic:
What a luxury to be able to work on secondary goals in a game while en route to victory.
From there, the Hawks controlled it the rest of the way apart from a brief moment semi-late in the fourth quarter when Sacramento almost got it back to single digits.
For a team like the Hawks in a season like this, wins are wins. And that makes it four in a row.
Thankfully, only Young had to log more than 30 minutes on the way to this win. The Hawks suit up again Sunday as they host the Cleveland Cavaliers at State Farm Arena.
The Cavaliers have the league’s worst offensive rating but put 112 points on the Hawks several weeks ago. Atlanta will have to contend with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland still missing their best on ball defenders.
It’s the Hawks last chance to get revenge. Cleveland has won each of the first two match ups between the teams this season and the last overall in the series.
The game tips at 7:30 PM ET.