The Atlanta Hawks are red-hot in March, posting an undefeated mark that included four consecutive wins to begin the month. That four-game streak matched the longest winning run for the franchise since 2017 and, as such, positive vibes surrounded the Hawks as they welcomed the Cleveland Cavaliers to State Farm Arena on Sunday evening. Still, nothing was assured for the home team, especially when both Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu were ruled out of action just before tip-off. The game was largely competitive but, with a 22-2 run in the second half, Atlanta pulled away and secured a comfortable, 18-point win.
While the Cavaliers don’t necessarily present a difficult matchup on paper, Cleveland has had Atlanta’s numbers in recent months. In fact, the Cavs entered Sunday with four straight wins over Atlanta, including two earlier this season. As such, the Hawks were not shy about indicating they would be up for this particular game when speaking to the media on Saturday evening.
That energy was felt at the outset, with the Hawks zooming to a 13-4 run. Atlanta played well on both ends at the outset and, offensively, the Hawks took advantage of Cleveland’s aggressive approach to defending Trae Young. That included a possession featuring strong second-side action, with Tony Snell turning into a downhill playmaker and finding John Collins for a lob dunk to push the lead.
Atlanta led by as many as 11 points in the opening period and, while it was clear Cleveland’s plan was to force anyone but Young to beat them, the Hawks responded in kind. One more example is a play in which Young was denied the ball, only to have Kevin Huerter create a downhill situation alongside Collins, leveraging the defense and converting a quality look on a floater.
The rest of the first half was not as favorable for Atlanta, as the Cavaliers slashed the margin to four at the end of the first period and began the second half with their best spurt of the evening. With a glacial pace, Cleveland inched ahead by scoring 12 consecutive points, and Atlanta’s second unit struggled as a whole in that particular stint. To the point about the glacial pace, the two teams combined for only 22 points in the first eight minutes of the second quarter, with turnovers galore, but things ticked up as Nathan Knight made an impact.
Knight’s most substantial dent came after halftime, but he joined with Collins to deny a rim attempt and create a transition opportunity that ended in three points for the Hawks.
Overall, the Hawks did not shoot well in the first half, converting just 15-of-38 shots from the floor. That was supplemented by 6-of-16 from three-point range and 13-of-14 from the free throw line, however, and Atlanta was able to secure a three-point advantage by weathering Cleveland’s storm.
Cleveland did have one more run coming, and it arrived to begin the second half. The Cavaliers nudged ahead with a 7-2 run, and the Hawks simply struggled to score, generating only two points in the first 4:10 of the second half. Cleveland allowed Atlanta to stay in closer touch by missing eight of their first 11 free throw attempts, but the Hawks then awakened with a 7-0 run of their own to stabilize matters.
Knight then re-entered for his second stint and, in short, fireworks transpired. The rookie big man from William and Mary had an explosive, 14-point showing on Dec. 26 but, on this evening, Knight set a new career-best standard with 16 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 23 minutes.
As noted previously, Knight made an impact on the defensive end, including with a block that sparked a layup on the other end.
In addition, Knight attacked the rim with vigor throughout the night. Sometimes, that resulted in free throw attempts, with the Two-Way big man converting 9-of-10 attempts at the charity stripe. On other occasions, he made highlights.
After also shouting out the assistant coaching staff for their work in helping the supporting pieces stay ready to play, interim head coach Nate McMillan had kind words for Knight after his second breakout performance.
“We’ve been talking about this all season long. Next man up. Be ready to play. Certainly with the schedule we have coming up, you never know when your number is going to be called. Nate was ready for that opportunity, and he made the most of it,” McMillan said. “We need every game, but it was a game we really felt we needed and could get. At the last minute, we had two of our bigs that couldn’t play, and it was next man up with Nate and Bruno, and those guys playing tonight. He did an excellent job.”
Though the game was competitive through three quarters, the visiting Cavaliers lost the plot in the closing period. The Hawks scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter, taking a 15-point lead with fewer than nine minutes to play, and the advantage only grew. When the onslaught ceased, Atlanta owned a 22-2 run that put the game away, and it came under unusual circumstances.
Not only was Young off the court for the knockout punch, the spurt was led by Knight and some of the other supporting pieces. One example was Rajon Rondo flagging a trailing Danilo Gallinari (note the subtle hand gesture) for a three-pointer in semi-transition.
Later, Rondo found Collins for a (wide) open catch-and-shoot attempt from the corner, with the help of a flailing Cavaliers defense.
While the offense usually garners the attention, it was the defensive end that arguably keyed the push, with the Cavaliers scoring only two (yes, two) points in the first seven-plus minutes of the fourth quarter. All told, Cleveland generated only 22 points in nearly 20 minutes to open the second half, and that was the end of that.
Offensively, there was plenty to be excited about on a night in which the Hawks did make some blunders. Atlanta committed 21 turnovers and shot only 20-of-41 on two-point attempts, limiting the ultimate ceiling of the offensive performance. The Hawks did convert more than 40 percent (12-of-29) from three-point range, however, and Atlanta dominated the free throw battle, making 24-of-26 while Cleveland struggled to just 12-of-23.
With Capela out of the lineup, the Hawks played a lot of “five-out” offense, especially when JaVale McGee was patrolling the paint for the Cavaliers. That forced McGee to attempt to defend in space, with mixed results for Cleveland.
While Young was limited to only nine field goal attempts and 14 points, he was making the right plays throughout the game. One example is a pass to Gallinari for an easy slip to the rim after Cleveland committed multiple defenders to defend Young.
There will be nights in which Young is utterly explosive as a scorer and, when that happens, he will light up the box score. In this game, though, he was in total control, operating in measured fashion and keying very strong team results.
Beyond Knight and Young, the Hawks received tremendous contributions up and down the roster. Collins was both aggressive and productive, helping to wall off the rim the defensively and putting together a 22-point, 13-rebound effort in only 31 minutes. Gallinari spurred the offense in the early going, scoring 10 points in the first quarter, and finished the night with 20 points on 16 shooting possessions.
In addition to Gallinari’s work, Bogdan Bogdanovic looked to find his footing and seemingly did so in this game. The veteran wing produced 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 2-of-4 from three-point range, and some of his playmaking chops emerged.
Overall, the offense scored at a clip of nearly 1.14 points per possession. That figure was notably better after halftime and, in examining the box score, the biggest gap between the two teams was that the Hawks posted a true shooting percentage of 61.4 percent. The team’s overall offensive performance wasn’t abnormal, especially in this offensively charged environment of the NBA in 2021, but Atlanta’s defense was statistically outstanding.
Cleveland scored fewer than a point per possession for the game, including a dismal 28 percent shooting mark in the second half and a 45.0 percent true shooting clip for the game. It must be noted that the Cavaliers entered as the NBA’s worst offensive team for the season, and there is some “grading on a curve” involved when dissecting this particular game. With that said, the Hawks performed quite well, especially when accounting for the absence of the team’s best defender in Capela, as well as the point-of-attack trio of Cam Reddish, Kris Dunn and De’Andre Hunter.
The Hawks also managed to win the rebounding battle, securing more than 35 percent of their own missed and more than 72 percent of the available defensive rebounds. Those aren’t dominant figures but, in a matchup that seemed to concern McMillan and the staff, it qualified as a small victory.
“One of the keys to our plate every night is to win the rebounding,” McMillan said. “I thought tonight we were physical, we hit, we didn’t turn and ball watch or assume that someone else was going to rebound. We had a focus on putting bodies on bodies and rebounding the basketball. I thought our guys did a really nice job of doing that. It allows us to get into transition when we do that. That’s a key every night, to be physical.... Tonight, as a team, I thought we did a solid job.”
After a solid, balanced effort to secure a back-to-back sweep, the Hawks are on an active, five-game winning streak. Atlanta’s last streak of that length (or more) came with a seven-game run from Dec. 28, 2016 through Jan. 10, 2017. In reality, the 2016-17 season can be viewed as the last time — at least before the 2020-21 campaign — the Hawks really attempted to build a winning roster, rather than one focused on a future-facing rebuild. At the same time, the longest winning streak in more than four seasons is worthy of praise, and the Hawks took care of business in a meaningful way on Sunday, even against a less than stellar opponent.