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Hawks cruise to comfortable victory over Thunder ahead of West Coast trip

Oklahoma City Thunder v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta coasted to their seventh straight victory as they comfortably held off the Oklahoma City Thunder 116-93 on Thursday night at State Farm Arena.

Trae Young scored 23 points and dished out nine assists while Bogdan Bogdanovic tallied a new season-high of 23 points.

For the Thunder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the way with 19 points while Ty Jerome added 18 points.

The Hawks were on it from the get-go, running out to a 25-8 lead in the early exchanges and pushing the lead to 20 points before and by the half time mark.

A key to their first half success was their defense in the paint/at the rim. The Thunder found themselves limited to primarily shots from the outside (certainly, the majority of their makes were from the outside early on) and only made seven two-point field goals in the first half (the other seven coming from behind the arc, the Thunder shooting 14-of-43 from the field in the first half).

Clint Capela returned after his absence in Houston and his presence was immediately felt at the rim defensively — the majority of OKC’s missed shots at the rim, Capela is right there.

Against former Hawk Al Horford, Capela does a good job contesting Horford’s fade, which is missed:

Gilgeous-Alexander gets into the paint but Capela is there to contest the shot at the rim and helps force the miss:

On this possession, Lu Dort gets the better of Young on the spin but John Collins is there to emphatically block the shot as the help defender:

The Hawks were also able to use their defense to fuel some transition offense in the first half.

Here, Tony Snell does a good job contesting at the rim after sticking with the drive from Gilgeous-Alexander. Off of that miss, the ball is delivered to Young, who outlets to Kevin Huerter who finds Collins on the lob:

Capela, again, is there at the rim to deter (and somehow, after seemingly getting there too late) and block Pokusevski at the rim. From there, the Hawks push with Young, who finds Snell for the fastbreak layup:

Offensively, the Hawks found their opportunities well, with Young and Collins combining for 30 of the Hawks’ 61 first-half points, both shooting 6-of-8 from the field in the first half, exemplifying their chemistry on the court. Each are both just so aware now at this stage of where they need to be, where exactly Collins needs to set the screen and how he needs to roll and when he needs to fade — these two are a legitimate duo in the NBA now.

The two also combined for a highlight alley-oop off of the backboard:

“I think it took the Utah Summer League for me to really find that out,” said Young when asked how long it took to develop that trust with Collins. “When we got to Vegas in that Summer League my rookie year, we just had a connection. On the court, pick-and-rolls, and he’s developed into an even better three-point shooter since then. It’s fun and the connection we have we’ve had for a long time.”

One of the talking points from Tuesday’s game against the Houston Rockets was how the Hawks let a 23-point lead slip away, particularly in the second half. While they executed well in the fourth quarter to ensure they didn’t let the Rockets successfully overturn that 23 point deficit, they showed some worrying lapses that allowed the Rockets D-team, essentially, to get back and make this a game.

Entering the halftime break with a 20-point lead last night, the Hawks had an opportunity to show if they learned from Tuesday. While the Thunder made a little burst as Gilgeous-Alexander scored 15 third-quarter points, the Hawks were up to the task. They always appeared to be in control in the second half and the lead never fell below 15 points in the second half.

The Hawks got to empty their bench for the final four minutes, with Nathan Knight producing this monster dunk to cap proceedings:

It was a very comfortable win for the Atlanta Hawks in the end, their lessons learned from the Houston game, with interim head coach Nate McMillan praising the Hawks’ focus.

“I thought our focus was good right from the start,” said McMillan postgame. “We established our defense at the beginning of the game, offensively we got a rhythm and just a nice job of playing a 48 minute game. It didn’t matter who came into the game, those guys were locked in to what we needed to do what we didn’t do in the last game was able to control the game throughout.”

From start to finish, the Hawks looked in control. The cliché of a 48 minute game’ is thrown around a lot as an ideology: an almost impossible target teams chase but the Hawks came pretty close to this yesterday. It was one of the most complete games, if not, the most complete game the Hawks have played this season.

“I would say it’s definitely up there with one of them,” said Young when asked if this was one of the Hawks’ more complete games this season. “Just the way we played from beginning to end, just really follow the game-plan, everybody contributed. That’s the best thing is that everybody really got a good feel and going on this road trip it’s going to help us.”

One of the more interesting things the Hawks did last night was assign Young to guard the 7-foot Aleksej Pokusevski and Tony Snell (and others) took the challenge of guarding Gilgeous-Alexander.

“A great job by Tony,” said McMillan of Snell’s defense of Gilgeous-Alexander. “Tonight, we switched that matchup. Last game that we played OKC we had other guards on him, we wanted someone bigger, more physical. Tony has done a really nice job of locking in on their best one, two or three and I thought he did a good job of containing him, keeping him in front and making score over the top. I thought it disrupted their rhythm. Just a solid job from the start by Tony.”

The main takeaway from this game other than the continuation of the winning streak was the burst of Bogdanovic, who scored a season-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-of-9 from behind the arc.

“It was great to see,” said Young of Bogdanovic. “I was telling him throughout the whole game ‘Get a rhythm, find a rhythm.’ I know he’s been out for a while so it’s really good to see some shots go down for him.”

Coming off of an avulsion fracture in his knee, Bogdanovic, naturally, struggled upon his return to action but put together his best scoring output of the season last night — a real encouraging sign ahead of the Hawks’ upcoming trip west.

McMillan spoke to the rhythm and the chemistry that the second unit is beginning to find, with Danilo Gallinari looking more and more like his old self. Both he and Bogdanovic haven’t been able to spend a ton of time together on the court in the second unit and there’s been, in general, great inconsistency and change in the Hawks’ second unit given all their injuries. It feels like things are beginning to come together on that end.

“Very important for us to try get into a rhythm, try to get that second unit a rhythm,” said McMillan when asked about Bogdanovic. “Bogi, Gallo, Rondo those guys are playing in that second group and what we’ve tried to do is add some things that we can get them involved. I thought they did a nice job finding him, setting screens for him. He was aggressive, he was able to knock down some shots. It’s a second unit that could really be helpful for us and I thought, tonight, they showed a little bit of chemistry. A better rhythm.”

It just seems to be coming together for the Hawks in general.

“I think so,” said Young on if the Hawks are beginning to finally gel. “With the way we’re hitting each other on passes — obviously we had a lot of turnovers in that first half — but the way we’re moving and guys are seeing each other, the connection is growing. Still can get better but it’s definitely getting there. It’s definitely clicking at the right time.”

The Hawks are riding high, now on a current NBA-best seven-game winning streak and, with Charlotte’s loss last night, the Hawks have now moved to fifth in the Eastern Conference. McMillan has continues to preach ‘one game at a time’ throughout and this was the case last night too, with McMillan speaking to the closeness of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

“We just take it one game at a time,” said McMillan of the Hawks’ seven-game win streak. “We try to be better the next time out. OKC just beat us a couple of weeks ago and we wanted to be better than we were in our Houston game. I thought tonight we came out, we were locked in, we established our defense early. We talked about where we are in the standings and I don’t want to talk a lot about that but we moved up to number six. We went from eight to six, we’re half a game out of fifth and we’re a game and a half from being out of the playoffs. This is going to be a tight race in the second half of the season. Every game is going to be a big game. You have to lock in and try and take advantage of every game you play going down the stretch. It’s going to be a tight race for the whole second half. I thought our guys tonight did a good job of locking in, making sure we defend homecourt and now we get to go out on the road and meet some of the West Coast teams.”

This is the Hawks’ longest winning streak since 2017, meaning it’s brand new ground for all of the Hawks’ young players.

“Again, this is uncharted territory for me, so I’m loving it,” said Collins of the streak. “I want it to last as long as it can. I know the NBA is a very up-and-down league but I’m feeling great just to be a part of this and have something great continuously going. It’s new for me to win this way and I just want to keep understanding how it feels to win and appreciate it.”

On multiple occasions recently the Hawks have talked about how they’ve believed, they believe they can win games. Again, this feeling of belief was echoed postgame.

“I really think it’s been our belief,” said Collins on putting the Hawks’ streak together. “We’ve believe that we can win. We’ve gone into each game with a different mindset, understanding what we need to do to attack, playing every team the same way. That gives us some consistency, something to work off of. When you have a mix of young guys and veterans as we do, it can create a deadly combination. We want to continue to play as well as we can and win as many games as we can.”

With business taken care of during the week with victories over the Rockets and Thunder, the Hawks now embark on their eight-game Western Conference road trip. The Hawks have done a wonderful job of taking advantage of the situations in front of them since McMillan was named as interim coach but now they face a real test on their west coast trip against multiple playoff, even title contending teams. With many, many eyes now on the Hawks as they face high-profile teams, everyone is about to see what this Hawks team is really made of — they face tough tests during this trip not only on the court but off of it too.

“It’s important for us, especially being gone 16 days, playing eight games,” said Young of the upcoming road trip. “You do the math, we’re playing every other day. Not getting too many practices in, really just travelling and playing so for us it’s a mental thing. In our film sessions, being locked in and taking care of our bodies while we’re on the road. It’s going to be very important to do that. It’s going to be an important stretch for us. We’ve got to be ready and I believe we will be.”

The Hawks, with this seven game winning streak, have put themselves in a good position where they can drop a few games and not be in dire, dire straights in the playoff picture. A 3-5 road trip would be a good outcome for this team given their opposition. Anything more than that is an enormous boost, especially given that their schedule gets easier after this road trip.

The Hawks (21-20) begin their gauntlet against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday afternoon at Staples Center.

The real work begins.

Until next time...