For the Atlanta Hawks, a major test had presumably arrived in the form of an eight-game road trip to the west coast that began on Saturday. After winning seven consecutive games — against a mostly unimpressive set of opponents — since making a coaching change, they faced the reigning NBA champions to start a stretch that would potentially reveal how much better they may be under the guidance of interim head coach Nate McMillan.
Even as the Lakers prepared to play a fourteenth consecutive game without the services of Anthony Davis, they still had this guy named LeBron James on their team. Hawks fans have probably heard of him.
Despite being 7-6 in the recent stretch without Davis, they are still unquestionably one of the very best teams in the league, and the Lakers boasted the NBA’s top-ranked defense heading into the game.
Barely a minute into the second quarter, though, James went down with an ankle injury. After making an effort to stay in the game, he headed for the locker room with 10:04 remaining in the period and would not return.
Suddenly, a game that was viewed to be an important test for a streaking Hawks team became just one more contest that they should win. It wasn’t the most beautiful basketball, but Atlanta got the eventual victory by a margin of 99-94.
In the way that’s unsurprising of a Frank Vogel-led team, Los Angeles worked to junk up the game the rest of the way with physical and chippy play. And it nearly worked. After being down by as many 14 points in the second half, the Lakers almost got the Atlanta lead down to two possessions in the final minutes of play.
The Hawks, having seemingly solved their fourth quarter woes, never gave in and held on for the victory that moved them into a tie for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Atlanta has often leaned on John Collins in the absence of De’Andre Hunter, who missed his 23rd consecutive game, and the starting power forward did not let them down in this contest. He produced his famously easy offense managing 27 points on just 18 shooting possessions while adding three steals and three blocked shots.
When Lakers reserve center Montrezl Harrell tried to use his aggressive style to put his team back in play for the win, Atlanta veteran reserves Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic made plays down the stretch to help maintain control until the buzzer finally sounded.
But Collins carried the bulk of the scoring load for the Hawks as the Lakers prioritized getting the ball out of the hands of Trae Young.
This is the play upon which James was injured:
Despite what some Lakers fans might want you to believe, it was obviously not a dirty play. Just a scramble for the ball on the floor. The result is that, unfortunately, James’ ankle gets caught under Solomon Hill as he reaches for the ball on the floor.
James would hit a three-pointer on the next possession before asking for a timeout to allow him to exit and head for the locker room.
The Hawks would outscore Los Angeles by a mere three points the rest of the way. As such, it may not have been the most impressive win. But a team can only beat the teams they face.
Atlanta doesn’t win many games when Young is 6-for-18 from the floor, especially when he has an 0-for-7 shooting performance from the three-point line. He appeared to be forcing things at times as a shooter, but his passing game was on the mark.
“I didn’t think we finished the game the right way,” said McMillan in postgame remarks. “I think sometimes the basketball gods will punish you when you play the way we did down the stretch, really the entire second half. You know, we did a good job in the third quarter of holding them to 12 points. But we only scored 22 points. I thought we started to settle for long jump shots and not continue to keep pressure on their defense attacking the basket. Only nine free throws we had tonight. We don’t want to settle.”
“We want to attack and keep the pressure on their defense,” he continued. ”We only gave up 41 points in the second half. But I thought we needed to do a better job offensively.”
His starting point guard seemed to agree.
“For us we kind of feel like we let off the gas in this game,” Young said. “We could have done a lot of things better, especially down the stretch. So, for us we’re happy. We won. That’s the main thing, the main goal. But there’s definitely a lot of things they can clean up and learn from this game.”
The only real separation Atlanta got was in the third quarter, as the Lakers struggled to make shots, and early in the fourth quarter when they were able to extend the lead to 14 points. But Vogel reinserted Harrell into the game and Los Angeles make a gradual push that almost got the game back in reach.
Collins had done most of his damage by the end of the third quarter, after which he needed a break. Clint Capela’s minutes were cut short because of foul trouble in the first half. And both Onyeka Okonwgu and Nathan Knight, reserve rookie big men, struggled mightily in the first half. As a result, Okongwu didn’t play at all in the second half while Knight logged fewer than three minutes.
By the end of the third period, Collins had 25 points and 14 rebounds in 25 minutes as he carried an offense that was held back to a degree by the lack of shot making from the rest of the starters, none of when had registered even 10 points in the game by that point.
This season, a veteran bench was intended to make a major difference in close games for Atlanta and that happened in this contest. Gallinari and Bogdonovic made timely shots in the fourth quarter to keep the Hawks lead just out of reach.
“I thought he did a good job of just attacking, you know,” McMillan said about the play of Collins. “He got a lot of offensive rebounds. He was finishing in the paint. When he had match ups in the post he was taking his time and really taking advantage of the small match up in the post. I thought he was just really patient tonight and took what the defense gave him.”
“He was unbelievable. He’s been playing great,” responded Young when asked about the play of Collins. “They are going to continue to send two and leave him open. And he is going to continue to knock them down and make the right play. It’s just great to see him playing the way he’s been playing right now.”
Atlanta used a nine-point advantage in both second chance points and points off of turnovers to build toward their total of 99 points.
In the stat book, it was a rare game for Capela in that he fell short of his normally reliable double-double. He struggled to convert shots at the rim and was 4-for-16 from the floor on his way to an eight point, 16 rebound performance.
Young had 11 assists to go along with his 14 points. Kevin Huerter had eight points on a tough shooting performance of his own.
Gallinari posted 18 points, three assists and two steals playing more than 30 minutes for just the third time this season. He was extended as a result of the rookie big men being non-viable in the second half just as was Collins.
Continuing a resurgence as he works his way back from injury, Bogdanovic had 10 points and three assists. He closed the game instead of Tony Snell, a change from recent pattern.
For the Lakers, Harrell led their scorers with 23 points on just 15 shooting possessions. He wasn’t very active in the first half but really poured it on in the fourth quarter. He also managed 11 rebounds.
Former Hawks guard Dennis Schroder had 16 points and seven rebounds but managed just four assists while turning the ball over six times. Markieff Morris, starting in the place of Davis, had 12 points and six rebounds.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
The Lakers opened the game with a favorite ATO of the Hawks during the Lloyd Pierce era:
Former Hawks center Damian Jones gets the lob and the easy points.
Snell drew the primary assignment of defending James in this game:
Snell’s lack of playing time down the stretch could have been connected to James’ absence. His individual game-planning could have been strictly related to this defensive assignment.
Collins and Capela seem to be continuing to find it comfortable to operate in each other’s space. As seen here:
Collins beats Morris up the court as the latter argues with an official.
Collins and Snell flash good team defense on this possession:
Collins pulls into the paint to cut off the dribble drive of James and Snell covers for him by closing out on the shooter, Morris, in the corner.
Los Angeles was determined to make someone other than Young generate offense showing two bodies at the point of ball screens and switching as needed to keep a defender in front:
In the early going, Young was patient and creating shots for teammates.
Atlanta continues to run down screens for Bogdanovic since the coaching change:
This Okongwu screens frees him up for the comfortable jumper from the free throw line. Bogdanovic was in the 74th percentile scoring off of screens last season.
Gallinari’s creation skilled have been emerging of recent. An example here:
It’s not always a graceful display of his skill, but any shooter that is respected by opposing defenses they way he is needs to be able to do some of this.
Another off screen opportunity from Bogdanovic:
Atlanta ran none of this floppy-like action prior to the coaching change.
More maximum attention on Young here at the point of the ball screen:
It leads to an easy shot at the rim for Collins. The pass to the corner was available too and monitoring Collins ability to read and execute on plays like this will continue to be of interest as Atlanta looks to punish all the attention on their point guard.
Gallinari uses his dribble, again, to create a shot for a teammate:
We’ve all been monitoring the chemistry of Capela and Collins, but the Gallinari-Collins dynamic is of critical importance also. They seem primed to play important minutes together at the power forward and center spots.
Young catches the Lakers in drop coverage and takes advantage with a floater:
A bit of role reversal here and Capela finds Young with a hit ahead pass:
These back-to-back possessions offer a look at the Lakers limited playmaking, absent their best players, and Young continuing to give the ball up for the simple play when dealing with multiple defenders:
Harrell starts to assert himself in the final minutes of the third quarter:
On the other end, things start to come a bit easier for Atlanta:
Harrell impressively tried to put his team on his back and keep them in the game:
But the Hawks make enough timely shots to keep control:
The Hawks stay put for a couple of days and will return to the Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. Tip off is scheduled for 10:00 pm ET.