The Atlanta Hawks entered Wednesday night’s fixture against the New York Knicks knowing that it was, arguably, their biggest game of the season. With the Eastern Conference standings as tight as they are and the Knicks and Hawks right in the thick of it, entering Wednesday night as the 4-5 matchup.
The Hawks held a 95-87 lead in the latter stages of the third quarter when Trae Young went down with an ankle injury that looked severe, as Young had to be helped off of the floor and back to the locker-room. Young’s absence was felt in the fourth quarter as the Knicks came back and took the fourth quarter lead and, really, should’ve sealed the deal in regulation but thanks to the heroics of Bogdan Bogdanovic to tie the game with a three-pointer the Hawks took the game to overtime. From there, the Hawks’ offense crumbled, scoring just five points in overtime to the Knicks’ 15 points to seal the 137-127 overtime victory.
This was a brutal loss for multiple reasons.
The loss of the game itself obviously was tough for the Hawks, giving the Knicks the 3-0 series victory and sole possession of the 4-seed from Atlanta, as well as giving up ground to Boston and Miami behind.
As tough as the loss was, the long-term complications for the Hawks with Young’s absence — as well as Clint Capela’s hard fall late in the game — gave cause for far more concern than just the loss against the Knicks.
On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski brought word that Young had suffered a Grade 2 lateral sprain on his left ankle, an excellent piece of news given how grim things looked on Wednesday night on the court.
According to injury expert Jeff Stotts, the average amount of time missed in the NBA this season with a Grade 2 sprain has been 18 days. 18 days falls before the Hawks’ Wizards game on May 11th, meaning — if Young were to miss this amount of time — Young would miss nine games.
While I would wager that he returns to action before 18 days, Young is set to potentially miss his biggest spell on the sidelines so far and the Hawks, one way or another, have to continue their playoff push... without Young.
Even though Young has proven to be reliable in terms of staying on the court, Young’s current absence won’t be his first of the season — he recently sat out two games due to a calf injury and has played in 54 of the Hawks’ 59 games so far this season.
Two of these games came earlier in the season and came with players who either didn’t play or players who were playing who are now not playing (i.e. De’Andre Hunter) and under another coach, so for arguments sake we’re going to dismiss those in terms of how the Hawks go about figuring out how to move forward.
The first of the other three games Young missed was Apr. 2 against New Orleans, while the other two game in consecutive games due to Young’s calf injury: Milwaukee and Toronto on April 11th and 13th — all relatively recently.
So, with recent reference material, we can estimate somewhat what/who the Hawks will look to in Young’s absence to begin filling the offensive vacancy.
First and foremost, it’s not just one player who has to step up in Young’s absence: everyone will be relied upon more now in Young’s absence. That means Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Lou Williams and so on.
It also extends to the man likely to replace Young in the starting five, as he has done in April when Young has missed out: Brandon Goodwin.
Goodwin started all three games that Young missed in April, averaging 15 points per game on 53% shooting from the field on 10 field goal attempts, 52% from three on 5.3 attempts, as well as five assists per game on 18.7% usage in an average of 34 minutes per game.
Obviously this is a very small sample size but markedly different than his season averages of 4.7 points per game on 38.4% shooting from the field on 4.4 field goal attempts, 35% from three on 2.1 attempts and three assists in 12.5 minutes per game with 18.4%.
Generally speaking, good things happen when Brandon Goodwin is involved more on the court. One of the very few gripes I have with the Hawks of late is how under-utilized Goodwin is (generally speaking but also) in the second unit, where Lou Williams is the guard who sees vastly more of the ball of the two of late.
Goodwin is a solid offensive player who is capable of creating a shot, and has taken over games and won games for the Hawks in the past (less so this season). When Goodwin has scored 15 or more points (the three games he started) the Hawks won all three games. Heck, even when Goodwin scores 10 points or more in a game they’re 4-1.
I’m not saying Goodwin is the one to take over but when he has a good scoring night, usually it’s one of the keys to unlocking the Hawks’ potential — the same is also true when he comes off of the bench, as when he and Lou have it going off of the bench, the bench fares much better (noteworthy, since the Hawks’ bench has let them down of late).
With Goodwin starting and playing more minutes, he is one of the players the Hawks will rely on more not just offensively but defensively too, his defense will be a very welcome addition to the starting lineup at the point guard position — something Young obviously doesn’t offer compared to Goodwin.
The Hawks more than likely won’t score more points with Young missing but let’s call a stone a stone: they’re likely not going to ship as many points either.
Kevin Huerter also played well during Young’s absence in April so far, going off for his season-high of 24 points against the Pelicans, and while he did have a tough game against the Hornets (scoring 10 points), he did score 17 against the Raptors.
Huerter will obviously be counted upon to score a little more in Young’s absence but he’ll also be called upon at times to distribute the ball too. In those three games (again, very small sample), Huerter’s usage shot up from his season average of 16.6% to 21.8% usage.
Huerter has time and again proven himself a consistent performer on both ends of the floor and has played every single game for the Hawks so far this season and his availability is as important now as it has been this season.
“Kevin has been a consistent player for us all season long as well,” said Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan of Huerter after the Hawks topped the Pacers on April 18th. “We talk about what Clint has done and what other guys have done, Kevin has played in just about every game. He’s been a starter, he’s come off of the bench. What we’re doing is, similar to Bogi, personalizing some of the offense so we can get the ball in different guys’ hands and he’s done a great job of creating offense, being more aggressive, attacking the basket, not settling for just the perimeter jump shot and then he does a good job making decisions when he’s running the pick-and-roll. I love his aggressiveness tonight. Defensively, I think he’s gotten better. We’ve challenged him all season long to become a better defender. Each night he has become the guy that we’re putting on some of the best players without De’Andre and Cam, we’ve had to really rely on Kevin to become a better two-way player for us.”
With Hunter and Cam Reddish still on the sidelines now in addition to Young, everything Huerter does (scoring, spacing the floor, his improved defense and playing heavy minutes) will be needed more than ever to get the Hawks through this stretch.
Lou Williams’ role coming off of the bench shouldn’t change a ton in Young’s absence but the Hawks simply need him to make more of an impact on the offensive end. Over his last five games, Williams is averaging 11.2 points per game on 35% shooting from the field and 28% from three on just under three attempts per game.
The Hawks and McMillan have been calling for Williams to be a bit more aggressive and take less of a facilitators role coming off of the bench.
“Had a conversation with Coach Nate this week, I was facilitating a little too much for his liking, he just wanted me to more aggressive on the offensive end and be myself,” said Williams following the Hawks’ recent victory over the Orlando Magic. “Last couple of games I’ve tried to do that, had success with it tonight just being aggressive at the rim and creating opportunities with guys fouling.”
With the bench as it is right now — with the personnel the Hawks are missing — the Hawks are entirely dependent on Williams having a good night for their bench to even have an O.K. night. If Williams is struggling, the Hawks’ bench is usually outclassed — sometimes by quite a margin.
Young’s absence won’t change a ton for Williams (other than his minutes, potentially) because Williams is still going to be heavily relied upon coming off the bench.
However, the player who has been called upon and relied upon the most in Young’s absence has unquestionably been Bogdan Bogdanovic.
When Young was sidelined, Bogdanovic, in essence, became the Hawks’ go-to scorer — and Bogdanovic responded in a big way, as he has done for quite a while now.
In the three games, Bogdanovic has averaged 27 points per game on 48% shooting on 19 field goal attempts, 55% from three on 11 three-point attempts while sporting a usage of 26%.
Again, a small sample size but these are vastly higher than the season averages 14.5 points per game on 45% from the field on 12 field goal attempts, 41% from three on 6.9 attempts and 20.4% usage.
Bogdanovic has been the one to see the ball more, the one the Hawks go to for the majority of their offense, the one who it runs through and the one the Hawks are going to arguably rely on offensively the most in Young’s absence. If Bogdanovic is unable to maintain his productivity (perhaps not at the high level he has been) and efficiency the Hawks are going to find it difficult to win games.
He showed this quality down the stretch of Wednesday’s Knicks game, hitting multiple buckets in the fourth quarter — big baskets too.
To start, he comes off of the Clint Capela screen, gets to the free throw line area and hits the contested jump shot to cut the Knicks lead:
Trailing by five points with under three minutes remaining, Bogdanovic comes off of the John Collins drag screen, gets the defender on his back and hits the runner to cut an already intense game down to one possession:
Bogdanovic showed his ability to hit massive shots in massive moments as he hits the corner three coming out of the timeout as the Capela screen and the Knicks’ late reaction gives Bogdanovic the opportunity to tie the game:
The Hawks, in reality and at that stage of the game, probably didn’t deserve to go to overtime but Bogdanovic’s seven fourth quarter points — all were timely — were massive, even if it came in a losing effort: Bogdanovic gave the Hawks every chance.
Sadly in overtime the Hawks struggled for offense but Bogdanovic provided a slight ray of hope as his three-pointer slices the Knicks lead to just five points with just under two minutes to go:
Again though, it bears repeating that Bogdanovic has been the one the Hawks go to in Young’s absence and he will be imperative once again in Young’s absence — the Hawks may only go as far as Bogdanovic can carry them, but there are a few stipulations to that.
One offensive threat the Hawks didn’t have in the three games Young missed was John Collins, rehabbing from an ankle injury himself. Collins is still working his way back from a minutes restriction he is currently still under, so it might not be wise to expect 30-12 games from Collins immediately. Even still, Collins is a massive offensive asset for the Hawks to have in Young’s absence.
Elsewhere, Danilo Gallinari (who also didn’t play in those three games) will return against Miami on Friday while there is optimism that De’Andre Hunter may be returning to the fold soon — if nothing else, it’s certainly possible that Hunter returns ahead of Young but caution should be exercised on that thought.
Here’s the upshot: the Hawks can get through this stretch without Young.
With Collins, Gallinari and maybe even Hunter returning to the fold — in addition to the already present Bogdanovic, Collins Huerter, Williams and wildcard Goodwin. While those who have returned/are returning won’t be firing on all cylinders immediately, their presences will help boost the Hawks’ bench/depth if nothing else, even if it takes a few games for the efficiency and productivity to get near where it was.
Defensively, the Hawks obviously don’t lose out with Young not on the floor. In fact, in theory, they should be better off defensively not just with Goodwin playing more minutes but in addition to the absence of the Young-Williams lineups that are...not ideal.
Obviously the Hawks are worse off overall without Young — not for one second will I say anything otherwise. This is the reality. However, they are better equipped to handle an extended Young absence than they ever have been.
In actuality, the absence the Hawks should be most worried about is Clint Capela, who is carrying a back injury.
McMillan has spoken on many occasions about the importance of Clint Capela, both offensively, defensively, as a pick-and-roll threat, as a lob target, as the guy the Hawks can rely to anchor their defense etc. etc. etc.
Here’s a recent quote from McMillan on Capela after the recent Pacers game.
“Clint, once again, did a great job being the anchor for our defense, covering up mistakes that we were making on the perimeter and rebounding the basketball,” said McMillan. “We dominate the boards tonight and a big reason for that was Clint, not only defending but rebounding the basketball. Offensively, great job of setting screens, freeing up the basketball and making himself available. Just another great job by Clint, I definitely don’t think we win this game without him being on the floor.”
You only need to watch the Hawks play to know how important Capela is, but in case you need some numbers...
I hope this goes without saying at this point, but Capela's status is massive for tonight.— Brad Rowland (@BTRowland) April 23, 2021
The Hawks have a +6.7 net rating when he plays this season, including a 107.9 DRTG.
The Hawks have a -4.2 net rating when he's off the court this season, including a 113.9 DRTG.
There are others in Young’s place who can pick up a fair amount (not all of it, but a decent amount) of the offensive slack but no one on this team can anchor the defense like Capela can. I’m high on John Collins’ defensive abilities but while he’s still restricted on his minutes and his time at center (naturally), the Hawks would be in serious trouble defensively should Capela miss extended time, more so, I believe, than Young’s absence will hurt the Hawks.
The Hawks are 25-13 when they score 110 points in a game and 16-3 when they score 120 or more points. When the Hawks concede 110 points in a game? 12-23 and 4-12 when they concede 120 points.
Given the fact Capela was immediately listed as questionable and not ‘out’ against the Heat (even though Capela was eventually ruled out), that would lend encouragement that Capela may be back soon.
In terms of the upcoming schedule, the Hawks have a difficult time coming up — much more difficult than the three games the Hawks played without Young in April prior to the injury (being the Pelicans, Hornets and Raptors).
A very difficult matchup against the Bucks in Milwaukee on Sunday is somewhat balanced by a game against the Pistons afterwards, but then two consecutive road games against the Philadelphia 76ers, followed by a game against the Bulls before two tough games in the form of the Blazers, the Suns and — possibly the final game without Young — the Pacers.
If the Hawks can win the games they’re ‘supposed’ to — and, perhaps, steal a game or two they’re favored against — their schedule to end the season lends potential for a strong ending, including two matchups against the Washington Wizards, the Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets...all at State Farm Arena.
How the Hawks handle their stretch run — without Young to begin — will be key to their season, especially given how close the Eastern Conference is, with the Hawks needing the four or five seed to have any chance in the playoffs to advance (a 3-6 matchup against the Bucks would not go well, neither would a series against the Sixers or Nets, which would come off of the heels of the play-in).
For now, Trae Young is sidelined but the Hawks might have enough offense and a path forward to stay afloat as he heals ahead of the Atlanta Hawks’ potential playoff return...