Perhaps this was the kind of win for which the Atlanta Hawks roster was built this season.
Hitting potentially the hardest, most critical stretch of games on their schedule, it was most unfortunate from a timing perspective for the team to lose both Trae Young and Clint Capela, Atlanta’s two best players this season, to injury. Both were scratched from the Friday evening contest with the Miami Heat.
But the absences didn’t change how big of a game this was. Entering play on Friday, Atlanta was just a game ahead of the Heat in the Eastern Conference standings. To add more emphasis to the importance of the outcome of the game, the winner would secure a tiebreaker over the loser by way of having won the season series two games to one.
But how do Hawks fans approach a game like this with the team they root for missing their most important offensive and defensive players in term of expectations? The Heat have underperformed expectations this season but proved last year during a run to the NBA finals that they know how to win important games.
Atlanta needed every player that would take the floor for them to step up and deliver quality play, and that they did. Ultimately, it was a 118-103 victory to give the Hawks a two-game margin — plus the tiebreaker — in the standings over the divisional foe.
In the most recent games missed by Young, Brandon Goodwin got the call to enter the starting lineup. But in this game, Solomon Hill was inserted into the starting five to provide more size. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter started in the backcourt while rookie Onyeka Okongwu started for just the third time in his young career. Having just returned from an injury of his own, John Collins rounded out the opening lineup.
Okongwu drew the toughest assignment in going head-to-head with Bam Adebayo. Not only did the Hawks rookie center need to hold his own in his minutes, he needed to avoid foul trouble. It wasn’t clear what the plan would be to get minutes at the center position on the second unit under any circumstance.
He more than held his own, even if the box score might not lead you to believe that. He had just six points and five rebounds. But the Hawks held Miami to 42 points in the paint (below their season average).
Bogdanovic took care of most of the ball handling and initiation on the first unit and helped generate offensive continuity. Atlanta scored 31 points or more in each of the first three quarters and found a way to manage 23 points in the fourth quarter despite Miami mounting a serious defensive surge.
Atlanta has no chance to win this kind of game if its first unit doesn’t produce. At the same time, the team’s second unit really moved the needle in the game. Atlanta’s bench outscored Miami’s bench by a margin of 51-21.
Danilo Gallinari returned from a six-game absence to provide a shooting punch. Lou Williams provided steady production. And Goodwin put forward one of his best performances of the season.
“I’m really happy with this group,” said Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan. “We talk about believing every night that we can get it done as long as we play as a fist. Play connected out there for 48 minutes. It happened again tonight with all of the injuries.”
“These guys believed and showed a resiliency just toughing it out,” he continued. “Guys continue to step and play. Our bench was great tonight. Both units were really solid tonight. We had some really outstanding performances from some of the guys. (Okongwu) played a really great fourth quarter defensively against an all-star in Bam (Adebayo). Brandon (Goodwin) comes in and really gives us a lift off the bench.”
“I think this is what we’ve been doing,” commented Gallinari. “You know, the next man, having everybody being ready. We’ve been doing this for many games now. Whoever comes in does his job. We’ve all been doing our job once we get called on.”
Even though their head coach often talks about every game being important, clearly the players had awareness of just how important this game was in the big picture.
“That’s a big statement,” said Goodwin in postgame comments. “That’s a team that obviously went to the finals. We knew how important this game was. Our mindset going into the game is we need to hit them in the mouth, be the aggressors. We needed to play harder than them. And I think we did a really good job of locking in defensively.”
Without Young and Capela, the Hawks chose to start the game without their normal diet of high pick and rolls, choosing rather to use action that prioritized off-ball screens and dribble-handoff techniques attacking Miami’s defense from the side.
They had a good bit of success until the Heat started working to trap the ball near the sideline boundary. This required an adjustment from Atlanta that challenged them to find a way to take care of the basketball amidst the increasing defensive pressure.
But it was the home team that was able to manage a 19-6 edge in fast break points, which was a massive difference in the game. Miami allows the third-fewest opponent points in transition (10.5 per game). As such, the 13-point margin was a significant factor in the eventual 15-point victory.
Bogdanovic led all Hawks scorers with 21 points, needing just 14 shooting possessions. He also produced a season-high eight assists. He continued his torrid shooting pace converting five of his nine attempts from the arc.
Despite reportedly still being on a minutes restriction Collins scored 20 points and amassed eight rebounds. Kevin Huerter had 11 points and six assists and was critical to the Atlanta ball movement throughout the game.
Gallinari and Goodwin produced 17 point each on efficient shooting performances. Goodwin had timely buckets in the second half. Williams (13 points) had several critical scores in the fourth quarter when both defenses got stingy.
In the losing effort, Miami had all five starters manage double-digits in the points column.
Kendrick Nunn led the Heat with 21 points and was their most reliable perimeter shooter. Jimmy Butler has 19 points. Adabayo put forward 16 points and five assists.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
Miami went to a zone defense after their first made basket of the game:
Trevor Ariza jumps the passing lane to create a run out score.
Huerter returns the favor:
That was a lot of separation between Adebayo and Duncan Robinson on the attempted dribble-handoff.
The Hawks run “strong” or “away” action for Huerter as one of their sets of choice to generate shots via off-ball screens:
Two Heat defenders react to Okongwu’s cut to the rim, which frees up the shot for Huerter.
This time, it is Miami’s turn to return the favor:
Huerter and Solomon Hill follow Butler to the rim which opens the pass to Nunn for the uncontested shot.
This probably looks familiar:
Butler loses contact with Bogdanovic as Atlanta runs the “strong” or “away” action for him.
Bogdanovic collapses the defense with dribble penetration:
Miami’s defensive rotations are on point.
It’s not often you see Collins attack a close out with a straight-line drive, but he does that here and it leads to a runner.
Hill does a great job of extending his defense on one of the league’s best shooters and forces Robinson to put the ball on the floor:
He’s not quite the same shooter on the move with a dribble.
Goodwin finds an opportunity to attack the defense of Tyler Herro early in the shot clock:
The result is an easy bucket.
The Hawks get an unusual two-on-four fast break to work:
Goodwin has a surprising first step for a smaller guard in quickness and stride. He puts it to use for the three-point play.
This time it’s Hill going at Herro:
He gets his own opportunity for a three-point play.
There is a lot to break down on this Collins bucket in the post:
The Heat were taking away Collins preferred first move on every catch.
On the right block, Collins likes the inside pivot. They took that way from him there.
On the left block, he looks to turn into the defender with his left shoulder. They were taking that away.
Notice here though that Collins works to get leverage on Butler prior to the post entry pass and then flashes the left hand to Huerter, who makes an entry pass that allows Collins to get to the left shoulder turn on the catch.
Bogdanovic and Collins have a miscommunication on a Robinson backscreen:
It leads to an Ariza lay up.
More “strong, away” for Bogdanovic. This time, the Heat switch it:
Bogdanovic is able to get past Adebayo for the score on the goal tend.
Gallinari starts making shots at just the right time:
You can’t defend that. That’s a seven-footer right in his face.
It’s impossible to do anything about that.
A look at Okongwu holding up on Adebayo:
Miami throws a lot at the rookie here.
They enter the ball to Adebayo at the elbow then run Goran Dragic in “pinch post” action that sends him to the near side corner (an unusual tactic). This is intended to put Okongwu’s head on a swivel.
But he just mirrors Adebayo and forces the miss.
As they often do when trying to fight back, Miami starts to get really physical. On this possession, it works against them:
Dragic puts Goodwin on the ground which makes it look like a passing lane is wide open for Adebayo. But Williams jumps the pass and gets the run out lay up.
The Heat are trying to back in range and start trapping the ball:
Hill works in short roll action and navigates to the rim for a lay up.
And the Hawks maintain control the rest of the way.
More good news
Shortly after this game ended, the Boston Celtics came up short in loss to the Brooklyn Nets, leaving Atlanta a game up on them.
It was a very productive night in the standings.
It doesn’t get any easier.
“We’re going to see how tough we are,” McMillan said when asked about the path forward. “Because we have a lot of work and a lot of basketball left. And this race is still tight.”
On Sunday, the Hawks will host the Milwaukee Bucks. They will have to take the floor again without the services of Young. It’s unknown at this time what the status of Capela will be.
The game tips at 7:30 PM ET.