With roughly one-third of the 2020-21 season remaining and the Eastern Conference standings being as tight as they are, every game matters at this point. Even games when several starters are not able to suit up due to injuries, the value of a win is all the same in the standings.
The Atlanta Hawks faced the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday evening in their final game of a grueling eight-game road trip. After playing 35 minutes in a double overtime win over the Spurs on Thursday night (it would have been more if not for foul trouble), Trae Young missed this game with left knee soreness. Prior to this contest, Young had missed only nine games in his career, and the Hawks had won just two of those contests.
The Pelicans were absent their young star player also, as Zion Williamson was inactive due to a thumb injury.
The stars were not alone in their absence. The Hawks also played without the services of John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Danilo Gallinari, and Kris Dunn. New Orleans took the floor without Brandon Ingram, Steven Adams, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart.
On paper, this game was not what was envisioned for a Friday night tilt expected to feature two of the most dynamic young players in the game. But, for the Hawks at least, this one mattered a whole lot. Atlanta’s veteran depth made all of the difference for them en route to a 126-103 victory to conclude the road trip with an even split, four wins and four losses.
In Young’s absence, Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan decided to start three guards. Despite having been out of the rotation at times this season, Brandon Goodwin got the nod at point guard. He was deployed alongside both Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter, presumably to get additional creators on the floor to start the game.
Lou Williams, playing his second game with the Hawks after being acquired at the trade deadline, helped initiate the offense on the second unit. And with that distribution of the available creators, the Hawks produced one of their best offensive performances of the season, even if it was against a very young collection of Pelicans reserves.
Bogdanovic and Huerter combined to produce 50 points and 10 assists in carrying most of the offensive workload for the first unit. Meanwhile, Atlanta had three reserves reach double digits in scoring. Williams worked well with Tony Snell and Onyeka Okongwu to provide offensive continuity.
The contributions of the centers should not go unnoticed, especially the work that has been put in by the starting five man, Clint Capela. Coming off of 44 minutes of work on Thursday evening, it was frankly surprising to see him play in this game. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six blocked shots on his way to a +20 in the box score.
Okongwu set career highs in points (11) and rebounds (nine) and played with a seemingly new found confidence and composure.
As significant as this game looks in the standings at the moment, the acquisition of Williams also seems important. While Rajon Rondo, sent out in the trade, has a lot he brings to his team, he’s just not capable of stepping in, when Young is not available, and carrying a serious scoring workload. The steadiness of Williams was a major factor in this game.
“Lou is Lou,” said McMillan about the play of Williams the last two nights. “We know what he’s capable of doing. And he is slowly working himself into rhythm. We’re coming up with some sets and some plays for him and the second unit. And he’s doing a good job of initiating some of the offense. But also playing off the ball or playing the point and running sets for us. He’s really done a nice job these two games he has played.”
Looking at the rest of the season through the lens of game like this, the non-Young minutes just don’t look as daunting. Williams has been a preternatural scorer since he was a teenager, and he still brings that quality consistently in his 16th season in the league.
After a slow start in the game, Atlanta dominated the final three periods of play by a margin of 29 points. The offensive contributions were important, but it was the way that they settled in defensively that set them up for the win.
After converting 14 field goals in the first quarter, New Orleans produced just 24 makes the rest of the way.
“It was just a professional approach,” commented McMIllan. “I thought we came out with a business mindset to dig down deep on this last game of a long road trip to try to win this game. We talked about that. We wanted to pretty much approach this game as if it was the fourth quarter. The last quarter, the last game of a road trip. And we needed to dig deep, be strong, and play this game. And I thought our guys tonight came out with that mindset that we were down a lot of people. And guys stepped up and they took advantage of their opportunities. And it was a collective effort by everybody. But both the first and second unit did a solid job for 48 minutes.”
New Orleans generated 25 points in transition on 9-for-9 shooting while shooting 29-for-79 in the half court.
When the Hawks were able to set their defense they were formidable. A 39-point third quarter on offense gave Atlanta ample opportunity to consistently play from an established defensive base.
“A good trip for us,” McMillan added. “Coming out west we met five of the top teams in the west. And you come off an eight-game road trip .500 that’s good in the NBA.”
“It was a game we were going into trying not to make excuses,” opined Huerter in post game comments. “We had a lot of guys out. They had a lot of guys out. We’re at the end of our road trip. And it was a game we really wanted to get to finish our road trip going 4-4. And for us to try and obviously climb the standings in the Eastern Conference. It was a game, like I said, we weren’t going to make excuses. We had enough people to win obviously. And it was good to see a lot of people step up.”
As the association concluded business on Friday evening, the Hawks sat tied for fifth in the conference standings with the Miami Heat and just a half game back of the Charlotte Hornets for fourth place.
In the stat book, Bogdanovic led all scorers with 26 points. He also managed seven rebounds and seven assists.
Huerter produced 24 points on just 16 shooting possessions. It was his best offensive game in quite some time. Goodwin had 10 points and five assists.
In 30 minutes of action, Williams had 19 points and eight assists. Snell had 10 points and four rebounds.
In the losing effort, James Johnson has 16 points and six assists for New Orleans. Eric Bledsoe managed 14 points and five assists.
Kira Lewis Jr., the Pelicans dynamic rookie guard, had 21 points on an efficient shooting performance.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
The Hawks were a bit sluggish defensively to start the game, maybe understandably so:
Bogdanovic loses track of his man as he cuts on the baseline for the easy score.
Absent Young, Atlanta didn’t use a heavy dose of high pick and roll to start the game, choosing rather to attack on the side:
On this possession, it leads to an open three-point attempt for Solomon Hill at the top of the key.
As Bogdanovic starts to settle in as a creator he sets up to work the middle pick and roll with Capela halfway through the first period:
He dribbles in to a made three.
This is starting to look like what the Hawks envisioned for him when they signed him to the restricted free agent offer sheet in the offseason.
His versatility is seen here:
In the “strong” or “away” action, he doesn’t just rely on the staggered screens available to him. Bogdanovic uses his body to get separation from his defender to set up the action.
Atlanta has been vulnerable to corner threes of late:
Reserve forward Wenyen Gabriel works nicely in the “short roll” to create a shot for Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Pelicans offense was good throughout the first quarter.
Snell shows he can do more than catch and shoot when more is needed:
He works the pick and roll to create a nice look for himself.
In semi-transition, Williams catches the young Pelicans defenders playing too loose in trying to rush into “ice” coverage of the side pick and roll:
Capela’s first bucket is an easy one.
In the half court, Huerter finds more soft “ice” coverage:
He works to the baseline for the comfortable jumper.
The athleticism and force of Okongwu can be seen here:
If he can replicate Capela’s productivity on the offensive glass in his minutes to even a modest degree, it would be meaningful.
With the move of Bogdanovic into the starting lineup, his emerging chemistry with Capela is encouraging:
And this is where the Hawks start to settle in and use their defense to create offense and some separation on the scoreboard.
Capela gets a block on one end and runs the floor to get the shooting foul on the other end:
There are not a lot of centers that can do that.
Also notice the excellent communication and team defense between Hill, Huerter and Goodwin.
Bogdanovic pounces on an opportunity to get a steal from an unsuspecting Johnson:
It leads to an easy score for Huerter.
Goodwin gets into the mix:
As does Okongwu:
And the Hawks controlled it from there.
Atlanta’s starters played later in this game than was likely expected. It was potentially a decision on the part of McMillan to give Williams some time on the court with his new teammates. After all, the rest of the way, every single game matters.
Finally back home, the Hawks will host the Golden State Warriors on Sunday evening. Tip off is scheduled for 7:30 PM ET.