The Atlanta Hawks returned to the court following a three-day absence over the weekend as they kicked off their final four-game homestand to finish the regular season with a 125-124 victory over the Washington Wizards on Monday night.
Trae Young scored 36 points in addition to a 28-point performance from John Collins as well as 25 points from Bogdan Bogdanovic.
For the Wizards — playing without Bradley Beal — Russell Westbrook made NBA history as he passed Oscar Robertson’s all-time triple double record with 28 points, 21 assists and 13 rebounds in what is a truly incredible feat (that, for some reason, the game was not stopped for). Rui Hachimura added 20 points.
The Hawks entered Monday night’s game as heavy favorites, as they probably should with Beal out of the equation, but they looked like anything but favorites as the first half unfolded, with the Wizards scoring with ease in the second quarter as the Hawks’ transition defense was poor in the first half. However, the Hawks used a good burst to end the first half to bring themselves within a point heading into the halftime break before finally showing up to this game in the third quarter.
A 17-2 run in the third quarter pushed the Hawks nearly out of sight as they took a 15-point lead at 88-73 as the Hawks outscored the Wizards 35-17 in the third quarter, Collins in particular having a great third quarter as he imposed himself on both ends of the floor with Young also scoring 16 points in the third quarter.
The Hawks extended this lead to 100-81 with 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. At this stage, this game should have been done and dusted but the Wizards put together a 21-3 run to take a one point lead in a matter of minutes, as the second unit fell apart and the first unit taking time to get settled again.
A banked three-point shot from Davis Bertans brings the Wizards within two points, 117-115 with 3:32 remaining as the Hawks call a timeout, so let’s pick it up here and see how the Hawks sealed this one down the stretch.
On a switch, Young is faced by Bertans and Young drives inside before stepping back and hitting the contested jumper, getting the friendly roll:
As you might imagine in a quarter where the Hawks conceded 45 points (yes, 45 points), defense was hard to come by in the fourth quarter but the Hawks finally get one as Kevin Huerter contests Hachimura’s shot as he tries to lean in, ending up in an air ball:
The Hawks, however, respond in kind with an air ball of their own as Young, again guarded by Bertans, tries to hit a three over Bertans but it’s a contested three and air ball:
Young tried to take over in this game, going through multiple no-pass possessions in the fourth quarter and taking some questionable shots in the process. This is something he has been guilty of in the past, though less so this season, but it was less than ideal at times in the fourth quarter. That said, Young was also finding holes in the Wizards defense but it was heliocentric for quite a while in the fourth quarter and this shot fell into that category too.
Westbrook and the Wizards punish the Hawks as Westbrook hits a three over the contesting Bogdanovic to bring the Wizards back within one at 119-118:
Young then responds by highlighting his effectiveness when he doesn’t settle as he comes off of the screen from Collins, splitting the defense and easily zips inside to score at the rim:
The basket is traded again as Hachimura makes the cut before receiving the pass from Westbrook for the basket at the rim:
A bit of a breakdown here as Huerter and Young ended up guarding the same player, leaving Collins to rotate to Raul Neto and away from Hachimura, leaving him to cut inside.
Young finally makes a pass to a teammate down the stretch but no dime as Clint Capela misses the dunk inside after a good setup from Young:
Now the Wizards have the opportunity to re-take the lead as Westbrook draws four defenders near the rim before kicking it out to the corner to Hachimura for a three-pointer. Hachimura is unable to connect and Bertans commits the loose-ball foul on Collins, sending him to the line:
If you’re the Hawks, you can live with this, even if Hachimura made the shot, to have someone else other than Westbrook take a shot down the stretch.
Collins sinks both free throws to give the Hawks a three point lead and the Hawks would get another opportunity to add to this when Hachimura commits a travelling turnover. On another switch onto Bertans, Young takes it to the rim this time but his layup is too strong:
Westbrook finds Hachimura in transition for the dunk at the rim, cutting the Hawks’ lead to one point as the Hawks missed an easy chance to go up by five points on that Young layup attempt.
Hachimura was heavily involved down the stretch and, if you’re the Hawks, you can live with that.
The Hawks would return to the free throw line when Collins, as he did most of the night long, caused so many issues for the Wizards in the pick-and-roll, drawing the foul from Westbrook inside after a nice pocket pass from Young.
The Wizards responded out of a timeout as Westbrook is isolated against Huerter on the wing before hitting a tough shot over Huerter, receiving the friendly bounce and roll, wanting a foul in the process:
Strong defense from Huerter here, that’s just a tough shot from Westbrook.
After the Hawks took a timeout themselves, they get a switch as Young is guarded by Hachimura and Collins on the inside by Neto. Young feeds the ball to Collins, who tries to go up over Neto and is credited for the block:
The general consensus was that the officials may have missed a foul call inside but on that no-call, the Wizards now have a chance to win the game with the clock now off, trailing by just one point.
Naturally, Westbrook brings the ball down the floor and sees his name up in the stars to cap off a historic night and pulls up for three but the stars cloud over, the three-pointer is missed as the Hawks collect the rebound and the victory:
It was certainly a strange decision to take a three-pointer while trailing by one point and a two-pointer would have got the victory for the Wizards, but what a way to cap off the night it would’ve been.
Alas, the Hawks survive the Wizards’ 45-point fourth quarter but such a quarter was less than ideal for Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan, who obviously zeroed in on what was missing in the final frame, saying the Hawks were perhaps fortunate to leave with a victory last night.
“Defense,” said McMillan on what the Hawks got away from in the fourth quarter. “We got away from playing defense. Third quarter, we did a good job of defending, making them work, challenging their shots and running off of misses. In the first half, we were a little hesitant. We didn’t get out in transition when we forced misses and didn’t establish that tempo that we wanted to. The second half, we did that in the third quarter, we got stops, we got out in transition, we got some easy baskets. In the fourth quarter, we didn’t get any stops. Giving up 45 points, that’s not us, it can’t be us. We want to have much stronger finishes than that. Tonight we got lucky.”
The Wizards shot 70.8% from the field in the final quarter (compared to the Hawks’ 34.8%) as they overturned the Hawks’ 19 point lead in a matter of minutes — an unwelcome return to some of the Hawks’ early-season tendencies.
“(I) probably could say a lot of similar stuff that we’ve been preaching throughout the year about us trying to hold leads, not turning over the ball, valuing each possession,” said Collins of the fourth quarter. “I could go on for days about that and I feel like we wavered with that a little bit in the fourth quarter. We made some clutch shots down the stretch, got to the line, made our shots, we were able to close the game out. Didn’t really close it out the way we wanted to but a W is a W.”
Aside from the Hawks almost giving a game to the Wizards for free, the major storyline from this game — and the bigger picture moving forward — was the return of De’Andre Hunter, who played in his first game since March 24th.
Hunter scored six points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field in 13 minutes off of the bench, the majority of those coming in the first half. While the contribution on the court last night did matter (as did everyone’s in a one point victory), the big takeaway is that — at least postgame — Hunter’s knee was feeling good postgame and Hunter himself feels good coming off of the first game of a long absence.
“I felt good,” said Hunter postgame of how he and his knee was feeling. “I just tried to go out there and not think about it and just play. Feel like I played pretty well in the time I was out there. Knee is feeling good, I don’t have any complaints.”
“I was super excited,” added Hunter on getting back out on the floor. “Kind of felt like when I was a rookie, my first game. Just coming back, being able to compete with the team. We’re in a good spot right now, just going out there, having fun and trying to compete.”
Naturally, everyone was delighted to see Hunter back in the frame, with McMillan not wanting to add too much pressure on Hunter and just allowed him to play and make reads offensively while on the floor last night.
“It was good to see him out there with the guys,” said McMillan of Hunter’s return. “He was in a pretty good rhythm and we basically didn’t put any pressure calling any sets for him, he was just playing off of the offense out there. He made a couple of good reads, defensively having that size and another body out there really helped us. It was good to get him out there for a few minutes.”
“It was really good, really good,” added Young of Hunter’s return. “I was glad to see a couple of shots fall for him. It was to see him get back out there and get into a rhythm a little bit. We’re going to need him coming down the stretch. It’s good to see him back.”
One of the interesting things (at least, to me) postgame was Collins’ comments about Hunter. Collins alluded that he examines his teammates on the floor and said he noticed that Hunter wasn’t really thinking a ton out on the floor with regard to his knee, which Hunter himself said postgame (Collins was speaking before Hunter postgame).
“It was great, he looked great out there,” said Collins of Hunter. “I’m always very intensive as to my brothers and how they’re moving, how they’re looking. He looks really good. I didn’t really see him thinking about anything. I feel like that’s where you should start. Confidence is going to come back. We love having ‘Dre around.”
Nothing massively noteworthy about that little item but I thought it was interesting that what Collins said actually lined up with what Hunter would go on to say himself... Anyways...
It’s obviously going to take some time for Hunter to get up to speed and firing like he was prior to his injury — time the Hawks may not necessarily have. However, even if Hunter doesn’t reach pre-injury form this season, there’s still a lot he adds to the equation.
“His versatility, his ability to come in and play a bunch of spots and guard virtually all five spots — guys are playing small-ball or whatnot,” added Collins of Hunter. “I feel like ‘Dre is one of those guys who adds depth and extra layers of versatility to our team. Makes you love having him around and having him back.”
Bogdanovic went a step further in his comments about Hunter’s return. Bogdanovic previously said that Hunter was the most consistent player for the Hawks before he was sidelined, reiterating that postgame before describing Hunter as ‘the big piece.’
“I told you guys, he was the most consistent player for us before the injury,” said Bogdanovic of Hunter. “He is the big piece for us. We need him, for sure. This is going to be good for him to catch his rhythm. He looked great tonight, he looked like he didn’t miss any games which is amazing. That says a lot about him.”
Hunter is obviously on a minutes restriction and that will more than likely continue to be the case heading into Wednesday’s contest and, likely, the rest of the week too as the regular season winds down. I’m more so looking to those games against Orlando and Houston to end the regular season — two teams whose seasons are dead and buried — as games to look for Hunter to maybe be let off the lease a little bit offensively and maybe to build some confidence that Collins alluded to.
Speaking of Collins, he was supreme in last night’s matchup, boasting an advantage over whoever was guarding him and that was evident, scoring 15 points in the first half on 7-of-8 shooting from the field.
“I thought he was solid on both ends of the floor,” said McMillan of Collins. “On the offensive end of the floor he did a good job being patient, taking his time when he had matchups on the block and scoring down there for us. He had two big blocks for us, one in transition. He was a two-way player tonight, solid and efficient throughout the night.”
Collins had a number of opportunities to work down-low, not something he has always had the chance to do so.
“It’s sort of a ying-and-yang as I’ve had to continue to work on my game as I’ve haven’t gotten as many post-ups as I think I should or is necessary for whatever the situation,” said Collins on his post-up game. “It’s all about me being ready when my number is called. My number was called tonight, I was able to show what I have and what I can do. It’s a little bit of both, not getting the touches and being ready to use them when I get them. Try to keep doing what I did tonight.”
Collins should have been involved more in this game, which is odd to say about someone who scored 28 points but he was rolling all night long, and after his fine work in the third quarter only got to attempt one field goal in the fourth quarter (the one which Neto was credited for a block right at the end). Collins did get to the free throw line for four attempts in the fourth quarter, but two of those were for drawing a loose-ball foul on the defensive end, the other on a roll we looked at earlier.
Bogdanovic was also someone who was in fine form all game long — scoring 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting from the field and 7-of-12 from three — and did not see a shot attempt in the final frame.
Bogdanovic hit a gorgeous, turnaround three-pointer that you would see more so in NBA 2K than in the NBA:
“Not anymore, I used to!” laughed Bogdanovic when asked if he surprises himself by some of his makes. “I used to celebrate a lot when I scored a couple of threes in a row but now I’m used to it.”
On the defensive end of the floor, Bogdanovic was the one initially tasked with guarding Russell Westbrook. Postgame, McMillan revealed the Hawks switched Bogdanovic with Huerter for the defensive assignment on Westbrook, as well as the other in-game adjustment/improvement defensively from the bigs to help make things a little tougher for Westbrook, leading the line without the NBA’s second overall leading scorer in the league (Beal).
“I thought we were a little soft on him early in the game,” said McMillan of guarding Russell Westbrook. “I thought we were allowing Westbrook to just walk to his spot, raise up and score. We switched the matchup, we put Kevin on him to try get a little more pressure on him and not allow him to walk to his sweet-spot. I thought Kevin did a really good job. Our bigs were too far back in that first half, second half I felt we made him a little work harder to get to his spot. Bigs were up, weakside was more connected. He’s a guy that’s a weapon, The fact that he’s very capable of beating his matchup, scoring, attacking, getting to the free throw line and then he passes the ball. He puts a lot of pressure on your defense guarding someone like that. The last possession, I’m sitting there watching him with the basketball, I thought our defense really did a good job of sprinting back and getting two on the ball and not allowing him to get to the rim on that last possession.”
Capela would, naturally, be involved in this spot in terms of the bigs stepping up in the Westbrook matchup. Elsewhere, Capela was a force on the boards, grabbing a beefy 22 rebounds on the game, his sixth game this season in which Capela has secured 20 or more rebounds.
All-in-all, the Hawks probably didn’t deserve to win this game. Speaking honestly, the Hawks showed up in full for one quarter on both sides of the ball (being the third quarter) in a must-win game, as they chase the No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage, but more so with the Miami Heat still right on the Hawks’ heels, just half a game behind. The Hawks own the tiebreaker with Miami but if they slip up here, that will not count for much if the Heat move ahead.
The Hawks can’t afford any slip-ups, and this should have been a done deal — up 19 points in the early stages of the fourth quarter. But even in the first half, it just felt as though the Hawks went through the motions and then fell apart in the fourth quarter and can consider themselves fortunate that Westbrook took the shot he did with the Wizards trailing by just one point.
The Hawks’ execution in the fourth quarter wasn’t great either. Perhaps the Hawks’ would’ve fared better had Collins (who shot 10-of-14 for the game) attempted more than one shot in the fourth quarter, or if the attack was more balanced in the final five minutes.
In what amounted to a near must-win to keep Atlanta’s goals in view, Collins and Bogdanovic have to be more involved in the final five minutes. Yes, Young was scoring (10 points on 3-of-8 shooting) and finding holes but there were too many possessions where no one else got a look-in. The Hawks won and Hunter’s comeback was successful it seems, so no one will really care, but had they lost, you can be assured this would’ve been talked about more and it should still be noted.
Again, Young deserves credit because these kinds of stretches have been few and far between compared to seasons past, but it wasn’t great at times in the fourth against Washington, even if Atlanta’s defense was the far more significant issue. Overall, Young still had a good game but between that and Young’s six turnovers (five of them in the first half), there’s plenty of potential for an even better game for Young on Wednesday, a game I think the Hawks will be a little more focused and alert.
The Hawks (38-31) are back in action at State Farm Arena on Wednesday night for the rematch against the Wizards (32-37, and will be missing Bradley Beal again), who still have a chance to move up to the 8th/9th seed in the East. This is arguably the last/best test for the Hawks in the regular season, with games against Orlando and Houston to come, two teams very much lottery-bound.
Until next time...