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Hawks throttle Rockets in season finale, secure 41st win of 2020-21 season

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Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For much of the stretch run, Sunday evening’s regular season finale projected to hold importance for the Atlanta Hawks in their pursuit of the best possible playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference. However, a win by the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoon, coupled with various results in recent days, led to a scenario in which the Southeast Division champion Hawks were left with nothing to play for in Game No. 72 against the Houston Rockets. As such, Atlanta deployed a shorthanded roster with multiple regulars — including Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari — on the sideline, but the Hawks still cruised to a 124-95 win for the team’s 41st victory of the 2020-21 season.

The opening minutes set the pace for the evening, with Atlanta flying around offensively. The Hawks led 13-6 at the outset, and it began with a confident jumper from De’Andre Hunter.

Trae Young’s passing popped throughout the first half, as he generated nine assists, many of them in highlight-driving fashion.

The Hawks shot 61 percent in the opening quarter, and a few of those makes came from backup center Bruno Fernando. Fernando enjoyed a more prominent role and made the most of it with a couple of dunks.

Houston did climb within a 36-33 margin at the end of the first quarter, but the Hawks kicked things into gear in the second. Hunter picked up where he left off in the first quarter with more confident play offensively, and he finished the first half with 13 points and intriguing two-way impact.

While Atlanta wasn’t prolific from three-point range on the whole (largely because they didn’t need to be), the Hawks converted a trio of threes in the latter part of the second quarter. The final connection came when John Collins buried a jumper from the corner after a gorgeous feed from Young, and the Hawks led by 18 at the break.

One of the more encouraging stories of the night was the play of Onyeka Okongwu, with the No. 6 overall pick setting new career-best marks. The young big man reached a new career high in scoring with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Okongwu wasn’t done there, continuing to put pressure on the rim.

In a game that was already lacking in stakes, the Hawks pushed the lead to 99-72 at the end of the third quarter, lining up the rest of the night as extended garbage time. There were a few more highlights, though, including the continuation of the Okongwu show.

When the dust settled, the Hawks secured a 29-point victory that was never particularly competitive.

“It really feels good,” Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan said of his team’s performance. “As I told the guys before the game, we want to finish. We’ve been talking about this for the last couple of weeks…. We want to finish strong and we had a strong finish tonight.”

Young and Collins played only the first half, with Young producing 10 points and nine assists and Collins adding 15 points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. Elsewhere, seven players reached double-figures in scoring for the Hawks, illustrating a balanced effort.

“I thought those guys, everybody who played, played well,” said McMillan. “They played connected. They brought the energy. 32 assists in this game tonight. As we’ve always said, it really doesn’t make a difference who is out on the floor, the game should look the same as far as the intensity and the execution.”

Okongwu enjoyed the most robust statistical performance of his career, finishing with 21 points (on 10-of-13 shooting), 14 rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.

“Really good,” McMillan said when asked about Okongwu’s showing. “I thought he was solid tonight. It was an opportunity for him to get a start with Clint being out, and he did a good job. Olynyk is a tough cover. He did a good job of staying in front of him, rebounding the basketball, finishing in the paint. He was a really good two-way player for us tonight. It was good to be able to get minutes, and meaningful minutes, this last game before going into the playoffs.”

Fernando finished with a season-best 10 points to go along with nine rebounds, and Hunter continued to round into playoff form with 14 points and high-end defense.

The No. 5 seed Hawks will now face the No. 4 seed Knicks in a first round series scheduled to begin next weekend in New York, with the full schedule to come.

Stay tuned.