Saturday evening’s game was one that the Atlanta Hawks needed badly. They were coming home to face a Chicago Bulls team on the brink of playoff elimination after having lost three straight on a challenging road trip marred by injuries.
They entered play on Saturday still in control of their own destiny, but the Hawks would need to right the ship and get a win as to keep it that way. Atlanta holds the precious tiebreaker over both the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, both of which are now breathing down the neck of the Hawks.
Atlanta received good news in the form of Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter returning from injury. But with all of the different players going out and coming back into playing availability, interim head coach Nate McMillan has found it challenging to find lineups that offered any kind of continuity.
Playing their sixth game in nine days, and most of them quite shorthanded, Atlanta looked like a team early in the contest that was struggling to find chemistry and rhythm, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
Add to those challenges early foul trouble for their defensive star, Clint Capela, and they saw the visiting Bulls put up a robust 63 points in the first half, even as they played without their best offensive players, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic.
The Bulls weren’t overwhelming Atlanta’s defense with any specific action in the half court. In fact, Chicago used 17 points off of turnovers and 13 second-chance points to buoy their overall production. Considering that, the game looked like one that, if the home team could clean up a few key areas after halftime, that they could garner control of the competition.
Significantly crisper play, and more reliable minutes from Capela, swung things in the direction of the Hawks in the third and fourth periods. Chicago managed just four points off of turnovers and four second chance point in their way to just 34 second-half points.
Atlanta used their steady play down the stretch to get some useful separation on their way to a 108-97 victory that clinched a spot in the play-in tournament. Naturally, the team has its sights set higher than that as they remain in control of their destiny.
“I thought they responded to a really not so good first half,” McMillan responded when asked about his team’s play in the second half. “I thought we gave up too many points in the paint again tonight in that first half. But the second half we came out, we tightened up our defense. Gave up only 34 points in that second half, 12 in the third (quarter).”
“And we want to establish ourselves like that every night,” he continued. “And I thought we made that adjustment, thought we did that in the second half and was able to really get a rhythm, get out, get some easy baskets and get more of a flow on the offensive end of the floor.”
“We played better defense. We played more physical. And we picked up our energy,” explained Trae Young about the Hawks second half turnaround.
McMillan perhaps sent a message riding his first unit for a lengthy stretch in the third quarter, perhaps intending to let the group have an opportunity to find a rhythm.
“It was great,” McMillan commented about the return of Bogdanovic and Huerter. “Those guys have to get back and get a rhythm. And we have to build chemistry because we haven’t seen that lineup or that combination of players in the first and second unit. It’s been a long time.”
“Any time you can get your teammates back from being injured it’s a lovely feeling,” said Young. “It’s a blessing. I’m glad those guys are back, still shooting the ball really good.”
Young was the stabilizing force in this game. When his teammates struggled to produce offensively, whether that be the players returning from injury lacking rhythm or Capela losing time with him because of foul trouble, Young probed the Chicago defense all night.
Even when the Bulls were throwing pressure in the face of Young at the point of ball screens, he worked through each possession with precision (apart from a few ugly turnovers) and made the offense workable. When his teammates started making shots, he looked like a veteran adjusting his own individual level of aggressiveness.
The star point guard posted 33 points on just 20 shooting possessions while adding seven assists. His perimeter shot looks better since his own return from injury. Perhaps a silver lining to his down time in that his shooting legs are perhaps a bit refreshed.
After struggling to make in impact in the first half, Capela came away with a typical stat line, producing 20 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots. He was a game best +19 in the box score.
Bogdanovic had 13 points, six rebounds and five assists. He appeared to progress from completely lacking a rhythm early in the game to looking like the April version of himself as the game progressed.
He didn’t play as much down the stretch, but John Collins was on the court, essentially, for the first ten minutes of the fourth quarter. He was much better defensively than he’s been in a while, including amassing four steals. On offense, he managed 13 points on 10 shooting possessions. He also had 10 rebounds.
Danilo Gallinari had nine points and five rebounds in reserve play. It wasn’t the best match up for him considering how small Chicago had to play in the front court. At the same time, he’s an important piece that will always play important minutes in the closing quarter of close games.
For the Bulls, Thad Young led the way with 20 points, on just 12 shooting possessions, nine assists and seven rebounds.
Rookie Patrick Williams impressed with a 19 point effort.
Coby White initiated in the back court, in LaVine’s absence, He had 12 points and three assists.
Tomas Satoransky was Chicago’s best reserve posting 12 points and offering steady decision making.
Next to the win, obviously being the most important result, Atlanta’s core rotation finding a rhythm and cleaning up their play in the second half was critically important. Especially as it relates to taking some confidence into upcoming games.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
In the early going, Chicago worked to play through their veterans, Young and Garrett Temple.
They had Capela moving away from the shooter with some regularity early in the game.
Collins makes a pass to Snell to create a three-point attempt on an otherwise very sloppy possession:
Having shot makers on the floor takes pressure off of Young.
The Bulls were solid in transition defense the entire game. But on this possession Young and Capela organically find an opportunity to execute the 1-5 pick androll early in the shot clock:
Capela gets the easy bucket.
Chicago was trying to lean on this “slot” pick and roll for much of the game:
The lack of defensive chemistry can be seen on this play, as Williams gets free on the baseline side for the dunk and the opportunity for a three-point play.
Temple works the slot pick and roll with Daniel Thies:
He forces the switch and gets a comfortable jumper before Gallinari can close out on him.
More “slot” pick and roll:
This time, a shooter is in the near corner so White snakes the ball back to the middle and finds Daniel Theis for the easy score.
This possession offers a look at how the Bulls were defending ball screens:
Absent back-line rim protection they were aggressively having the second defender “showing” as to contain the ball handler. As seen here, their back side rotations were solid.
With Chicago aiming to use Temple or Satoransky on Young, Atlanta often went to this “wedge” action to force White into the play:
Snell separates Satoransky from Young which frees up the side pick and roll with Capela.
Bogdanovic finally gets a shot to fall:
Atlanta runs a lot of off ball screen-based action under McMillan, as seen here:
The third quarter “ATO” results in an easy corner three for Bogdanovic.
This is roughly where the Hawks start to pick things up:
The good activity and help by Collins leads to an easy transition score for Capela on the other end.
With Chicago looking to be aggressive on ball screens, the Hawks counter by spreading the floor and centering a 1-4 pick and roll to isolate Theis in space:
The result is a nice pick and pop three for Collins.
Snell’s defensive value can be seen here as the Bulls run an “ATO” for Williams:
With the plan seeming to be to play heavy Young-Bogdanovic-Huerter minutes, it helps, especially in De’Andre Hunter’s absence, to be able to deploy Snell or Solomon Hill on opposing wings that are bigger and more physical.
Notice where they want this Williams post to initiate (near the lane) and where he ends up having to try to operate.
Huerter is still scoreless at this point, so the Hawks run a little “Spain” or “stack” pick and roll to create a nice look for him:
Notice Huerter setting the back screen for Capela before popping to the top of the key.
The beauty of Lou Williams on this Hawks team is that they don’t have to run different plays when Young is off the court. Look at this exquisite pass to Huerter for another nice look near the top of the key.
Speaking of exquisite passes:
This may not be the dagger, but it’s the play that provided some comfortable separation:
That is some Kyle Korver stuff from Bogdanovic. And a nice delivery from Young.
Atlanta is working some “floppy” action here. And when Ryan Arcidiacono goes above the screen Bogdanovic circles back to the paint.
On Monday evening, the Hawks will host a Portland Trail Blazers team that has been streaking offensively. In the midst of a six-game east coast road trip, on which they have started with three wins, Portland has put up 133, 130 and 128 points in those games.
It will likely be a test of the Hawks’ ability to play defense for 48 minutes.
The game tips at 8:00 PM ET.