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Okongwu shines, bench erupts as Hawks blast Suns

A dynamic performance.

Phoenix Suns v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of a playoff race for the first time since 2017, and every game matters. If anything, though, Wednesday’s tilt against the Phoenix Suns took on a bit of heightened emphasis for the Hawks, with the visitors entering the night tied for the NBA’s best record. The opening half was back-and-forth in nature, but Atlanta pulled away with impressive two-way effort in the second half, riding a huge night from the team’s bench to a 135-103 victory.

The offenses were dominant in the opening minutes, with the Hawks and Suns combining for 34 points — on 15-of-20 shooting — in approximately five minutes. On Atlanta’s side, Clint Capela set the tone with eight points on four shots, putting pressure on the rim at the outset.

Atlanta’s defense was less stellar, with the Suns averaging about two points per possession across the first eight minutes. That placed the Hawks in a 28-22 hole, even with hot shooting by the home team, but Atlanta’s reserves made quite a run to close the first quarter.

Rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu kicked off the push with a beautiful help-side blocked shot, leading directly to a three-pointer by Kevin Huerter. From there, Atlanta knocked down four three-pointers in fewer than 90 seconds, with Lou Williams delivering the exclamation point in capping off a 42-point first quarter.

The pace of the game wasn’t particularly fast but, at 42-38 after only 12 minutes, the numbers were eye-popping. Things did slow a bit in the second quarter, but the Hawks pushed their advantage to as many as ten points at 56-46. Atlanta’s bench did most of the damage, though, and when the starters returned, the Suns threw a counterpunch.

Phoenix used a 10-0 spurt of their own to tie the game at 56-56, and that run came in conjunction with Atlanta’s only dry spell of the first half offensively. The Hawks did secure a two-point lead at the break, but it also felt like something of a missed opportunity after a double-digit advantage.

In the first 24 minutes, the Hawks shot 61 percent from the floor, 9-of-10 from the free throw line and a robust 8-of-13 from three-point range. Atlanta also produced 16 assists to go with a true shooting mark well over 70 percent, and it was a stellar offensive half against a top-flight defense. The defense was less kind, though, with Devin Booker scoring 20 points and the Suns maintaining strong efficiency while committing only two turnovers.

To begin the second half, Phoenix converted a three-pointer on the opening possession, taking a (very) brief lead. Atlanta zoomed to an extended 19-6 run at that point, turning a one-point deficit into a 12-point lead behind the efforts of Bogdan Bogdanovic and others.

Atlanta’s defense was notably improved out of the locker room, holding the Suns to just nine points in approximately seven minutes. The Hawks didn’t continue to dominate during the stretch run of the third quarter, but the home team maintained a nine-point lead as the closing period arrived.

The Hawks continued to lean on their bench to begin the fourth quarter, and it was time for Okongwu to leave another mark on the proceedings. The No. 6 pick scored the first six points — for either team — in under 90 seconds, and the headliner was a monster dunk.

Atlanta’s run continued from there, with the hosts scoring 16 (!) straight points to compiled a 113-88 lead that would never be challenged.

That 16-point eruption effectively ended the game, but Okongwu punctuated the best performance of his career with another dunk before exiting to the bench.

Overall, it was a dynamic offensive performance from the Hawks across 48 minutes, and the defense stepped up immensely after halftime. Atlanta converted a season-high 63 percent from the field — including 13-of-26 from three-point range — and tied a season-high with 35 assists against just 11 turnovers. Even with the caveat that Phoenix was on the second night of a back-to-back, that type of showing against a top-flight defense was wildly impressive.

Defensively, the Hawks weren’t particularly fantastic in the first half, but things changed after the break. Atlanta held Phoenix to just 38 points, with the Suns shooting 29 percent from the floor — including 2-of-14 in the fourth quarter — and committing eight turnovers. In contrast, Atlanta gave the ball away on three times in the second half and shot 64 percent from the field.

Individually, the Hawks did not have a single 20-point scorer, making their performance all the more impressive.

“We talk about that all the time,” said interim head coach Nate McMillan when prompted on the balanced offense. “It’s ball movement. You pass the ball to the open man and make defenses work. Tonight, we knew we were going to have to play in our third and fourth option. Phoenix does a good job of taking away your first and second option, so you have to get ball movement and get to your third and your fourth option. That requires you to move the ball. Anytime you have good ball movement with guys like we have that are capable shooters, it’s going to put pressure on teams, and everybody will have the opportunity to be successful in that type of system, which is what we’re trying to build.”

Okongwu set a new career-best mark with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, adding seven rebounds, three steals and a block in just 18 minutes. He was active, productive and energetic on both ends, flashing some of the high-end intrigue presented in advance of the 2020 NBA Draft.

“I thought he did a good job in the first half bringing energy, rebounding the basketball, defending the basket,” McMillan said. “He did a good job of making his reads up on the pick and roll, and really playing off of (Gallinari). Teams are switching. They’re playing small ball against us and, a lot of times, they are trying to front the post. He has to make the proper read when teams are double-teaming like that. He did a really good job tonight on both ends of the floor… I thought he was really the difference in the game tonight.”

Atlanta’s bench produced 74 points in the aggregate, headlined by Okongwu. While single-game plus-minus statistics are sometimes misleading, all five reserves that played significant minutes finished +28 or better, signaling the overall effectiveness of the bench unit in this particular setting.

“I’m really impressed,” McMillan said when asked his feelings on the performance of the bench. “Really the last two games, our second unit has done a nice job for us…. Tonight, they broke it open again for us. It’s good to get that combination going. Have some chemistry and have some healthy players, where we can get a flow with both units. But they were great again tonight.”

Six players scored in double figures, led by Capela with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Young led the team with 12 assists, and he scored 16 points in 26 minutes. Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Bogdanovic also contributed 16 points each.

At the final buzzer, the Hawks secured a lopsided victory over one of the best teams in the league, but McMillan also spoke plainly that the focus was simply on putting another notch in the win column.

“This team had the best record in the league. We knew they were a dangerous team. For us, just try to take advantage of being at home. Defend home court… We’re focused on the game in front of us. Sending statements and all of that is for you guys to write,” he said. “We wanted to win the game and defend home court. We knew that it was a good time coming in here and we were going to have to play a good game. We’re not about any message other than focusing on winning the game.”

The Hawks will return to action on Thursday evening with a quick road trip to face the Indian Pacers on short rest. From there, Atlanta will enjoy a three-day break for the first time since the All-Star break.

Stay tuned.