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Hawks capture sixth straight victory with stingy defense, more second-unit heroics

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After a lengthy home losing streak, as well as losing 11-of-14 contests overall prior to a national TV victory with the Milwaukee Bucks last week, the Atlanta Hawks have suddenly found a winning combination. In Friday night’s contest, the Boston Celtics fought back from a 17-point deficit to make it just a one-point game at multiple points in the fourth quarter, but Atlanta’s resolve (and defense) eventually made for a comfortable 108-92 win, their sixth straight in that category.

The Celtics lean on their two stars — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — to generate offense and the Hawks had their work cut out in attempting to corral them over the course of the game. Atlanta successfully disrupted Boston’s offense early on with a multitude of deflections, and the home team record nine combined blocks and steals in the first quarter alone.

De’Andre Hunter made sure the game began on a strong note with good anticipation to clog the passing lane here.

In this next early clip, Kevin Huerter trails Brown around a screen and starts a fast break with a block from behind. He rewards the hustling Clint Capela with an easy finish for two.

Huerter continued to display quick hands by chipping in on the steal tally as well. Below, he’s able to poke the ball away from behind Tatum and head the other way.

And for good measure, defensive menace Onyeka Okongwu ranges over from the weak side to sniff out this Tatum attempt at the rim.

The Hawks would finish with 10 steals and 11 blocks, with that figure for blocks representing a season-high for the home team.

Head coach Nate McMillan was enthused about his team’s defensive performance, saying, “We are more connected out there. Guys are in better shape than they were [earlier in the season]. It starts with urgency and all five guys committing to playing defense. The stretch in December when we were dropping games was a wake up call. We’re getting that urgency now and playing good basketball.”

“Shots weren’t going, especially for me. I shot the ball like [sh*t] tonight,” remarked Trae Young. “But it was a great defensive game for us. They’re a team that can score a lot of points. So for us to hold them to 92 points, it was great.”

Young continued in reference to a meeting with McMillan about his own role in the defense, saying, “I know that everything starts with me and the effort I give it is going to be reciprocated to my teammates. It’s going to be a trickle down effect especially if it starts with me. For me, I’m just taking on the challenge and continuing to get stops and give a lot of effort on the defensive end. If it goes unnoticed, that’s OK as long as I’m winning.”

After Boston whittled down the lead to just one early in the fourth quarter, Atlanta responded by clamping down defensively and a 15-2 run in the middle of the quarter essentially iced the contest.

“I thought we really had a great fourth quarter presence on the defensive end of the floor, said McMillan. “We were getting stops.”

On what changed leading into that fourth quarter defensive stand, Bogdan Bogdanovic stated, “I think we miscommunicated defensively. A couple of possessions, switching or no switching on Tatum and Brown [and] they scored a couple of wide open threes. Some easy cuts, easy free throws. And offensively we didn’t score. At that point they changed the defense. They started trapping and they started switching some screens, not every screen like they did the whole game.”

The bench was heavily involved in this game, including big play from Danilo Gallinari and Bogdanovic. Gallinari was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field for 14 points off the bench, and dazzled the crowd with some nifty ball handling for the suddenly spry 33-year-old.

Young was asked if Gallinari learned from his own bag of tricks, but Young demured saying, “[Gallinari] has been doing this for years. Gallo teaches me some things every now and then. Gallo’s the ultimate pro so there’s nothing that Gallo hasn’t seen or already did.”

Just a bit later, “Gallo” turned the clock back yet again and puts Grant Williams in a blender.

Gallinari also helped open up opportunities for his teammates even without the ball. Here he combines with Okongwu on the combination screen to allow Bogdanovic to lift to a wide open three.

Bogdanovic used the dribble drive to his advantage here after getting big man Robert Williams switched out onto him.

Bogdanovic added 19 points off the bench, with most of the damage coming during a long playing stretch between the 3rd and the 4th quarters. Bogdanovic had just returned from knee soreness, but by the looks and sounds of the proceedings Friday night, in his third game back there don’t seem to be any worries about that recent injury holding him back.

“I think it’s chemistry,” said McMillan on the improved bench performances lately. “[Onyeka Okongwu] was missing for most of the first half of the season. When he got back in December, we had guys in and out of lineups. That combination of Lou [Williams], [Gallinari] and Onyeka last season was really good for us. Now you add in a guy like [Bogdanovic], Kevin and Delon [Wright] who’s playing solid. Pretty much a veteran group. They know how to play.”

“With this group that we have now, and having everybody healthy, we’re going to have something like that,” he continued about leaving Bogdanovic in deep into the fourth quarter. “When guys get hot, or when a unit gets hot, you let them go. We’ve been able to do that without a second unit. Tonight it was with [Bogdanovic]. He didn’t look like he was tired so there was really no need to bother him or get a guy back in rotation for the sake of getting him back in rotation. He was doing a good job of defending Tatum as well as scoring for us. I thought he really lifted us in that second half.”

“They’re doing - in the best way - what we expected them to do,” said John Collins about the bench. “Come in and score, and keep the game afloat. Either bring us back into the game like they did last game or are able to sustain our lead this game. Those five guys definitely coming in give us a lot of energy. Finally fully healthy as well so I feel like that’s a big positive.”

Collins found himself matched up against the smaller matchups in the post at times, and he was able to feast. He finished with 21 points on 8-for-13 (61.5%) shooting, adding nine rebounds and four blocks to his monster night.

In this clip, Collins lulls Josh Richardson to sleep with the hint of a high ball screen but slips to the basket untouched for a jam.

Here is Collins bullying the smaller Brown in the paint after the side inbounds.

Collins was more than thrilled with the Celtics strategy Friday night, saying, “If teams want to put a guard on me, it’s going to be a long night. I’m just happy my teammates were able to find me. Happy I was able to convert on my buckets. I’m going to be ultra aggressive as well as my teammates are going to continue to tell me to be aggressive.”

Atlanta (23-25) has used this six-game winning streak to climb even closer to .500 as the All-Star Break nears. The streak has also begun to open the possibility of the Hawks climbing back into the race for a top-6 seed and avoid a play-in scenario. The Hawks next face off against the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers at home in a Sunday afternoon tilt.