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Young-Murray era begins in victory as Hawks topple Rockets

The duo begin their partnership with a victory.

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks began their 2022-23 NBA campaign with a 117-107 victory over the Houston Rockets at State Farm Arena on Wednesday night.

John Collins led the Hawks in scoring with 24, while De’Andre Hunter added 22 points. Newly formed backcourt duo Trae Young (23 points, 13 assists) and Dejounte Murray (20 points, 11 assists) combined for 43 points and 24 assists in their first official game together.

For the Rockets, Kevin Porter Jr. scored 21 points, while third overall selection Jabari Smith Jr. added 17 points on his NBA debut.

A quick word on the game itself before looking at individual players/performances (which will be what we spend most of our time looking at today) the key separator between the two sides last night came in turnover/fastbreak points.

The Rockets committed 16 turnovers on the game, leading to 28 Atlanta points which was the same number of points the Hawks scored in fastbreak/transition opportunities — the single biggest differential between the two sides when you compare the game numbers, so let’s take a look at some of these instances.

To begin, the help from Clint Capela as he slides over to cut off the drive from Jalen Green — forcing the bad pass — creates a turnover, Young outlets to Hunter who drives into the gap of the Houston defense, no help from Jabari Smith Jr. comes, and Hunter converts the lay-in:

Murray wrecked havoc defensively and here is one of his five steals as he pokes the ball away from Garrison Mathews as he goes behind the screen. Murray streaks ahead as the loose ball is collected and is hoisted forward by Aaron Holiday to Murray for the easy basket:

As the off-ball defender on this possession, Murray telegraphs the pass inside, picks it off for the steal, finds Young ahead of him and Young pulls up for three and connects:

The Hawks punished the Rockets in particular in the first quarter (12 points) but also the fourth quarter (11 points) — the Rockets’ mishaps and the Hawks’ defense providing the hosts with crucial, easier baskets that really defined this game.

To begin the fourth, a bad Rockets pass inside is extravagantly saved by Justin Holiday to Jalen Johnson who gets the ball to Murray. Murray would quickly find the supporting Aaron Holiday who knocks down the three-pointer:

This was part of a very quick scoring burst for the Hawks to begin the fourth quarter that immediately gave them a cushion as they got two stops to begin the fourth as well as two baskets to give them a nine point lead and you could sense how important that mini-swing was.

Murray would prove active in the fourth, picking off Eric Gordon here (who probably was not very happy with Alperen Sengun, who did not provide him with a good screen to get Murray out of the picture) and finishing with an easy dunk all on his lonesome:

Off of an inbounds, a mishandle from Kevin Porter Jr. allows Hunter to nip in for the steal and he smoothly sheds Porter Jr. with the dribble and finish with the dunk:

Murray again gets involved as he picks off the dribble from Green before delivering a bounce pass to Onyeka Okongwu for the ‘and-1’ to give the Hawks a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter:

In what was just a four point game heading into the fourth quarter, these easy baskets in the fourth certainly helped the Hawks in their bid for a victory.

When asked about Murray defensively postgame, McMillan pointed out multiple Hawks who he felt helped them defensively last night and how it starts with the first unit.

“He’s one of the guys we look from to establish our defense,” said McMillan when asked of Murray. “Normally he’s out front guarding the basketball, pressuring the basketball but when we have guys like De’Andre — I thought Aaron (Holiday) and gave us some good pressure and good defense in the second quarter — to disrupt and force those guys to think about him which De’Andre was able to get into the passing lanes. We have a number of guys that can get out there and do that with ‘Dre, and I thought John was pretty good of being active, Justin came in, Jalen did a nice job—that second unit coming in and giving us solid minutes in that second quarter. But it starts with our first unit establishing that defense, we’ve just got to do a better job of finishing those defensive possessions with rebounding.”

Murray’s five steals represented a game-high as the Hawks registered 12 steals on the game, something McMillan said the Hawks want to give Murray free reign to do.

“We’re giving him the freedom to anticipate some of those passes and go for some of those steals,” said McMillan of Murray’s steals. “We’re encouraging him to be aggressive off the ball to create some turnovers. He does a great job of anticipating. I think he’s an old-school defender—long arms. He had a pick on the ball, one or two of his steals came on the ball, just picking off the player, anticipating...and reading the defense. He does a great job of that and we’re encouraging him to continue to do that.”

Murray wanted to make it clear postgame that it’s about the team defensively, not just him.

“What we’re trying to build here and do here, there’s no me,” said Murray when asked if he would be the spark defensively for the team. “It’s us. It’s the whole unit, from the first guy to the last guy on the bench. I’m going to do my job and my mentality to try to defend at a high level every single night. My teammates are going to follow, and that’s that.”

To get an idea on the impact Murray has already had in terms of generating steals, there was only one game in the entirety of last season where the Hawks generated more than 12 steals — 13 against the Portland Trail Blazers in March was the sole game it occurred. There were four other occasions where the Hawks came up with 12 steals but this early showing gives you a hope that the Hawks — who ranked 22nd in steals per game last season — can create more steals that can lead to offense this season.

Something that Collins alluded to postgame that should help the Hawks in this regard in addition is the NBA’s adjustments to the ‘take foul’ that took away a lot of transition opportunities. There’ll be fewer places to hide in transition with the adjustment of that rule and players not being able to take that foul without consequence. This should help the Hawks and Murray in transition.

To add a caveat to the Hawks’ steal numbers; you shouldn’t expect five steals a night from Murray, but as he showed last night he certainly is capable of nights like that or close to it (he had 26 games last year where he had three or more steals in a game).

Younger teams who have young marquee guards, like the Rockets and Jalen Green, are usually known for being turnover prone (as the Hawks were in the early Young years) so there’s also that to take into account from last night but it’s good to know early on that the Hawks have the capability of punishing sloppy teams because that’s what they didn’t punish enough teams for last year despite leading the league in turnovers committed per game — the disparity in points off of turnovers wasn’t big enough for a team that committed so few turnovers as the Hawks did. There is already optimism that things could be different in that regard this season.

Speaking of turnovers, I thought one of the more impressive aspects of last night’s game was the Hawks’ own turnover story.

Limiting turnovers is so key: it not only gives you a chance to optimize your own offense and maximise the number of shots you’re taking, but it also doesn’t give your opponents those extra shots and potentially easy baskets as we saw last night.

The Hawks committed just nine turnovers on the game, and only two in the first half. For a team that has seen quite a bit of turnovers this season and a lot of either new pieces or pieces that haven’t spent a lot of time together on the court (such as Johnson, Aaron and Justin Holiday as well as Murray of course), to open with just nine turnovers I thought was really impressive from the Hawks. If they’re to maintain a similar level offense compared to their NBA-second ranked offense last season they’re going to need to keep their turnovers down, and last night was a strong start in that regard.

The Hawks’ defense left a lot to be desired last season — for various reasons — but McMillan was mostly pleased with his side’s defense, holding the Rockets to 42.9% from the field but said the Hawks needed to do more to complete their defensive plays by not securing defensive rebounds.

“I thought our defense did a good job for the most part,” said McMillan postgame. “Holding them to 42% from the field but we did give up two 30-point quarters. That’s something we don’t want to do. I thought we got stops or we forced them to miss but we didn’t finish the play rebounding the basketball. Giving up 15 offensive boards is way too many. (If) we clean that up, it’s been a really solid game by our guys. It’s a good game to build off of. We talked about establishing our defense and I thought we got the stops when we needed to.”

Postgame, Murray outlined a few areas that the Hawks still need to grow defensively as a team.

“I think we’ll improve tremendously (defensively), one-through-five,” said Murray when asked where he thinks guys will improve defensively. “We’ve got to talk more. Yeah, five steals is nice but there’s a lot stuff where we’re getting back-doored, coming off of a curl...I know I’m not perfect, nobody’s perfect but I try to be perfect as much as I can. Like I said, there’s a lot of room to grow.”

Murray felt the game was a little too close, given where the two teams are at and the experience of the Hawks.

“First when I say better, I felt like the game was too close,” said Murray. “No discredit to Houston, young talented team. But just how we’ve been and I think the maturity level as far as dude’s experience in the league we should have been better. We will be better. As far as me and Trae, it’s about the Atlanta Hawks not me and Trae, but we’re going to set the tone and we’ll go from there.”

Speaking of Murray, I think for many the most exciting aspect of last night was not only Hawks fans seeing their 2022-23 Hawks for the first time at State Farm Arena (the Hawks did not play on their home floor at all during preseason) but the chance to see Trae Young and Dejounte Murray together for the first time together — and they (for the most part) did not disappoint.

The pair didn’t have the most efficient night shooting the ball (a combined 15-of-41) but both were still able to rack up 20 or more points and they both hit double-doubles with their assists.

A lot of their playmaking work — particularly Murray’s — was reflective in another Hawk who enjoyed a great night, that of Collins.

Collins scored 24 points and only one of his baskets was not assisted by Young or Murray, so looking at Collins’ night is also a means to look at some of Murray’s and Young’s passing from last night (which in the case of Young helped make up somewhat for his poor efficiency of 7-of-22/31% shooting).

Perhaps a look more so at Murray and Collins, because Young and Collins have been together for a while, so plays like this everyone knows them to be capable of, such as this behind the back pass from Young to Collins for three:

And this excellent pocket pass delivery from Young to Collins in the pick-and-roll with Collins hitting:

But let’s look at some of the Murray-Collins plays.

The two man-lineup of Murray and Collins was the most used one by Nate McMillan last night as the two combined for 33 minutes together on the court — essentially all of the minutes Collins was spent on the floor alongside Murray (who played 38 minutes). This makes sense given how Collins was the first sub for the Hawks out of the game and, like Murray, played a lot of the second quarter (10:31 to be exact) as well as the fourth fourth quarter (9:36). We’ll talk about some of the rotation/minutes side of things later.

So, early evidence (even going back to preseason) suggests that Murray and Collins may be spending a lot of on-court time together and they got off to a good start last night.

To start, Murray hands off to Collins on the move, allowing Collins to take the ball with momentum into the paint — helped by Jabari Smith Jr. standing off of Collins — and Collins hits the bank shot near the rim:

One of my own personal grievances from last season was how little Collins received the ball at times in certain scenarios. With the ball in Murray’s hands (even going back to preseason) I already have a little more confidence we’ll see more basic plays like this where Murray willingly feeds Collins in the post and Collins scoring inside on this occasion:

Another play where Murray sets up Collins as he drives inside, draws the defense away from Collins in the corner and Collins hits the corner three:

This next play is probably my favourite of the Murray dimes to Collins in terms of Murray understanding how and when Collins wants the ball. Everyone knows that Collins loves to/is good at slipping ball-screens, and he does so on this possession with Murray delivering it to him with the bounce-pass and Collins does well to attack the rim and adjust to finish:

People have made much of the Young-Murray dynamic but, while that is obviously a very important one, I’m already finding myself more interested in the relationship between Murray and Collins, especially if they’re going to be spending this amount of time on the floor together. We’ll see if those high minutes together continues but I don’t see any reason as to why it wouldn’t if Collins continues to be the first sub out (much like Al Horford was under Mike Budenholzer in 2015-16 for example) and these minutes patterns for Young/Murray continue.

“It’s still growing,” said Collins of his relationship with Murray. “It’s doing well right now. I feel like we’ve got a great chemistry on and off the court...he’s got a great feel for the game, he’s a natural leader. There’s that dog in there when I see him out there playing hard and being a defensive monster and making plays, and that motivates me as well. I’m happy to have him on the squad. Our relationship is going well, it’s going to continue to get better. I’m happy to have him here, he brings a lot to the squad.”

Just a quick word on Collins’ game before some more Murray talk, Collins was fantastic last night. He was helped by a favorable matchup in Jabari Smith Jr. but he just looked great out on the court as he did in preseason. The Hawks really missed a healthy Collins at the back-end of last season on both ends, and re-establishing his connection on the defensive end with Clint Capela is big for them too.

Two defensive plays I thought were indicative of this...

The Hawks have missed Collins’ voice on defense: he’s constantly talking and directing on the defensive end. In the past Collins has talked about ‘being the voice’ for the Hawks on defense and you can hear him directing Capela here before Collins himself comes up with the steal as he extends his arm to deflect the attempted pass from Jalen Green, who can’t shift by Capela on the drive:

The other play, which I sadly couldn’t grab video of, was at the 1:59 mark of the second quarter where Green drives to the rim and he’s met by the help defense of both Collins and Capela who help the ball out of bounds — just both swarmed to him at once. The Hawks have missed that combination of Capela and Collins guarding the rim together in situations like that.

Collins finished 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field, 2-of-2 from three, 4-of-4 from the line and eight rebounds in just under 34 minutes. He was fantastic last night, which McMillan partly attributed to the Hawks making the correct reads and choices to help Collins exploit his matchup (in which he destroyed Smith Jr., as he should) and other mismatches.

“We did a good job of making our reads offensively,” said McMillan when asked about Collins. “They were switching and there were times John had smalls guarding him in the post and he had guys on his back. Those are the reads we’re going to have to make during the season. A lot of teams play small-ball, they like to switch one-through-five and you’re going to have a matchup either on the perimeter or in the post. Tonight it was in the post. We dropped it to John and we was able to be productive down there. Those are reads we have to make and it has to be quick. We have to be efficient with taking advantage of matchups we feel we want to go to in situations like that.”

This was something Collins discussed himself on media day: his team playing smarter. They did that.

Collins was asked about his aggression postgame and described how he’d rather be too aggressive than not aggressive enough.

“I feel like it varies game-to-game but I want to have a level I don’t go under, of aggression, and I’m trying to figure out the balance of it right now,” said Collins of his aggression and if it was the plan for the whole season or if it would vary game-by-game. “But I’d rather be a little more aggressive and have coach tell me to pull it back a little bit than have somebody to tell me to get it going. I feel like that’s a little easier to process. Just trying to trust the work I put in and attack.”

There was also this clip from the game (apologies, I don’t have an earlier start) but it’s where Young was switched onto by Sengun and instead of Young clearing everyone out to exploit that matchup, the Hawks went to the Collins mismatch inside. He missed the shot but it was something different:

I think perhaps when Young gives the ball up to Murray and backs out towards mid-court, perhaps he expected Murray to give the ball back to Young (I’m only speculating, of course) but Murray feeds it to Collins instead here.

Going back to Murray, his offense might have been a little off here at times (shooting 1-of-5 from three) but he did generate easy looks for himself with his defensive playmaking, he dished out 11 assists with zero turnovers (!!) and he grabbed five rebounds (which is huge for McMillan, who has talked about his guards helping the bigs with rebounding). He enjoyed a great debut all things considered.

Moving to Young, not one of his better offensive games. He tried to force things a little with his shot but still dished out 13 assists with just three turnovers.

It was also encouraging from the Hawks’ side that in a game that they led by just four points heading into the last quarter that they could seal the deal despite Young shooting 0-of-4 in the final period. Again, not one of Young’s better games shooting the ball but he’ll be back, and McMillan was pleased with how Young was finding his teammates and how he targeted matchups that gave the Hawks an advantage.

“I thought Trae really did a nice job of managing the game in the second half,” said McMillan. “We found a couple of sets that was working for us and he went to them. He did a good job, was targeting some of the matchups that we had out there and I thought we had really good execution. Again with the ball movement, when you share the ball like that everybody is going to have an opportunity and you’re going to be in a better flow and a better rhythm. Our goal is 25 assists, plus, each night. We want to have 25 or more assists every night and when you get good ball movement like that normally you’re playing in a very good rhythm and guys are getting shots they work on in practice.”

Despite their tough shooting, Young and Murray did make some Hawks history in their official debut together.

“I think offensively you’ve got to credit John Collins for how efficient he was,” said Murray when asked about the play of himself and Young offensively and from a playmaking perspective. “Dre, he was really efficient tonight. Me and Trae weren’t too efficient for what we want to be, so we’ve got to do better. We obviously made shots but we missed a lot of shots we usually make. As far as getting dudes involved I think we did a great job. My goal, for me and Trae, for the whole year is get dudes better, make your teammates better, share the ball and that’ll allow us to have confidence in our teammates and ourselves going down the line.”

Elsewhere, fresh off signing a contract extension, Hunter enjoyed a fine game, scoring 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the floor. Nine of those 22 points came in the fourth quarter, a team-high.

We’ll just look at a few more of his baskets (we’ve seen one or two already), how they came, and how Hunter looks getting to them.

Hunters appears to be more comfortable operating just within the three-point line, which I’m sure is frustrating if you’re chasing threes but Hunter just looks good in these spots.

Here, he comes off of the Capela screen, gets to his spot and rises into the jumper as Bruno Fernando doesn’t step up to him:

Hunter this time rejects the screen with a quick burst and again rises just inside the three-point line and converts the jumpshot:

Receiving the ball on the block here, Hunter confidently takes and makes the face-up, contested jumpshot:

When Hunter is found by Young on the weakside (and a good screen by Capela as well as the change of direction by Hunter to go toward baseline), he smoothly rises immediately up with it and hits the shot:

Just a smooth play.

Hunter hasn’t always been efficient attacking the rim but was 5-of-6 last night. Some of these — again — were helped by Jabari Smith Jr. and as Hunter rejects the screen and attacks the rim, the rookie doesn’t know who to focus on (Hunter or Collins in the corner) and Hunter converts:

When Hunter receives the ball and drives from the wing to the middle of the paint, he’s allowed to get to that spot and up with the shot with ease, Smith Jr. not contesting or helping on the play in the middle:

Again not to get carried away, Hunter has had a good preseason and a good game here too. It is worth bearing in mind — and this goes for all players — that the Hawks will face significantly better teams than the Houston Rockets, but the early part of the Hawks’ schedule was always likely to make them feel good about themselves, and they looked well last night (other than their 7-of-25 three-point shooting).

Looking at the bench, they had a solid game.

Justin Holiday had some good defensive moments, Aaron Holiday looked decent and Onyeka Okongwu looked great out on the floor, scoring 13 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Jalen Johnson was OK out there, wasn’t great in the second half but has barely played in the last year with the Hawks so naturally it will take time to adjust — he still looked a little lost at times offensively in terms of where he should be but Okongwu was much the same (and far worse) during his rookie season in this regard, basically right up to the 2021 playoffs and he hasn’t looked back since. The Hawks will hope for the same with Johnson as he’s now part of the rotation.

Speaking of rotations and tidbits...

McMillan was asked before the season began whether he would stagger Young and Murray, and the answer to that based on last night is yes, yes he will. The pattern for this mirrored the first half of the of the first game in Abu Dhabi against the Bucks — and the first three quarters against the Cavs in preseason — but last night we saw it in full for the first time.

Young played all of the first quarter, Murray played all of the second quarter. Young then played all 12 minutes of the third quarter and Murray played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter.

Since this was a close enough game, it’s possible this is what we’ll see the Hawks do this in a close game but as the season unfolds time will tell if it becomes consistent or not. It’s a huge help for the Hawks in the second quarter and beginning of the fourth quarter to have Murray and Collins out on the floor as much as they together to go with the second unit.

McMillan also ran with a nine-man rotation with Johnson as the backup power forward, which shouldn’t be massively surprising. Nor should the absence of AJ Griffin, who was a DNP-CD.

McMillan — as evidenced last year — didn’t lean on rookies a lot but even still I think Griffin should see some time on the floor to help the Hawks’ slightly — and suddenly — bare three-point shooting should Young not have it going and Bogdan Bogdanovic still sidelined.

Perimeter shooting I think is a real concern for the Hawks, who lost prolific shooters in Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter (Huerter hit six threes last night himself, while the Hawks as a team hit just seven threes) — Griffin could really help in this department and whether this trend continues or not, Griffin’s shooting off the bench should be something that is considered.

There’s also this:

When asked about the three-point shooting, McMillan talked about how his team won’t be solely driven by analytics in their shot-taking and that they’ll take the two if that’s what’s given to them.

“We’re going to take what’s there,” said McMillan when asked about the Hawks’ three-point shooting. “We’ll take two, if that is open. We had 30 assists and that’s good ball movement and we only had nine turnovers. We’re not a team that’s just going to be hunting the three. We’ll take two if that is available, if the defense is collapsing and giving us that two point-fall... We’ll take that. We’re not that so-called analytical team that won’t take a two, search for 50 threes. If that is open in our offensive sets we certainly would like for our guys to take them, we think we have guys who are capable of taking them, but we want to attack the basket first. I thought our guys did a really solid job of moving the ball with 30 assists and taking care of the ball with only nine turnovers.”

Looking at the strength of the team’s prominent shot-takers, we know Young can hit from outside but he’s even better inside the arc with the floater. Hunter likes to take long twos, Murray is certainly better inside the arc and in mid pick-and-roll and Collins obviously operates better inside too.

Look, it’s all only one game but plenty of food for thought to begin the season for Atlanta. A good start to their season against a team that is expected to be pretty bad.

Time will tell where this team truly lies but the Hawks can certainly look forward to a schedule that should help boost their confidence to begin, with home games against the Magic and the Hornets before two road games against the Pistons to come (those Detroit games will be easier said than done).

The Hawks (1-0) are back in action on Friday when they take on number one selection Paulo Banchero (who poured out 27, nine boards and five assists in his debut against the Pistons) and the Orlando Magic (0-1) at State Farm Arena.

That has the potential to be chippy if Murray and Banchero get into it as they did over the summer but we shall see...

Until next time...