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Hawks use strong first half to cool off red-hot Kings

The Kings were on a seven-game winning streak prior to their trip to Atlanta.

Sacramento Kings v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks successfully ended the seven-game winning streak of the Sacramento Kings with a 115-106 victory at State Farm Arena on Wednesday night.

Trae Young scored 35 points to lead the way for the hosts, Dejounte Murray added 15 points in what was another tough shooting night. For the Kings, Malik Monk scored a season-high 27 points. De’Aaron Fox added 18 points for the Kings on a night where former Hawk Kevin Huerter returned to Atlanta, who scored 13 points.

The second half of this game was a sloppy affair. The Hawks shot just 6-of-21 (28.6%) in the third quarter and the fourth quarter wasn’t a lot better with the Hawks turning the ball over seven times in the final period and scoring just 18 points, meaning that the hosts had to lean on their strong first half to help them see this game through.

The Hawks scored 72 points in the first half, taking a 15 point cushion into the locker-room, so let’s take a look at some of the things that went well for the Hawks in that first half.

The play of Trae Young is a great place to start, scoring 17 points in the first half on 7-of-13 from the field. Young diced the Kings up in the mid-range and in the pick-and-roll.

To start, Young uses the Clint Capela screen/slip and catches Domantas Sabonis back-pedalling and Young gets to his runner:

Off of another Capela screen, Young is left completely alone with no help again from Sabonis to step up and contest and Young is left with a shot he can make in his sleep:

Between Jalen Johnson and Capela screens, Young gets the switch onto Trey Lyles, beats him off the dribble and, again, Sabonis doesn’t contest or pressure Young and hits the runner off glass:

You can understand to a degree why Sabonis preferred to sag a little because without him — or in situations where he has to help — the Kings have very little rim protection, which Young takes advantage of on this play with Sabonis off the floor as Young gets to the rim for the lay-in, plus the foul:

The Kings’ defense also made life easier for Young at times, Terrence Davis losing touch with Young a little too easily to end the first quarter:

Young would continue to force indecisiveness in the Kings defense with his movement as he comes off the screen here and the Kings just don’t switch to him and Young is left with an open mid-ranger:

With the Kings’ lack of defense and their lack of rim protection (dead last in the NBA in shots blocked per game and 26th in opponent points in the paint per game), the Hawks excelled in the paint in the first half, scoring 34 of their 36 points in the paint in the first half (quite incredible to think that the Hawks scored just two points in the paint in the second half after that first half):

“We were playing fast, playing aggressive, getting downhill,” said Trae Young postgame. “When we get into the paint — whether we’re scoring in the paint or finding someone on the wing or perimeter — it brings good offense. We were doing a good job of getting into the paint and making plays.”

One Hawk who brought a great contribution in the first half off the bench (and scored eight points in the paint too) was Jalen Johnson. Johnson made his impact on this game in a quick manner and helped the Hawks establish a double-digit lead in the second quarter, scoring six points in a quick flurry.

His first bucket came in the first quarter but he makes the cut here and it’s good to see Johnson attacking the rim like this and using his athleticism to finish at the rim:

Young threw a number of passes similar to this last night as he often saw a double-team and when he was asked about making those passes by ATL and 29’s Kevin Chouinard, he gave an insightful answer.

“It’s all about a feel and timing,” said Young on his different style of passes out of double-teams. “Sometimes I’ll get a turnover out of it but sometimes I’ll get a really good pass or an assist out of it because I’m just timing it and dragging the double-team out and reading the back-side defender and making him choose whether he’s going to wait for that lob-guy and take him out or choose the three-guy at the top of the key. I’m really just dragging it out, I’m not really worried about my defenders guarding me, the two guys on me, I’m kind of reading. I know those guys are using their hands and going up and down so it’s about timing and making sure I get it out clean but also read the defense behind him.”

A great insight to the decision-making process of Young in those situations.

Now moving to the second quarter, off of a Sacramento turnover, Johnson receives the ball just beyond mid-court and he not only does he highlight the poor Kings’ defense at the rim but also a more finessed finish at the rim with the layup:

Johnson is a good option in transition and he strikes again here off of another Kings turnover. Johnson runs with pace and because he can finish with power at the rim it can deter the defense from challenging at times:

Johnson’s final bucket was by far his best — a fake from the corner, the drive, the step, the fade, the bucket:

A timely spurt for Johnson that helped the Hawks build a cushion, a cushion they would hold for a large portion of the game.

The Kings did threaten to make this a game in the fourth quarter but on a number of occasions where the Kings could have cut the lead to four points with a three (both Sabonis and Huerter missing from distance to do so) they missed their chances...and the Hawks gave them a long window to make this a game.

Harrison Barnes made a field goal with 7:28 remaining in the fourth to cut the Atlanta lead to seven points. The next field goal made by either team came from De’Andre Hunter at the 5:02 mark, with the Kings not getting on the board again themselves until the 4:14 mark. By the time the Kings did manage to string together some baskets, the Hawks had already reestablished their double-digit lead and it was too late to mount the comeback.

In the end, the Kings never brought the Hawks’ once 19 point lead below five points.

“We did a solid job throughout the game,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan postgame. “We did a good job of establishing our defense early, keeping the ball in front of us, making them score over the top. We did a good job taking care of the basketball, only three turnovers in that first half. That didn’t allow them to get out into transition. I thought we did a good job establishing our defense, establishing our offense but also controlling the tempo.”

Prior to last night’s contest, the Kings ranked sixth in fastbreak points per game, scoring 16.1 fastbreak points per game (just behind the 16.2 of Atlanta). Last night, the Kings scored just eight fastbreak points, and McMillan highlighted transition defense as a key to the game and how it starts with the Hawks’ offense.

“The key was transition defense and transition defense starts with our offense,” said McMillan. “We wanted to make sure that we took care of the basketball and we didn’t go down and settle for quick shots. They are a team that give up 117 points but they score 120. They’re OK with you scoring. What you have to do is be patient, I thought our guys were patient. We didn’t go down and take quick shots, we made them work and spend a little energy on the defensive end of the floor and we did a good job of taking care of the basketball so even if we miss shots we had a balanced floor and able to get back and make them score over the top of us.”

The Hawks shot a disappointing 28.2% in the second half but shot an extremely efficient 56.6% in the first half, and the biggest key behind keeping the Hawks’ field goal percentage respectable on the game (finishing with 44% shooting) was the play of Trae Young, who finished with 35 points on 11-of-19 shooting, 4-of-7 from three and 9-of-9 from the free throw line.

“I thought he was great tonight,” said McMillan of Young. “Did a nice job of — he only had one or two turnovers early, he had two late — but did a good job of staying in the middle of the floor. We knew that they had traps and hits in their defense and it was just a matter of getting spacing and Trae getting the ball out. I thought he did that, had some wide open looks — a couple of them we missed, a couple of them we made — but the spacing was really good on their hits.”

We looked at Young’s showing in the first half; his second half looked very different. All four of Young’s made field goals in the second half came from distance, where Young has struggled for efficiency so far this season. Young believes the shots he’s taking are the same as before, the difference being they happened to fall last night.

“I was getting some of the same looks, they just went in,” said Young of the three-point shooting. “Still doing the same routine that I’ve been doing since I’ve been shooting terrible. I know it’s going to turn and I’ve just got to keep shooting and keep playing.”

The Hawks needed Young’s outside shooting to boost their dismal three-point shooting numbers and it feels like if Young isn’t able to get it going from beyond the arc it’s likely to end up being a tough night for the Hawks from distance. Last night would have been similar had Young not hit those threes with John Collins shooting 0-of-7 from three last night (the very next game after McMillan talked about wanting to use Collins’ spacing) and Dejounte Murray shot 5-of-16 from the field.

Young, however, isn’t worried about their shooting struggles.

“John, I know he was mad at himself for shooting shots he usually makes and he’s going to knock some shots down next game, same with Dejounte,” said Young.

Despite their struggles on offense, both were effective defensively. Collins was, as ever, a strong defensive presence on the defensive end for Atlanta while Murray procured another three steals last night, now second in the league in steals per game (of players who have played more than five games this season, sorry, Delon Wright!).

Clint Capela was also fantastic defensively and he has played so solidly of late — he looks great out on the floor, taking to Sabonis on the offensive end too in the first half at the rim.

This victory will definitely hide the reality of how poor the Hawks actually were in the second half and perhaps that they lucky to escape with a win. Had the Kings not been on the second night of a back-to-back, perhaps it would’ve been different because the Hawks shot 28% in the second half, just two points in the paint and they committed seven turnovers in the fourth quarter alone.

A few things that really helped the Hawks hold on despite their second half struggles were their 10 free throws in the third quarter (a quarter where the Kings outscored the Hawks 31-25...without those free throws it could have been a lot worse), Trae Young’s four made threes as part as seven of the Hawks’ 11 threes coming in the second half) as well the Hawks’ seven fourth quarter turnovers were effectively offset by the Kings’ six turnovers in the fourth themselves — it was sloppy basketball. The Kings had their chances to make this close and didn’t take them.

“I thought both teams slowed down and started to walk the ball up the floor,” said McMillan. “We were trading baskets early in that third quarter and really never established our defense, I think they won the quarter by five or six points. But we just stopped running in that second half, maybe we got a little winded.”

Pleasantries were had during and after the game for the return of former Hawk Kevin Huerter, with Nate McMillan leading the praise for the former Hawk drafted in 2018.

“Kevin was one of my favorite guys,” said McMillan postgame. “He gives you everything that he has. You get attached to your players when they’re playing for you. He was one of my favorite guys to coach. He’s been hot. We wanted to beat him and not allow him to come in here and get a win. It’s good to see him playing well. He’s doing some really good things for Sacramento, he did a lot of good things for us. I thought our fanbase was really respectful and supporting him when they announced his name and all of that was good to see.”

“It was different,” said Young of playing against Huerter. “I’ve been playing with Kev for a long time since being drafted here but we were on the USA team together in high school. I’ve been familiar with Kev for a long time. For me as a point guard, as a leader, I just want to see my teammates succeed wherever they’re at, whether they’re with me or somewhere else. I was telling Kev I had to stay attached to him because he’s been shooting 100% for them this year from the three. I love what he’s been doing. It seems what he did over here is helping them out over there. I’m happy to see he’s doing good.”

Huerter has been playing well for the Kings, shooting nearly 50% from three on the season (garnering the praise from Kevin Durant recently) and it’s been nice to see him succeed so far in his early Kings career. I always personally thought Huerter was under-appreciated during his time in Atlanta and I think the Hawks’ struggles from three so far this season highlight somewhat the hole the Hawks left themselves when they traded him in the off-season (the players he was traded for highlight the nature of that trade with Moe Harkless being quickly moved away from Atlanta not long after the trade and Justin Holiday was a DNP-CD last night).

In saying that, Hawks still have Bogdan Bogdanovic to return to the fray to help boost their three-point numbers, Young’s percentage should return somewhat to what it should at some stage and I think the likes of Collins and Murray will also improve. McMillan, again, spoke postgame that he is confident the Hawks’ three-point numbers will improve as they continue to get their legs underneath them.

A good win from the point of view that the Kings were the hottest team in the league heading into this game and this wasn’t the first time the Hawks have stopped a strong winning streak this season (ending the Bucks’ nine game winning streak not too long ago). Ultimately, the Hawks did enough in the first half to make up for their second half, in advance.

The Hawks (11-7) are back in action on Friday night against the Houston Rockets (3-14 at the Toyota Center in Houston.

Should be a fun contest, their last meeting certainly was entertaining.

Until next time, and Happy Thanksgiving!