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Hawks overcome multiple collapses and eke out victory over the Pelicans

New Orleans Pelicans v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks faced a stiff test in their first home game of this home stand as they welcomed in the upstart New Orleans Pelicans into State Farm Arena. The Pelicans are fresh off a competitive first round exit as the Western Conference No. 8 seed in the 2022 NBA Playoffs despite missing phenom Zion Williamson, and they look to be loaded early in this season. Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum form a fierce trio that is among the most dynamic in the league. Those three plus the size and skill of Larry Nance, Herb Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, and others spelled a difficult battle on Saturday night.

However, as the game flowed, it looked as though the Hawks would maintain distance all game long. But a sudden collapse late in the fourth quarter meant the Hawks needed a last gasp shot from Dejounte Murray just to force overtime. Even the extra period was a microcosm of the whole night, with an early lead for the home team almost completely vaporized in the waning seconds of the extra five minutes.

Despite the many twists and turns, this contest went down in the record books as an Atlanta Hawks victory, 124-121. Dejounte Murray came on late, eventually stuffing the box score and recording his first triple-double in a Hawks uniform with 22 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.

Trae Young used his craft to draw fouls and score at will, despite the eye injury he sustained the previous game against the Knicks as well as a calf contusion sustained during this contest — more on that later. Young finished with 34 points and 10 assists in a game high 42:22 minutes played. He went to the free throw line 15 times, which was more than the free throws the rest of the Hawks attempted combined.

The big man brigade of Clint Capela, John Collins, Onyeka Okongwu, and Jalen Johnson would have their hands full trying to contain the rim threatening Zion Williamson all night long. And up until late in the contest, they did an excellent job of using their bodies as an obstacle and contesting at the rim when needed. Due to their early game heroics, the Hawks were able to neutralize New Orleans rim attack and finish just about level in the points in the paint battle at just a 68-66 margin.

Clint Capela, in particular, displayed a vintage performance with 21 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks with some emphatic finishes at the rim. He ran the floor and rolled hard to the rim off screens all night long, and he was rewarded with numerous pocket passes and lobs at the rim from Young and Murray.

Below is one instance of Capela screening, then rolling into space and finishing through the contact.

Here, Capela cuts toward the rim as the defense is drawn toward Trae Young. He can’t quite finish the first lob, but he uses a second jump to draw a second consecutive ‘And-1’ opportunity.

That energy and effort translated to the performance on the other side of the floor. Capela starts with contesting a high arcing Brandon Ingram shot, and then he follows with rejecting Jonas Valanciunas’ try on the same possession below.

Just for good measure, he doles out some punishment to Zion Williamson too later in the contest.

Even in transition, Capela still shuts off the path to the rim.

“That is the Clint [Capela] that we need out on the floor,” emoted head coach Nate McMillan. “Rebounding the ball. Controlling the boards. Defending the paint. He was big all night long.”

“I try to come with the same mentality every night,” said Clint Capela. “Go after every shot. Be a presence defensively.”

Another big man also impressed, and his energy with the second unit was felt in a big way. Jalen Johnson finished his third career NBA game in double digits scoring against New Orleans, and he added some stiff defense, crisp passing and deadly open court play.

In the video below, Jalen helps start the break by poking the ball away, and he eventually finishes with a score.

This next one nearly tore the roof down, however. Jalen pounces on the saved ball and gives the crowd a show with an open court windmill dunk.

He was noticeably aggressive in the half court offense as well, knocking down some catch-and-shoot three-point attempts and attacking the rim off the dribble, like in the clip below.

Johnson finished with 11 points, four rebounds, two steals and an assist in just 15 minutes of play. Head coach Nate McMillan was certainly impressed, saying post game, “I thought young fella did a nice job of stepping in. Our matchup at the beginning of the game was Onyeka [Okongwu] on Zion [Williamson]. That wasn’t working. Zion went to the basket a couple of times. Easy.”

“[Then] we switched Jalen [Johnson] on Williamson,” coach McMillan continued. “And I thought he did a really nice job of staying in front of him and making him go over the top. Forced two turnovers pretty quickly. Offensively, he was able to make some shots. Get to the rim. So I thought he gave us solid minutes coming off the bench tonight.”

“Jalen, his bounce and his energy is exciting when he gets on the court,” Trae Young said about his teammate. “It’s big for us. That’s what we need from the guys that are coming in. That extra spark. Jalen’s been doing a great job for us recently.”

There were some warning signs in the second half even before the late game issues. The Hawks continued to struggle shooting the deep ball, including an ice cold third quarter and 0-for-7 from three. They would finish just 9-for-36 (25%) on the day from behind the arc.

Also, already hampered by an eye injury, Trae Young sustained a calf contusion at the end of the third quarter, and he was listed as questionable to return.

“John [Collins] just landed on me wrong,” explained Young. “I think he kneed me in my calf as he was landing so I’ve got a little bruise on my calf now but it will get better.”

“He’s a tough kid,” said head coach McMillan. “He’s as tough as I’ve seen. He had that eye injury in New York. He comes back in that game.”

“He did have a contusion where he went to the back [of the locker room],” McMillan continued. “I got the report that he may not return. This was about seven or eight minutes to go in the game. I see him on the bench. He says that he can go. I asked him if he can go. He’s like, ‘I can go. I can go.’ He goes out and he plays.”

Those physical ailments didn’t stop Trae Young from dazzling with his distribution en route to yet another 30 and 10 outing.

After a nifty baseline out of bounds play led to De’Andre Hunter assisting a dunking Capela (seen below), the Hawks found themselves up 103-90 with just 4:52 left to play in the game. The play starts as a stack, and Hunter eventually finds spacing off a Capela hind screen on the cut to the basket. Once the defense reacted, it was an easy finish for the big man.

What followed was a stunningly quick collapse just when it looked like the Hawks would put the game away.

The Pelicans were able to draw a number of ‘And-1’ opportunities down the stretch and earn points with a stopped clock. Turnovers were a main culprit as well, and the two live ball turnovers shown below were especially backbreaking.

I don’t really have an explanation for why Capela loses his balance inbounding the ball. That bizarre event let to yet another easy bucket late for New Orleans.

“I liked the way we played for 44 minutes,” said coach McMillan succinctly recounting the swift change in fortunes down the stretch. The Hawks would see a late 13-point lead become a 2-point deficit with under 15 seconds remaining in the contest, and the crowd on Divine 9 Night waited with bated breath to see if the Hawks had one last fight in them.

Luckily, the Hawks traded for a guy named Dejounte Murray in the offseason who shows no fear in these clutch situations.

Murray continued that momentum into the extra period, as he was responsible for the final four points for the Hawks in regulation as well as their first four in overtime. The last two points in that stretch was started by a steal, Murray’s third of the contest.

The Hawks’ effort was also aided by a blown layup in the open court from Larry Nance.

Ultimately, the Hawks would cede the Pelicans yet another chance to tie and extend the game late in overtime up just three before allowing Herb Jones to steal a bad pass from Murray. But Devonte’ Graham stepped out of bounds on a three-point attempt the next possession, which finally closed the book on the game in earnest.

“When the game is close and tight, [Dejounte Murray] wants the ball,” explained coach McMillan. “He has shown in this short season that he’s a playmaker. He can create. And I think both he and Trae [Young] are doing a really good job of taking advantage of matchups. Understanding plays to call out on the floor to get the matchup he wants.”

“I got to a sweet spot I’m really familiar with,” Dejounte Murray had to say about his crucial game-tying bucket. “I’m a guy that’s really confident in himself.”

The duo of Murray and Young continued to impress in this early season despite some shooting difficulties at times. The two combined for 21 of the Hawks’ 28 total assists, and only turned the ball over 7 times between them.

“I thought tonight Trae did a really good job of putting everybody in their spots,” explained coach McMillan. “Calling plays. Calling sets. Getting guys involved. He did most of the play calling tonight when he was out on the floor. That’s what I want from Trae. That’s growth. When he can manage the game like that – just take advantage of matchups out there – that’s going to be good for us. Tonight we tried to take advantage of Zion [Williamson] and put him in the pick-and-roll, and I thought they did a good job of executing targets that we wanted out on the floor.”

Despite the late game theatrics, the Hawks have to be pleased with a putting away a very talented Pelicans squad that featured size and length. Eventually, the trio of Williamson, Ingram and McCollum got involved and got theirs, but Atlanta held them to 74 points on 66 attempts from the field in 53 minutes of game time.

As the adage goes, a win is a win. The Hawks will look to repeat their winning ways against Milwaukee Bucks at home on Monday night. At the very least, the Hawks proved they could hang with the upper echelon teams in the NBA tonight, just like in their last loss to the Milwaukee Bucks a week ago in Wisconsin. The win does bring Atlanta to 6-3, and right in the thick of the Eastern Conference battle. I would advise you to stay tuned.