The Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets received very different news just before tip-off on Friday night in State Farm Arena. Both Trae Young and Jamal Murray were listed as questionable in the lead up to this matchup. However, the Hawks’ star guard was unable to play tonight – or even join the team in the arena – while the Nuggets’ star guard was cleared to play for the visitors.
With John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, and others already out for Atlanta, it seemed like an unenviable task for the Hawks to topple a strong Western Conference opponent that came in 14-7 on the season. But the Hawks put forth a feisty and varied effort and ultimately came away with the 117-109 win behind a big push from their other star guard, Dejounte Murray.
It was a veritable motley crew for Atlanta Friday night that included: a player returning from a major offseason surgery on his knee, a handful of players 21 and younger, and a couple of wily veterans simply fighting for their place in the NBA.
Murray — who made his first All-Star game in 2022 — ran the show without his running mate Trae Young, and there was very little to critique about his performance. Murray shot and distributed brilliantly, recording 34 points on 13-for-22 (59%) shooting from the field and 4-for-7 (57%) shooting from deep. He also added eight assists against just one turnover, a ratio not lost upon him or his head coach at the post game press conference.
Plays like the one below were so crucial for a Hawks team missing a lot of their usual firepower. Here, Murray is able to take Bruce Brown off the dribble, draw help defenders towards the baseline, and find a cutting Jalen Johnson for the lay-in with a wraparound pass.
Not known as a prolific three-point shooter, Murray let it fly from deep when Denver gave him even an inch of space on the perimeter. His four triples Friday night extended a streak of five straight games with multiple makes from deep.
Like a lot of recent opponents, the Nuggets showed a 3-2 zone to try to slow down Atlanta. Undeterred, Murray confidently buries the triple as the defense is trying to shift from side to side.
This next one was a team effort to get Murray a clean look. Once Bogdan Bogdanovic is doubled in the mid-post area, he kicks out the ball to Vit Krejci. A Jarrett Culver cut helps draw the scrambled defense in just enough to clear space for Murray to fire.
“Tonight, [Murray had] eight assists,” remarked head coach Nate McMillan about the guard’s performance tonight. “34 points. Only one turnover. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
“I think tonight, a lot of stuff that I make went my way,” said Dejounte Murray. “But I’m more impressed with the one turnover because I’m somebody who knows turning the ball over could change the game.”
“He led the team to the win,” coach McMillan stated. “Established the tempo but he also controlled the tempo. He was communicating with his guys throughout the night. Talking on offense and defense. In the locker room. It was a game he knew he had to step up with all the guys out of the lineup.”
Bogdan Bogdanovic missed the first 22 games of this season recovering from an offseason surgery on his right knee. He was rewarded with raucous applause from the Atlanta Hawks faithful in State Farm Arena upon checking into the game for the first time — something that took him by surprise.
“When I was checking in, I was really calm,” said Bogdan Bogdanovic about his state of mind entering the game for the first time. “I know what I’m going to do and what my job is. I was ready. But then I didn’t expect that ovation and the crowd going crazy. I understand, but it was hard for me. It made me nervous honestly.”
“I know our fans love [Bogdanovic] as much as we do,” said coach McMillan. “And it’s great to see him get back on the floor and be [himself]. He missed a couple of shots but he wasn’t hesitant.”
“I was smiling for [Bogdanovic],” said Dejounte Murray about Bogdanovic’s season debut. “I was waiting, waiting, waiting to see him show up at the arena today.”
“That was special to play with [Bogdanovic] for the first time,” added AJ Griffin. “We both have that shooting mentality.”
About his path to getting back on the court, Bogdanovic talked about comfort level in fitting into the game plan. “I’m pretty confident in the organization. The coaches and everybody. I know I’ll fit in right away. I know the plays. Honestly, I didn’t even go through the plays. I did this morning a little bit, but I knew everything right when I stepped onto the floor.”
“We won a game,” remarked Bogdanovic. “That’s really what makes me happy. Because otherwise I would probably feel really bad. It’s really exciting to be back.”
As eluded to by his coach, the box score stats didn’t exactly exactly flatter him Friday night. Bogdanovic finished with five points on nine shots in 22 minutes of game time and four turnovers. But the sight of his return was a clear boost to the team and fans, and in time he’ll surely regain his comfort on the floor.
Moving from a 30-year-old veteran to a 19-year-old rookie, AJ Griffin has gone from out of the rotation to begin the season to being an integral part of the Hawks’ success with just a quarter of the season finished. Griffin, Atlanta’s first round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, would end up with 24 points, a mark that matched his career high.
Griffin has shown more and more ability on the ball as the season progresses, like here lifting to receive the ball and getting separation on Bruce Brown for the floater.
Griffin gets even deeper into the lane here, losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the process.
Off a screen from Clint Capela, Griffin shows his pull up ability with two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic unable to step out onto him in time.
After a Dejounte Murray block, Griffin is able to take this the length of the court for the score.
And we know AJ can fill it up from three, whether at a standstill or off a step back on the DeAndre Jordan switch like in this clip.
“I think on both ends, I feel like I’m getting the trust of coach [McMillan],” Griffin had to say about his recent play. “I appreciate that, especially at a young age. Wanting to take those challenges, those are all new experiences.”
It was also a stat-stuffing night for a couple of players who were forced into starting duty. Jalen Johnson showed some flashes of high level play and processing in a spot start with Atlanta down their top two forwards. In a career-high 33 minutes of game time, Johnson finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
Here, Johnson sees Bruce Brown sink to a low man help position on the pick-and-roll with Capela, and Johnson finds AJ Griffin in the corner for a high percentage three.
Later, he links up with Capela this time in transition.
Look how far Jalen Johnson comes after the missed elbow jumper to put back Capela’s shot with authority.
Jarrett Culver’s endless effort and hustle was on display yet again, as he added 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and two steals in 33 minutes of play as well. He earned his first NBA start since January of 2021 and made the most of his opportunity.
On the first play of the game, Culver turns the corner for an aggressive take to the rack.
This is one of 15 rebounds across the last two competitions that the 6’6” Culver had amongst the trees.
“All of our guys who stepped into starting roles,” coach McMillan said about the spot start players on Friday night. “Jalen [Johnson], AJ [Griffin], Jarrett [Culver], Clint [Capela]. Those guys played great basketball. It was a team effort.”
“I didn’t want to start [Bogdanovic] and we decided to put in AJ [Griffin] and Jarrett [Culver],” continued coach McMillan. “I think Jarrett is a solid player on both ends of the floor. He can handle the ball. He defends. He rebounds. I watched him about a month ago in the G League and really was impressed with how he played.”
Even the sparingly used Vit Krejci gave the Hawks some nice minutes, including a block and a big follow dunk.
“[Vit Krejci] is a confident kid,” coach McMillan had to say about the second year player. “He gets out on the floor and can play with anybody. His basketball IQ is really high, I’m happy to see him get an opportunity.”
“That’s my guy, [Krejci],” said AJ Griffin. “We’re always joking around and shooting after practices. People see him having fun out there. Getting a put back dunk.”
“We saw this in Orlando,” said coach McMillan, referencing the previous game in which Collins and Hunter both exited with injuries. “We have guys to go down and we have guys to step up and play.”
“I think it just shows how deep we are,” added Murray. “Young talent. A bunch of hard working guys. We had three key guys out, three starters. That’s hard to win games in the league like that.”
Despite missing so many key contributors, the Hawks managed a stellar 122 offensive rating for the game, with seven different players scoring double digits. Even more impressive was, despite missing John Collins and others, the Hawks won the rebounding battle by a 43-33 margin by crashing the glass with high energy and effort.
Even as Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, and the rest of the Nuggets got going in the third quarter and even take the lead at one point, the Hawks showed their resiliency in regaining the lead immediately and never again ceding it.
All in all, it was a big win for the Hawks in a difficult situation, who move to 13-10 in the standings. The Hawks will now have a much needed two days off before hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday evening.