The Atlanta Hawks notched, arguably, one of their best victories of the season as they ended the Phoenix Suns’ 11 game winning streak with a 124-115 victory at State Farm Arena on Thursday night.
Trae Young’s 43 point outburst led the way for the hosts while both Kevin Huerter and John Collins added 19 points.
For the Suns, Devin Booker scored 32 points; Mikal Bridges added 24 points.
On national TV, the Hawks faced a tough test as to their recent form — despite a loss against the Raptors on Monday on the second night of a back-to-back, without Young — as the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns, winners of 11 straight and eight road victories, came to town.
On the balance of play, the Hawks led affairs for most of the game as the two sides engaged in an offensive clinic, both shooting 52% from the field. The difference in this game lay in the three-point shooting numbers; the Hawks shooting 20-of-41 for 48.8% while the Suns shot 9-of-32 for 28.1%.
The Suns did offset some of this disparity by scoring 60 points in the paint to the Hawks’ 40 but it wasn’t enough in the end to overcome a poor night shooting the ball. The Hawks decided to drop coverage on a lot of the Suns’ pick-and-rolls, which allowed the Suns to excel in the paint at a cost to their numbers behind the arc.
Let’s start with the Suns’ three-point shooting woes and the reason for them before looking at the Hawks’ success.
In three-point attempts that came from pick-and-roll, the commonality between these possessions was the big drops and the on-ball defender had to work hard to get a contest up, and the Hawks got up a lot of decent/good contests. That said, there were certain situations where the Hawks seemed happy to allow the Suns some good looks on threes.
Starting with this possession, De’Andre Hunter is the one who gets through the Chris Paul screen and contests Booker’s three:
Here, the Hawks don’t even remotely attempt to contest Jae Crowder’s three-pointer after the screen as Danilo Gallinari drops back:
Again, the pick-and-roll big — being Onyeka Okongwu this time — drops back on the screen and Bogdan Bogdanovic hustles around the screen to contest Booker’s three:
Booker again springs into a three-pointer after Okongwu drops back on the screen and misses despite the late Huerter contest:
In general, the Hawks did well to contest a number Suns’ perimeter, and for multiple efforts at times as showcased here:
That said, the Suns did miss some good opportunities themselves.
Here, the Suns run the Paul-Booker screen this time and the Hawks — with Young and Huerter — as Booker ends up with a good-look from three:
Cam Johnson is one of the top shooters in the league this season but in transition he misses badly on an open three-pointer:
Paul was 1-of-5 from three last night and walked into a couple of three-pointers such as this one:
A shot I’m sure the Hawks (to an extent) will be happy to allow Paul to take.
The Suns had plenty of opportunities to close the margin on threes compared to the Hawks but just couldn’t cash in on their attempts:
All-in-all, it was a combination of the Hawks’ defense and the Suns’ missed opportunities that led to the Suns’ tough night shooting. The Suns shoot 36% from three (fifth in the league) on 31 attempts per game but where they excel is defensively, limiting their opponents to just 33% from three on the season (fourth best in the league) but the Hawks were able to shoot 48.8% from downtown.
What the Hawks excelled at last night was getting into the paint, collapsing the Suns’ defense and then making the pass to find the open man. Normally this is something you would associate Young for being primarily at the heart of, but not last night.
Bogdanovic dished out a team-high six assists and was heavily involved in the Hawks’ three-point success.
From the corner, Bogdanovic drives, gets inside the paint while Huerter fans out to the opposite corner where he’s found by Bogdanovic for the three-pointer:
Here, Bogdanovic rejects the Clint Capela screen, drives into the paint and towards the baseline, no-looks it to the corner to find Hunter, who hits the three:
Again, Bogdanovic gets into the paint, the Suns collapse and Bogdanovic finds Huerter again for three:
Bogdanovic himself shot 3-of-7 from three, including this three-pointer as he steps away from Booker and hits the contested three:
Bogdanovic linked up with Huerter on a few occasions as we’ve seen, and Huerter was fantastic in the second quarter, shooting 4-of-5 from three before going on to shoot 5-of-10 for the game, including this three off of the screen:
Gallinari also had a big impact when it came to the Hawks’ three-point shooting despite shooting 2-of-6.
To start, Delon Wright finds Okongwu inside, who is pressured at the rim and finds Gallinari, who takes a big step back and knocks down the three:
For his second three (it’s one I never personally tire seeing), Gallinari — on the catch from Huerter — shoots over Johnson for three:
I’ve beat on this particular drum since Gallinari joined the Hawks last season but I’ve always felt that Gallinari should be doing more often (shooting over opponents) given his shooting prowess at his size: he’s literally able to shoot over players at times. Alas, I digress...
Gallinari was also able to find his teammates for three on a few occasions out of the post.
Matched with Booker in the post, Gallinari fires the ball out to the perimeter to find Bogdanovic for three:
Guarded by Johnson again, Gallinari fires the ball to Young in deep three-point territory, and Young duly converts to open an eight point lead towards the end of the third quarter:
Collins got in on the action too, shooting 3-of-5 from three, including this three where the Hawks work the ball from the baseline, where Young drives to before finding the cutting Hunter, who is met with a crowd inside and finds Collins above the break for three:
Again, the Hawks draw the Suns toward the ball/paint, this time Capela draws the crowd and finds Collins in the corner for another three:
Crowder probably doesn’t need to help with Deandre Ayton guarding Capela down-low but alas...
Last but certainly not least, Young hit six three-pointers en-route to 43 points, icing the game after collecting the loose ball and hitting the three as the Suns’ defense scrambles:
It was a much-needed three-pointer for the Hawks after the Suns had pressured the Hawks with their traps late in the game as the visitors were up against it, trailing by double-digits for a considerable amount of the fourth quarter. The Suns dug into the lead as the Hawks fumbled on a few occasions down the stretch (though, not an uncommon theme for the game as they committed an uncharacteristic 15 turnovers last night).
In the end, the Hawks outscored the Suns 60-27 from three-point range as they eased to victory: the difference in this game as the Hawks bested the NBA’s top team right now.
Postgame, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan commented on the ‘shakiness’ of the Hawks in the final two minutes as the Suns extended those pressure/traps.
“They are a really good team and we were a little shaky those last two minutes taking care of the ball and understanding proper spacing,” said McMillan postgame. “Something that we’ve been talking about since this stretch of wins: the trapping we’re seeing teams play against Trae where they’re hitting him and trapping him, it’s just a matter of us getting to our proper spacing and moving the ball and we were able to do that a couple of times and a couple of times we fumbled it and got a little lucky. We have to clean that up but that’s the game for us. Teams are going to be trapping and trying to get the ball out of Trae’s hands, wanted to put another shooter out there, put Gallo out on the floor and did a good job of spacing the floor and attacking it.”
To the Hawks’ credit, when the Suns tried to double-team Young earlier in the fourth quarter — before the game got away from them — the Hawks made the plays they needed to out of them.
Here, Young gets the ball to Gallinari after the double-team, who in turn moves the ball to Bogdanovic. Again, Bogdanovic is able to get into the paint, force the defense to step up and he finds Collins on the alley-oop:
The next offensive trip, the Suns send an extra man to Young again. Young points where he wants Gallinari, makes the pass to him and Gallinari finds Collins behind the defense for another alley-oop and the Suns are forced to call a timeout, and would not go back to this method until they were on their last legs in this game:
Having missed the Hawks’ last game with a shoulder issue, Young returned to devastating effect, scoring 43 points on 16-of-25 shooting from the field, 6-of-11 from three and 5-of-7 from the line to go with five assists.
“I thought he was great,” said McMillan of Young. “He hadn’t done anything in the last two days, so, a little concerned about his conditioning. He said he felt good this morning during the walk-through but he wanted to wait until game-time to see how it felt then and it felt good enough to play and we certainly needed this performance out there tonight.”
Young was always likely to play in this spot if given any remote opportunity, given the opponent and the national TV spotlight and McMillan was pleased with Young’s efforts on both ends of the floor.
“He’s a competitor,” McMillan went on to say of Young. “Trae, he competes and gives everything he has when he’s out on the floor, regardless of the situation, the moment. When we all get on national television, you want to perform well because you know it’s a bigger audience. I’ve seen guys in situations like that, they get too hyped and don’t play well but Trae came in and performed well on both ends of the floor. When you’re going up against a Chris Paul, a guy who controls the game and the tempo, he’s a tough guy to beat and that’s a tough team to beat. I thought what Trae did tonight settled us down, he made big shots, big plays. That was the difference in the game.”
One thing I thought Young did well was bounce-back from a less than ideal start in this game; not in terms of shooting the ball but he started the game with two quick turnovers, Paul ripping the ball off of him on both occasions but went on to score 10 points in the first quarter to recover from that start. Young scored 18 points in the third quarter alone, devastating the Suns with his combination of drives, outside shooting and overall movement.
Young noted that his shoulder still wasn’t 100% after the game, and he wasn’t the only Hawk dealing with a shoulder issue. Collins looked as though he had seriously injured his shoulder in the fourth quarter, barely able to keep himself upright before going to locker-room.
Here is the play:
Collins quickly rejoined the bench and though he did not play the remaining 1:49 he was optimistic postgame that he had escaped serious injury and expects to be ready to play in Toronto today.
“Last game, had a little shoulder trouble, a little bit pain in the shoulder,” began Collins on his shoulder. “Today, arm got caught — somebody yanked my arm down a little bit and the same feeling came back a little bit. Feels a lot better now. Wanted to come back out on the court but definitely a little bit unnerving to just go out there and not understand or know what’s happening but I feel better now, we’re on it, we’ll try to fix it and make sure I’m ready to go. I feel like I’m playing tomorrow so all is well but something we’ve got to monitor and make sure it gets better.”
A different front office now resides in Atlanta but I’m sure many fans had uncomfortable flashbacks to when Al Horford tore his pectoral and missed a very significant amount of time as a result, and given how devastating a serious Collins injury would be to the Hawks, I’d be surprised if he played tonight even if he technically could. Eyebrows would surely be raised if Collins did play, especially noting that he had shoulder issues the game prior. I would expect the Hawks to err on the side of caution, and perhaps sit Young in the process on the second night of a back-to-back, but time will tell.
Before being forced to leave the game, Collins’ impact on the game was immense; not in the scoring sense like Young (though he did score 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting) but Collins — and Capela for that matter — were very active and present on the boards, doing the dirty work down-low and scrapping inside against a very physical Phoenix side.
Young will rightly take the plaudits: he was magnificent and without his 43 points, the Hawks do not win this game. If Collins was immense, Young was even more immense. But the performances of Bogdanovic and Gallinari should not go unnoticed: both were huge in the Hawks’ three-point success, Bogdanovic in particular was absolutely fantastic in this game. Time after time he got into the Phoenix defense and made something happen, and when Young was doubled in the fourth quarter the Hawks have a safe pair of hands. His six assists also showcases the Hawks’ strength in secondary playmaking, that Young doesn’t have to do it all, that he can go and score 43 points and dish out five assists (below his season average) and Bogdanovic can provide six assists, Capela can add four assists, and Gallinari and Huerter can chip in three apiece.
There’s a reason why McMillan went with Gallinari down the stretch: what he’s able to add in terms of shooting at his position and size is huge and everyone saw how Gallinari can not only make outside shots but create problems inside on mismatches and then make the right pass out of the post to other three-point shooters (which we looked at earlier). It was just a matchup that was working for the Hawks last night.
Huerter shot 4-of-6 from three on his way to 16 first half points before he cooled in the second half but took on a different assignment in the second half, McMillan discussing postgame that, with Hunter’s foul trouble, Huerter had a more defensive role to play in the second half.
“He was big,” said McMillan of Huerter. “He had the assignment of guarding Booker most of the second half because De’Andre got into foul trouble. That’s a challenge to guard Booker and to some of the things he did on the offensive end of the floor for us. He really found his rhythm in that second half and was knocking down some shots so we called his number and he made some plays. As I told him, ‘Great job on both ends of the floor.’ I thought defensively he was solid, offensively he did a solid job scoring for us.”
Arguably, this is the best victory of the season for the Hawks to this point. Not only did they beat the NBA’s best at the moment but they saw a fantastic performance from many of their best players. Sure, the likes of Hunter and Okongwu didn’t have the most spectacular games but both still played key roles. Hunter took the Booker assignment in the first half prior to his foul trouble and Okongwu had to play a scrappier role inside against the Suns’ large center rotation.
Now, the Hawks are winners of eight of their last nine games and, again, are one game away from returning to .500. They’ll now go on the road for a short two-game trip to Toronto and Dallas but will head back on the road knowing that while they’ve, in essence, saved their season from total self destruction (as a poor homestand beginning with a 18-25 record would) they know that the work is not done yet.
“This is what we talked about before this stance at home started, that we had a lot of work to do and we still have a lot of work to do,” said McMillan. “But trying to take care of business here at home, win games here at home; I thought we did a good job of that. The Toronto game was a game where it just seemed we had heavy legs. That game was moved to a back-to-back. Normally on the schedule we really had a day (off) in between. So that was changed on us and turned into a back-to-back. We didn’t play well enough to win that game but I liked how we’ve been playing the last two weeks. Now we have to continue this and go out on the road and try to take care of business there.”
The Hawks (25-26) are back in action tonight as they head north to take on the Toronto Raptors.
Until next time...