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Trae Young, Hawks maneuver past Clippers’ multiple defenses

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers have been without their two superstar players, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, for the majority of this season, but they have been competitive enough to tread water until their respective returns. The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, had a clean injury report and needed to take advantage of the situation.

While Atlanta was never able to put together a long stretch of dominance on Friday night, and Los Angeles took this one down to the wire, the Hawks eventually emerged victorious, 112-106.

It was a hot offensive start for the Hawks, with the first 16 points coming from in the paint and a nine point margin after the first quarter. Atlanta would have their way in the paint all game long, with 54 of their 112 points coming from that area.

Right from the beginning, the Hawks displayed a keen awareness of how to take advantage of lumbering big man Ivica Zubac patrolling the paint. The Clippers show a trap here, but Trae Young beats it with a decisive drive away from the approaching Nicolas Batum double team and dish to Clint Capela at the dunker spot.

The mixing and matching of defensive schemes would be a running theme throughout the night for the visitors. Atlanta displayed great awareness and savvy in being able to counter whatever tricks Los Angeles threw their way en route to a 120.4 points per possession night, one that included excellent ball movement in the form of 28 assists on 43 made field goals.

The Clippers, for their part, stormed back with a huge second quarter. Los Angeles diced up Atlanta in the second quarter with good off ball movement leading to six triples in the period. One example of that is below, with Terance Mann receiving a switched Young in the paint. Luke Kennard moving without the ball and the entry pass to Mann shifts the defense enough to leave Batum wide open.

Zubac in particular had his way down low with the smaller lineups for Atlanta, which tended to feature the 6’8 Onyeka Okongwu or the slight 6’9 John Collins at center when Capela was resting. He finished with 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting and 12 rebounds.

Still, an 8-0 run by the Hawks at the end of the half allowed them to retake the lead going into the break. Two assists by Bogdan Bogdanovic at the end of the second quarter helped lead the charge. On the balance, Bogdanovic had a modest performance with 11 points and six assists, but he did show the tactical smarts of how to break down the multiple defenses the Clippers showed in this contest.

First, instead of using the corner screen from Capela to lift into more space, he rejects it to dribble baseline so that he can draw Zubac away from the rim. The result was a nifty pocket pass and an easy look for Atlanta’s center.

Then, after Young is trapped on the perimeter. Bogdanovic takes advantage of a scrambling Clippers defense to find Capela for a lob finish.

After halftime, Clippers switched mainly to drop coverage in the third quarter to slow down the onslaught at the rim. Trae Young, instead, began using that new freeness to pull up and bury elbow jumpers. Example A: Young gets Marcus Morris on the switch off a Capela screen. Morris trails Young inside the arc but Zubac cedes the midrange shot in favor of cutting off the lane for both the ball handler or the roll man.

Although it looks like an identical clip below, Example B is merely a separate possession just about a minute later.

Young finished as the high man for the game in scoring with 27 points, 11 assists and five rebounds.

At one point, the Clippers even worked in some 3-2 zone defense, but again the Hawks were wise enough to crack the code Friday night. Here, the defense tilts toward Danilo Gallinari when he has the ball above the break. Collins is positioned at the free throw line to occupy Batum enough to make him a step slow on Bogdanovic’s drive to the right elbow.

Failing to execute down the stretch in close games, however, has been a source of a lot of issues for Atlanta this season. But the Hawks did just enough with 22 points in 21 fourth quarter possessions to squeak out a victory in this contest. This monster Okongwu dunk helped get the crowd pumped to urge the team in the fourth quarter.

“We need [Okongwu’s] energy,” said head coach Nate McMillan about the young big man’s contributions. “We need his scrappiness. The things that we know he’s capable of doing. He got a couple of offensive rebounds – some kickouts to a couple of guys that were wide open.”

“[Okongwu] did a great job of being all over the glass tonight,” said Kevin Huerter. “The same with Clint.” The pair of big men pulled down 20 rebounds between them, including 11 of the team’s 15 offensive boards to help give Atlanta the edge in second chance points, 16-14.

Huerter aided the effort himself with two big shot clock beating threes, the second of which came from countering Los Angeles’ late aggressive defense. The Clippers displayed yet another trap for Young, but his vision and skill allows him to laser the ball to the opposite corner for Gallinari and one more pass finds an open Huerter.

Reggie Jackson willed his team back into the contest late with some late buckets after meandering into the lane. But Atlanta continued to fight on both ends. Even after Capela drew the assignment on Jackson after a switch, Capela kept his hands and feet active to try to keep him out of the paint, and Jackson obliged with a bad launch shot.

Young smartly doesn’t foul Batum here and a prayer shot from Jackson again goes unanswered to give Atlanta the victory.

“We’ve been talking about us execution here in the last couple of games,” said McMillan. “And that’s execution. You got to make stops when you need stops. You’ve got to make baskets when you need baskets. And we were able to do that the last five minutes of this game.”

“[Clint Capela] has done it before for us when we’ve gone to our red defense,” McMillan continued talking about Capela switching out onto Reggie Jackson late in the game. “Tonight they were hurting us with the pick-and-roll early. Most of the second half - certainly in the last five minutes of that quarter – we went to red defense which was switching and keep the ball in front. He’s been able to do a good job when switched out on some of these guards.”

“I think it’s a trend across the league,” said Huerter about modern NBA schemes. “More and more teams are starting to switch. More and more teams are starting to allow the 5-man to guard the ball, guard the point guard. That’s something Clint has been telling us he can do all year.”

“One of those last possessions he’s guarding Reggie [Jackson],” continued Huerter. “Forcing a bad shot. Forcing tough shots over the course of a tough game – that’s huge if we’re able to switch 1-through-5. If you switch out, your big man is going to pull away from the basket. Mismatches are two ways. Your point guard is going against a big and your 5-man is going against a point guard. You’ve got to win those matchups.”

Atlanta also did their part in knocking down important baskets on the offensive end down the stretch. Below, Zubac abandons his drop coverage to force Young to give the ball up near the end of the fourth quarter. Young is able to stretch out the pick-and-roll long enough to find Capela for the dunk.

De’Andre Hunter chipped in with a nice catch-and-go floater off the glass as well. In a well balanced attack on Friday night, Hunter was among six Hawks who finished in double figures in scoring.

“I think coming down the stretch, you have to figure out how to close out games better,” responded Young about finishing this game the right way. “We’ve done it through some stretches this year but we have to consistently do it. And I think we had a game plan coming into today. And we knew what we wanted to do early in the game, late in the game. And it was good for us.”

“Trae was double teamed,” said Huerter about what the Clippers were doing defensively. “Every team we know is going to go into games figuring out how to stop Trae. They’re going to switch up their pick-and-roll coverages. He can get off the ball and let other guys make plays.”

“In the halfcourt, they were mixing up their defense,” said McMillan. “We were doing a good job of running our halfcourt sets, moving the ball, and attacking them.”

“I thought we did a good job of spacing the floor and moving the ball,” McMillan would say seperately. “They were in zone, they mixed up their defense with traps and I thought they did a good job of getting to our spacing and moving the ball. And when you’re moving the ball like that – we had a couple of shots right at the [shot] clock. I thought Kevin knocked down some big shots for us late in the shot clock.”

“I missed a similar one a couple of possessions before where it was the same type of shot going right,” said Huerter about his pair of deep clock threes. “So I made a couple of corrections on that one. When I caught it, I wasn’t sure how much was on the shot clock. I knew it was low so it caught me off guard a little bit. I had to get one up but luckily it fell.”

As the team enters the stretch run and looks toward the play-in tournament and playoffs, the Hawks aimed to tighten up their rotation a bit. Guard Delon Wright had mere spot minutes for the second time in two games after foul trouble from the forwards, and he didn’t appear at all in the first half. Coach McMillan was asked about it, saying, “I’m shortening my rotations. Ten guys is difficult to play and I’m going to a nine-man rotation.”

McMillan mentioned his conversations with Wright, adding, “I want all of our guys to be ready. I talked to Delon [Wright] about that. It’s nothing he has done. He’s been playing well for us. But it’s really difficult to play a 10-man rotation because everyone gets squeezed.”

Collins recently returned from a foot injury, but he was spotted with tape on his shooting hand. Two of his fingers had been wrapped tightly pregame as some sort of treatment or at least precaution. Ultimately, Collins didn’t appear at all in the fourth quarter, with Danilo Gallinari instead logging all 12 minutes at the power forward position in his place.

When asked about the hand issue, McMillan responded, “We’re not going to tell you everything. I just respect him for his effort. He does have some things going on that he’s trying to play through. But he suited up and gave us his best effort. I really have a great deal of respect for what John is doing for us and what he’s trying to play through.”

All in all, it’s a much needed win for Atlanta with two less than hot teams coming into State Farm Arena next. Before facing off against a Portland Trail Blazers team missing Damian Lillard and coming off one of the worst seven game stretches in history, Atlanta will face off against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday.

The Pacers themselves have just three wins in their last 15 contests prior to Saturday’s matchup with the Spurs in San Antonio. Atlanta will therefore look to take advantage of a struggling team on the second night of a travel back-to-back.

Stay tuned.