The Atlanta Hawks moved one game above .500 for the first time since December as they completed a 4-0 regular season sweep over the Indiana Pacers with a 132-123 victory in Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Monday night.
Bogdan Bogdanovic led the Hawks in scoring with 29 points while Trae Young scored 14 points and dished out a season-high 16 assists. For the Pacers, Buddy Hield scored 26 points, Tyrese Haliburton added 25 points.
As has been a feature in the season-series, both sides were missing considerable numbers in personnel.
For the Hawks, John Collins remained out, joined this time by De’Andre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari. For the Pacers, they were once again limited to just eight bodies, their notable absences include Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, T.J. Warren, T.J. McConnell, Ricky Rubio, Duane Washington, Isaiah Jackson and Oshae Brisset.
Even despite being on the road and missing Collins, Gallinari and Hunter, the Hawks were heavy favorites heading into this contest and they played like it from quarter number one, racing out to a double-digit lead and a 44 point first quarter — a new season-high to replace the 40 point first quarter the Hawks scored against the Pacers in their last meeting earlier in March — helped by a season-best 10 three-pointers in a quarter.
Young scored 47 points against the Pacers in that meeting earlier in March, 33 of those coming in the first half. In the second half of that game the Pacers were much more aggressive in their defense of Young and limited him to 14 points in the second half. The Pacers employed that strategy again, this time from minute one, and forced Young into taking a primarily facilitating role and leave the scoring to others as he had to give the ball up more than he would be used to.
Of course, when Young gives the ball up it falls to the others to either finish the play or make one themselves and the Hawks really stepped up in this regard. Let’s look at some of the instances the Hawks were able to do this from situations where Young had to give the ball up.
To start, Young is thrown an extra body in the form of Goga Bitazde and when Clint Capela continues his roll inside the Pacers’ help defense falls asleep and Young picks Capela out for the easy finish at the rim:
Next is an example of Young giving the ball up after the double and other Hawks making a play leading to a basket, this one coming — as it often will — between Capela and Kevin Huerter. Capela receives the ball from Young, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot — starting in place of Gallinari — makes a great cut to draw the defense away from Huerter and Capela finds him for three:
A bit of a different play to others on this next clip, with Young drawing the extra body both outside and then inside as he gets near the paint, and as the defender falls over Young finds Capela inside and after a couple of attempts at the rim Capela eventually scores:
As Young brings the ball up, Capela sets a high screen and rolls behind Bitazde, who is caught ball-watching somewhat, and Young floats the alley-oop pass for Capela, who finishes the play:
A bit of a messy play to start as Capela gathers the tipped ball on the pass from the doubled Young before handing it to Huerter. Huerter drives towards the rim and lofts the ball in the air for Capela who finishes at the rim:
To start this next play, Capela hands the ball off to Young and slips to the rim, where he is found by Young for another alley-oop behind Jalen Smith:
“It’s a lot of practise,” said Young of seeing lob plays develop. “A lot of repetition, a lot of reads and film. I look at some of my favourite point guard growing up and seeing how they let the defense settle and get back to their man before they hit the roll-man or if they see the guy waiting for the big on the lob they know where to hit the corner guy. It’s more so about watching film and knowing the game and how to feel for it.”
A different look this time for Young as he finds Delon Wright off of the double for a three-pointer:
This time Young is switched onto by Bitazde and with Capela matched with Hield inside, Young lobs it to him and the sheer size of Capela means he just yanks this ball away from Hield’s reach and finishes at the rim:
Young is shown a less calculated double this time and he finds Huerter on the perimeter, who in turn finds Capela inside and a nice step and right-hand hook puts more points on the board for the Hawks:
Lastly, Young is shown another double and finds Capela down the pipe and Capela stuffs it over Bitazde for the dunk:
The Pacers committed to the strategy for most of the game as you can see but with Young’s incredible passing ability and the play of Capela and Huerter the Hawks were able to create and make plays over and over again out of these situations.
The end result was the second-highest scoring output for Capela with 22 points in points with — to go along with 15 rebounds — and a season-high 16 assists for Young with just two turnovers.
Postgame, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan was pleased with his side’s ball-movement and spacing, knowing that the Pacers were going to trap Young.
“Good ball-movement,” praised McMillan. “We knew that were a team that would trap and try to hit Trae. Trae had a really big game last game against them so we felt they would trap and we just need to get the proper spacing and move the ball. I thought our guys did that tonight. We did it early and was able to knock down some shots.”
With how well the Pacers limited Young in that second half of their previous meeting the Hawks knew this was likely defensive strategy was going to be seen again, only this time the Hawks were prepared from the start as opposed to attempting to adjust massively during the game. Young scored 14 points on 4-of-13 shooting from the field and 2-of-9 from three last night.
“They did that to end the game last game and I think now we know what they were probably going to do coming into the game and try to take me out of it from the jump,” said Young of the Pacers’ trapping. “Just got to give it to my teammates and let them make plays. We kind of knew to expect a little bit better tonight.”
“We knew what was going to happen and they picked up their aggressiveness,” added Bogdanovic. “We just have to stick to the plan against that defense, play even harder, play through fouls and try not to talk with the refs.”
McMillan was asked about the possibility of this doubling/trapping of Young happening less as more instances of this level of passing and opening of the opposing defense continue to happen — as Young continues to pick them apart and other Hawks hit resulting shots/make plays out of these instances — and McMillan believes that it will happen less if Young continues to do so while also praising Young’s patience in these situations.
“He’s going to have to continue to do it and you will see it less,” said McMillan of Young carving defenses out of double teams. “As a matter of fact tonight, they took it off. Early they were trapping and I thought Trae did a good job being patient and getting the ball out to his teammates and other guys were knocking down shots, shot after shot. Clint was getting layups. Trae didn’t really force the issue. Those are the things he’s going to have to continue to do because the next team is going to be watching it. Do you want to give a wide open look to take the ball out of his hands? The only way he’s going to get that single coverage that he wants is to get the ball out of double teams, then teams will eventually say, ‘Look, it’s better to try keep one guy on him and defend him that way as opposed to giving up wide open threes to 30/40% three-point shooters.”
There were some possessions where Young played a little more sped up to create openings and avoid doubles but these were still good plays last night, such as this one:
Bogdanovic welcomes teams that continue to treat Young in this manner, saying that it just creates better openings for both himself and his team, his confidence in Young’s ability to make the right plays after these situations high.
“He’s a really selfless guy,” said Bogdanovic of Young. “It changed in a positive way (when he’s doubled). He finds us open, we make shots and after that the teams have a problem doing it (doubling). I’m encouraging them to do that! We’ll get more open shots and thanks to Trae he’ll always find the right read.”
I have doubts that the Hawks and Young would excel as well as this against better teams with better quality of bigs to spring doubles/traps on Young than the Pacers had available to them last night but the Hawks and Young did play very well offensively to work around the one look the Pacers had to throw at Young and hope others fell short offensively.
On another night perhaps this may have worked and the Pacers did have good showings from Hield and Haliburton, in addition to Keifer Sykes, and hit 17 threes to keep this game somewhat close.
Capela also performed to a high level in this game for the visitors, scoring 22 points on 11-of-17 from the field to go along with 15 rebounds as the Hawks won the rebounding battle 40-28.
“It was huge,” said McMillan when asked of Capela’s 15 rebounds. “Teams have just been pounding us on the boards. With De’Andre out, Gallo out, John being out — John our second leading rebounder — Clint and Big O have had to take on the duties of rebounding the basketball; we got to get our guards in there to help. Clint tonight did a really nice job of rebounding the ball. In our last game they pounded us on the boards. That was one of the keys tonight, we needed to be a one-shot defense tonight.”
With Myles Turner out and the inexperienced Bitazde and Smith operating at center — in addition to the Pacers using those two bigs to double Young out front, it was a spot that Capela was always going to excel in and he did to great effect — Capela was fantastic.
There were good games to be had from both Huerter (22 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and 6-of-10 from three) and Luwawu-Cabarrot — stepping in place of Gallinari — who scored 13 points, chipping with with six free throw attempts (making five of them) to help the Hawks shoot 21-of-26 from the line last night.
In addition to this, the Hawks received a great boost off of their bench from two players in particular: Bogdanovic and Jalen Johnson.
Let’s start with Johnson, who has obviously not featured a lot this season as a rookie. Johnson scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field in 17 minutes of action. Johnson showed some solid flashes in his time on the court, including his athleticism (after this fantastic pass from Trae Young):
Johnson showed good patience on this out-of-bounds play as a cool-looking McMillan looks on (which I left in the clip because why not), Johnson waiting for his man to go over him as he fakes before finishing the play at the rim:
This next play was just one that was well executed from the Hawks as Bogdanovic sets the screen for Johnson to roll to the rim as Lou Williams finds him with the oop:
Johnson shows some defensive instincts as he telegraphs the cross-court pass from Hield — which was a poor choice, it should have gone to Lance Stephenson with Wright’s back turned — and Johnson steams through to finish in transition:
In the half-court, Johnson receives from Onyeka Okongwu and does a great job taking it inside and positioning the ball as to get through the Pacers defense to finish with the dunk:
And, lastly, Johnson finishes with a fine reverse on the find from Williams:
While it was a fine evening’s work from Johnson, I wouldn’t be rushing ahead to say he should be immediately receiving rotation minutes (especially at this stage of the season). As to his level of performance, the opponent has to be taken into account: this was a Pacers side that was heavily depleted at the forward/center spot and I don’t think it was truly indicative of what Johnson would do against better opposition.
None of that is to say he played poorly last night or didn’t take advantage of the minutes he received — he did both of those things — but I just wouldn’t rush ahead just yet. If Johnson continues to play when Hunter, Collins and Gallinari return, it’ll be a different story, as McMillan’s postgame comments alluded to with Hunter being a late scratch from this game. That said, there was nothing but praise for Johnson last night (as there should be).
“He’s playing good basketball for us,” said McMillan of Johnson. “De’Andre was a late scratch tonight, basically he warmed up and didn’t feel right so we had another forward down. Jalen was a guy that we played and gave us some good minutes so we went with that tonight needing that size. All we’re asking him to do is bring energy, rebound the basketball and just play; don’t worry about making mistakes. He’s seemed to be able to find the rim, we drew a couple of plays up for him to get a lob and he was able to execute that. I like what he’s doing and what he brings to the floor.”
“Jalen is playing hard, rebounding, it’s big for us bringing that energy,” added Trae Young of Johnson. “I know it’s tough in a situation not knowing if you’re going to play or not each and every night but being ready like he was tonight, guys going out, ‘Dre being out last minute, I think his mindset and the way he came in and approached it and attacked when he needed to and trying to dunk everything I think it was good for us.”
Meanwhile, Bogdanovic starred off of the bench as he poured out 29 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field, 5-of-7 from three and 8-of-10 from the free throw line in his return from a one-game absence.
12 of Bogdanovic’s 29 points came in the final quarter as he produced multiple effort plays to not only hit clutch shots but to get to the free throw line. He was great last night and shouldered a lot of the Hawks’ scoring as Young took more of a facilitating role and played a key role — along with Johnson — in outscoring the Pacers’ bench 52-33.
For the game itself, the Hawks were never really threatened, and though the Pacers did cut the lead to six points in the third quarter, you just never felt that the Hawks were in serious danger.
I think they probably should have won by more than nine points and seemed to definitely leave something on the table and allow the Pacers to keep within arm’s length for a significant period of this game. The Pacers played well for their eight available players but the fact they were able to score 123 points says more about the Hawks than it says about the Pacers and just continues to highlight a frustration watching this Hawks side. The Pacers shot 51.7% from the field and 47% from three (shooting 17-of-36 from behind the arc).
“I thought defensively, percentages are still a little too high,” noted McMillan postgame.
In three out their four meetings with the Pacers this season the Hawks have scored 130 or more points and it says a lot about the Hawks that they needed nearly every single one of those points to tuck away Indiana on Monday.
The Hawks weren’t really ever in danger of actually losing this game — a quick burst to begin the fourth quarter saw to that — but it’s still a poor look on their behalf, even if it was comfortable.
Again, few will really care because of the end result but at this stage of the season the Hawks need to be playing to a higher level defensively in a spot like that. Nate McMillan has often talked about ‘not playing down’ to the opponent and after the first quarter it did feel like the Hawks did at periods during this game.
The Hawks move closer to confirming a spot in the play-in tournament and still jostle for position at this late stage of the season, the Hornets falling short at home to Denver last night to leave them just half a game ahead of the Hawks.
The Hawks (38-37) are back in action on Wednesday night at Paycom Center in Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder (22-53).
Should be interesting, potentially.
Until next time...