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Hawks outlast Wizards behind big game from De’Andre Hunter

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Washington Wizards met the Atlanta Hawks down their top two stars, Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, the latter of whom has yet to appear for them since being acquired at the trade deadline. Still, a scrappy group featuring a hot shooting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a revitalized Kyle Kuzma wouldn’t let Atlanta come into the nation’s capital to pick up an easy win. Despite never trailing in this contest, the Hawks would barely inch by the Wizards at the end, 117-114.

De’Andre Hunter was featured early and often Friday night, and he made the most of his opportunity. His play was a welcome relief after a rough handful of games prior to the back-to-back between Thursday and Friday nights. He would finish with 26 points on just 12 shots, tying a season high for points in the process.

He started the contest out smothering a pass attempt from Kuzma and taking it the other way for an ‘and-one’.

Hunter punishing the smaller Neto would quickly become a theme. Here, Hunter is put in a ball screen with Trae Young to receive the defensive switch. Watch as he takes Neto off the dribble and finishes despite the contact from Daniel Gafford.

One more example of Hunter’s strength here is in an early post up in transition. Neto really has no choice but to front Hunter and try to deny the entry pass but the attempt is unsuccessful.

“I thought [Hunter] was really good on both ends of the floor tonight,” remarked Nate McMillan. “I think he saw the ball go in last night. That continued tonight. I really liked his aggressiveness. Attacking the basket and then defensively, again a really solid night for De’Andre.”

“Long overdue for Dre,” said forward John Collins. “At any moment, he’s bound to have a game like tonight. We’re happy to see him finally get out of the rut.”

Hunter explained that he kept in high spirit during the recent slump, saying, “I wouldn’t ever say I lost my confidence. Just had a couple of bad games. But it definitely feels good when shots are going in.”

Hawks offense execution began the game on excellent terms, with good ball movement and disruptive penetration into the lane. This was most evident in their parade to the the free throw line all game long.

Even with late intentional fouling from Washington to pull themselves back into the game, Atlanta finished with 34 attempts from the charity stripe, hitting 28 of them for an 82% conversion rate. This in combination with just four turnovers from the visitors meant the Hawks were able to win in some of the finest of margins.

“We have a couple guys on our team who are really good at [getting to the free throw line] so sometimes they do what they’re really good at,” said Collins. “It becomes easier for everybody now that we’re in the bonus early.”

“Four turnovers in a game from a team is big time,” he continued later on when prompted about the low number of giveaways.

“We want to make sure we value the ball and we get a shot at the basket,” added McMillan. “We’ve been doing a really good job of taking care of the basketball. It’s really important, especially on the road, that you take care of the basketball and you get attempts at the basket. I like our aggressiveness attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line, 34 times tonight. Keeping the pressure – we were in the penalty pretty early in most of the quarters tonight. I like that aggressiveness getting to the basket.”

The offensive execution would slow down in the second half, with just 49 points then compared to the 68 point outburst in the first half. Even still, it looked as though the Hawks would comfortably see this game through. This drive and flip from Delon Wright made it an eight-point contest with under two minutes left to play.

The Wizards didn’t go away quietly, however, and some late three pointers threatened the outcome of the game as a results. Here, Caldwell-Pope was able to get free from Wright with some dead ball movement through screens to cap off a perfect 6-for-6 night from long range.

Then, Young helps on Kuzma near the arc, but one pass find Neto for a wide open opportunity.

Still, Young would make amends by hitting late clutch free throws, and a half court prayer from Kuzma to tie the game at the buzzer would go begging.

Collins’ return in the win was a welcome sight for all. He had missed the last six games with a foot injury, and was brought into the game from off the bench as a results. While Collins aims to make a bigger impact on scoring going forward, he provided some needed defense and rebounding juice in the contest.

This block and rebound was a good way to announce his return to the team.

And, of course, he didn’t forget how to dunk in his absence.

His frontcourt mate, Clint Capela, protected the rim extremely well in this one and helped lead a rebounding charge. Capela grabbed 12 boards, including four on the offensive end, and registered three big blocks in a contest without Onyeka Okongwu, who is still in the concussion protocol.

Collins ended up playing at center during crunch time to give McMillan a stronger free throw option than Capela, as the Wizards began to target him with intentional fouls. He finished the contest with seven points and six rebounds in 24 minutes of work.

“We had limited minutes for [Collins] tonight,” explained McMillan. “He came out – I just talked to him, everything felt good. It was good to see him back out on the floor bouncing around and just [being] back with us. Nice job of playing the five tonight. He played pretty much all five backing up Clint [Capela]. Really just a solid job with that second unit.”

“He brings energy to everything,” he continued. “To the locker room. To the floor. To the games. To practices. He’s a ball of energy. It was really good to see him back on the floor.”

“[Collins] played with a lot of energy,” said Hunter. “Shots weren’t really falling but that’s going to happen first game back. He rebounded and defended for us so it was good to have him back.

The normal ebullient Collins had no problem expressing his gratitude to be able to play again, saying, “nice to be back out there with my guys. Get a chance to play. It was good. Obviously [I was] a little gassed at certain moments trying to just get my wind back. But it’s great to be out there with the guys. Great to get a win. Obviously I wish I would have played a little better. A little rusty. But shake it off. Making winning plays and get a win. That’s a great first game back.”

Regarding his foot itself, he explained, “a little short and stiff. Just trying to get it back used to NBA movement: cuts, contact, all that good stuff. No complaints but obviously it’ll be a little sore come tomorrow.”

“This is really nice,” Collins said about the game. “A real big confidence booster. You love to win road games, back-to-backs especially. They’re rare, very hard to accomplish. And I like the way we won both games. Not to say we were perfect but playing team basketball, moving the basketball, playing defense the we we did, communicating.”

He did confirm the plan for his minutes, saying, “I was on a little bit of a minutes restriction tonight. Nothing too crazy. I felt like it was right for the situation to analyze how my foot was feeling. I feel like the guys have a solid chemistry, not to say that I’m going to mess things up. Just don’t want to break anything that’s not broken.”

Another important note from this game is that Kevin Huerter left the contest late with an apparent left arm issue. McMillan said Huerter was experiencing left shoulder soreness and that the team wasn’t sure how serious it was yet.

The win moves the Hawks to 31-32 and a half game above Charlotte for the 9th seed in play-in positioning. Atlanta next takes the court after a couple of days off in Detroit on Monday. This will be a chance to move to .500 against an undermanned Pistons squad.

Stay tuned.