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Hawks offense continues to roll in Play-In clinching victory over Cavaliers

The Hawks confirm their opportunity to make the playoffs (sort of).

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks notched their fourth straight victory as they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 131-107 at State Farm Arena on Thursday night.

Trae Young led the Hawks in scoring with 30 points and nine assists while Kevin Huerter added 23 points. For the Cavaliers, Cedi Osman scored 21 points off the bench. All-Star Darius Garland added 18 points but struggled from the field, shooting 7-of-21 from the field.

Both teams were on a second night of a back-to-back and both had notable absences on last night’s contest. The Hawks were without John Collins, Lou Williams and Jalen Johnson, while the Cavaliers were without Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, Collin Sexton, Rajon Rondo and Dean Wade — the Hawks notable favorites heading into the contest as a result.

The Hawks threw the first punch in this game in what turned out to be a wire-to-wire victory, the hosts scoring 36 first quarter points and never really looking back from that point. The Hawks re-established and maintained a double-digit lead in the second quarter and took a 13 point lead into the half before quickly running their lead to 20 points in the early stages of the third quarter and while the visitors cut the lead to 14 points the Hawks did not take long to push this to 26 points and into full-on blowout territory, and this continued into the fourth quarter where extended garbage time was enjoyed in what was a straight-forward victory for the Hawks against a short-handed Cavaliers side which is beginning to reel.

The victory marks the Hawks’ fourth straight, move to three games above .500 for the first time all season and clinched a play-in berth in one night, with the Hawks now tied with both the Brooklyn Nets and the Charlotte Hornets, while closing to within two games of the 7-seeded Cavaliers.

“We talked about that before the game,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan about the play-in. “That this was a big game and since Cleveland was three games ahead of us and we have an opportunity to clinch that spot being in the top ten but we also have a chance to move up in these remaining games. Our approach in this game had to be such, that we come out, take care of business right from the start defensively and I thought we did that. Offensively we had good ball movement again tonight. It’s good to see how our guys responded coming off of a back-to-back.”

In one sense it’s one check-mark for the Hawks as they put themselves firmly in the hunt for positions seven through ten (though would need some luck to rise to seven) but it’s one step at a time.

“I think we all know where we are and where we want to get to,” said Young on clinching the play-in berth. “We’ve just to take it one game at a time. That’s my mentality and approach to it: to take it one game at a time and try get the next one and not focus on the next challenge.”

Defensively the Cavaliers were short-handed and had no way to deal with Young’s inside and outside game, scoring 30 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field, 4-of-9 from three and 8-of-8 from the free throw line in 28 minutes. On drives, on pick-and-rolls, Young carved the Cavaliers apart all game long. Young was as fantastic as he so often has been this season but there are two Hawks in particular (before we talk about others) I want to highlight for their performance, not just last night but recently too: Huerter and Capela.

Starting with Huerter, Huerter scored 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from three-point range. Huerter was a great source of offense for the Hawks as he hit a team-high five three-pointers and — as he has for so much of this season — has looked shifty on offense. He is moving extremely well, getting to his spots in the mid-range with consistency and snappiness — he has been fantastic of late.

Over his last five games, Huerter has averaged 18.6 points per game — including 20 or more points in his last four consecutive games — on 51.6% shooting from the field on 12 attempts per game and a remarkable 55% from three on eight attempts per game. Huerter not only excelled offensively last night but defensively he was fantastic too, having to take on the challenge of guarding Darius Garland, who shot 7-of-21 from the field.

Huerter challenged a number of Garland’s shots to a high standard:

When guarded by Huerter, Garland shot just 3-of-8 from the field and while Huerter wasn’t the only one guarding Garland during this game (with De’Andre Hunter and Delon Wright also guarding him at times) Huerter put in the by far the longest and most solid defensive work on Garland while also excelling offensively (something Hunter did not do last night, scoring five points on 2-of-10 shooting).

“He was the player of the game for us,” said McMillan of Huerter. “Last night he had a good game on both sides of the ball and tonight guarding Garland, that’s a challenge. I thought he did a good job of staying connected with him, trying to keep him in front, not allowing him to see anything clean. Offensively he’s in rhythm. Trae is doing a really good job of getting our guys the ball and he’s knocking down shots and making plays with the ball, so he really has been solid for us on both sides of the court.”

Postgame, Huerter compared guarding Garland similar to that of Young from the point of view they both score from differing angles and positions and both have well-rounded games both inside and out.

“He’s a tough matchup,” said Huerter of the Garland matchup. “He’s the type of guy — a little bit like Trae — where he can always find an angle. He’s the type of guy where it doesn’t matter what position his body is in; he has such good touch and float game and shoots the three well. He really has a complete game. He’s a tough matchup, he’s tough in pick-and-roll. A team effort. We were trying to beat in and get the ball out of his hands. He gave it up, I was trying to deny him a little bit. Obviously he didn’t shoot it well tonight but he’s the type of player that can get it going any time.”

What Garland lacks in overall speed and shiftiness compared to Young, he’s able to lean on his size and length that Young doesn’t possess in comparison, but it’s an interesting comparison as a whole.

Huerter was a game-high plus-26 on the game and while plus/minus is a subjective stat, I think that tells the right story for Huerter last night: on both ends of the floor he was fantastic and played a great game, finding his form at the right time of the season.

Capela — who has been looking better and better since the All-Star break — also enjoyed a strong game, scoring 12 points and grabbing 14 rebounds (including six offensive rebounds) to go along with three blocks. Capela may have been on the court for just 23 minutes but when he was on the floor he was fantastic.

Capela was imposing defensively and caused chaos on the offensive glass — he just seemed to be everywhere last night on both sides of the ball.

The matchup — like some of the previous ones of late — likely played into his hands to excel but in, in general, Capela is looking more and more like the defensive force he was last season after struggling early in the season.

“He’s been dominating these past couple of games,” praised Young when asked about Capela. “His effort, energy around the rim, going for every rebound, sometimes taking it from us; we like that. His energy and his knack for knowing where the ball is going to go off the rim is very good for us. We’re going to need him to keep doing it.”

Capela is arguably playing his best basketball of the entire season right now; his activity on both ends of the floor of late has been undeniable and a plus-24 on the game is fitting for his contributions. Capela didn’t need to play a ton of minutes not just due to the nature of the game but because Onyeka Okongwu also enjoyed a strong game when he checked in, scoring 17 points off of the bench on a perfect 6-of-6 from the field, shooting 5-of-6 from the free throw line and also grabbed 12 rebounds.

“We need him to (be everywhere),” said McMillan of Capela. “He’s the guy that anchors our defense. When he’s covering the paint and rebounding the basketball it allows us to get out into transition. Both of our centers have been active for us in these last few games and that’s good to see. We need to see our guys establish our defense early and we’ve been able to do that.”

While Danilo Gallinari returned to action, he came off the bench while Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot started last night. Cabarrot scored 12 points and, once again, he has performed when called upon in a starting capacity. Cabarrot hasn’t always been in the rotation but when he has been called upon when the Hawks have needed him, more often than not Cabarrot has produced for the Hawks and last night he did so again.

Caris LeVert has been known to ignite at times but was quiet last night, scoring just nine points on 4-of-9 shooting from the field. You’d be forgiven thinking it was Hunter keeping him quiet but it was actually Cabarrot, who spent by far the most time of any Hawk guarding LeVert.

There was a bit of a scare towards the first half as Young left the game with what turned out to be a groin injury and was questionable to return to the game but started the third quarter before resting the entire fourth quarter with the game secure.

There was some warranted cause for concern, as any injury lasting more than two weeks essentially ends anyone’s season on a team with an unclear postseason path (this ominously includes John Collins) but McMillan was encouraged that Young was able to return to action in the third quarter.

“Before he went out I thought it was pretty serious and to see him come back really was a good sign,” said McMillan of Young’s groin injury. “He was able to come back and play that second half. I think it’s pretty sore but he was able to play that third quarter which was a good sign for us.”

“It’s been kind of sore these last couple of weeks,” added Young of his groin. “It’s been hurting these last couple of weeks but I just took a wrong step and it kind of shocked me for a second and it hurt for a second. I’ll be alright.”

The Hawks scored 131 points and only 11 of them came from Bogdan Bogdanovic, who struggled from the field, shooting 4-of-12, with Hunter also struggling as mentioned. Hunter spent the majority of his defensive time guarding the larger Lauri Markkanen and his efforts in this regard were likely under-appreciated, especially given his notable offensive struggles. Markkanen shot just 2-of-5 when guarded by Hunter and 3-of-8 for the game, and when Hunter failed, Capela was waiting:

The Hawks just had a very easy time of things offensively, shooting 49.5% from the field, hitting 17 three-pointers (shooting 43%), 28 free throws (making 24 of them), 44 points in the paint, 15 second chance points and perhaps most notably 24 points off of turnovers (while only committing eight turnovers themselves).

The Hawks often turned defense into offense:

There just didn’t seem to be any resistance from the Cavaliers, it almost felt as though they gave up quickly once the Hawks established a solid lead. It was really an easy night’s work for the Hawks and an offense that is rolling: scoring 130 or more points over their last four games/wins.

“It feels like we’re hitting everything right now to be honest,” said Huerter of the Hawks’ offense. “It feels like we’re getting threes, getting good looks, Trae is doing his thing every night, we’re getting lobs at the rim. Sometimes the game of basketball comes down to who’s getting easier shots over the course of the game. It feels like every game we’re getting 14-16 points that are straight lobs, easy layups, dunks at the rim. Other teams, they’ve got to work harder than us for those types of shots ... it feels like we’re kind of, right now, getting everything in one. Shooters are knocking down shots, Clint’s playing at the rim, Trae is doing his thing in pick-and-rolls. This is what we knew we were capable of all year, just got to get back to it.”

“Feels like everyone is playing their role,” Huerter later elaborated. “Someone like TLC inserting himself, getting more minutes as of late. He’s a guy that’s coming out hard and making the right plays. Obviously Bogi has been great off the bench for a while now. D-Hunt didn’t have it going tonight but he’s been great in his role. Clint, like I said, protecting the rim, dunking at the rim. Trae is doing his thing. I feel like guys are starting to fit a little bit, we’re starting to figure it out. We’ve shown we’ve been good on the offensive end as of late.”

While they’ve won four in a row, I am concerned about potential complacency in the Hawks. Their victories of late have come in circumstances where the opposing team have been missing multiple key personnel, last night included. The last win against a ‘real’ opponent that enjoyed having the majority of their roster/best players available came against the Memphis Grizzlies on Mar. 18 on a night where the Hawks were without Trae Young.

Obviously the Hawks have still had to go out and beat these teams — which hasn’t always been the case this season — but we’re (collectively) going to find out how much of this form of late is legitimate when the Hawks take on the Brooklyn Nets on Friday and how much stock this winning streak really hold, or if it has been just a case of the Hawks taking care of teams in situations where they should be.

The Hawks’ offense isn’t something I’m worried about — that is certainly firing on all cylinders — but defensively there are concerns. The Pacers and Thunder scored 123 and 118 points respectively despite being without their best players and with only eight players available (obviously the Thunder game featured a lot of garbage time so take that with a pinch of salt).

Against the Cavaliers last night, with their best offensive player in Garland in the lineup, the Hawks limited the Cavaliers to 75 points through three quarters and that was certainly encouraging from a defensive point of view, arguably a better take-away than another 130-plus point outing that everyone knows this Hawks team is capable of.

The Hawks (40-37) are back in action on Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets (40-37) at State Farm Arena in what might be the biggest game of the season in terms of play-in seeding with both sides currently tied with the Charlotte Hornets in a three-way tie for the eighth seed and a chance to move ahead of the other with only a handful of games remaining.

“Everybody is watching the games,” said Young of the battle for seeding. “I guarantee you Brooklyn does the same thing. Everyone who plays the game, loves the game, you’re always watching, especially with the standings the way they are right now it’s a tight race. The East is super tough this year. This is a tight race and it’ll go down to the finish for sure.”

“We’re starting to pay attention to it, for sure,” added Huerter of the postseason scenarios. “Just trying to put ourselves in a better situation. If we can go in here and not have to play two games on the road that’d be huge.”

You could get into the argument that the Hawks should maybe lose the Nets game so they assure themselves they do not end up in a situation where they face the Nets in the play-in (a Nets win putting them, for now, out of that 9/10 matchup slot) — and they have an easy out to do that with the Young groin injury sustained during last night’s game.

If that is the preferred outcome (or perhaps simply your preferred outcome), then fear not, because the Hawks still have to play the Raptors on the road and the Miami Heat, both jostling for seeding — the Raptors still with a chance to move up to the 5-seed, the Heat gunning for the top seed in the East — in their final five games.

Of course, even if the Hawks were to win on Saturday and aim for the highest seed possible — and possibly make a run at the Cavaliers’ 7-seed, then those games against Toronto and Miami are going to be immense challenges.

Alas, one game at a time.

Should be fascinating contest on Saturday though, and the Nets would be, by far, the toughest test for the Hawks in a number of weeks if everyone is playing, certainly since the Memphis game.

Until next time...