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Hawks handle Rockets in regular season finale, set to host Charlotte in Play-In

The regular season is over and the Hawks’ play-in opponent confirmed.

Atlanta Hawks v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks capped off their 2021-22 regular season with a victory in Houston over the rebuilding Rockets, 130-114, on Sunday afternoon.

Trae Young led the Hawks with 28 points and 11 assists, while Danilo Gallinari added 26 points.

For the Rockets, rookie Jalen Green poured out 41 points in Houston’s final game of the season, while Kevin Porter Jr. scored 26 points.

The Hawks were, naturally, favorites heading into this contest given that the Rockets are not only the side with the NBA’s worst record but with the Hawks also playing a full rotation as they possibly could given their seeding situation, jostling for position.

The Hawks pressed their advantage early, in part to the Rockets attempting to throw a second body at Young on screens but as Young — has done so often this season when teams do this — was able to find his teammates with ease.

Clint Capela was the big beneficiary in the first quarter, scoring a season-high 10 first quarter points and getting some very easy looks inside in these situations with the execution of Rockets’ defense of the roll-man lacking:

The help defense errors that young teams are prone to make and it leads to easy baskets for Capela here.

He wasn’t the only one to benefit from this of course; Kevin Huerter receives the ball from the doubled Young and makes the pass to Gallinari for a three-pointer:

Onyeka Okongwu sets the screen for Young and has an easy run to the rim on the pass from Young:

Scoring was of no challenge for the Hawks, who shot 51.7% from the field and made 21 three-pointers on 55% shooting (a season-best for the Hawks) — you got the sense that they knew they could score whenever they wanted. There was a bit of slack about their play that allowed the Rockets — on a number of occasions, including the second half — to reduce the Hawks’ double-digit lead to single digits.

With 9:17 remaining in the fourth quarter the Hawks led by only seven points (104-97), and the Hawks have had more than enough lessons in letting teams hang around this season and allow them to upset them in games but a decisive 16-0 to take the game to 120-97 with 5:31 to go but the Hawks firmly in the driving seat to coast to the finish — multiple shot clock violations from the Rockets and a balanced scoring efforts from the Hawks (four players scoring five or more points in the fourth quarter) carried them home.

“You have to finish games,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan. “That was the message and what we talked about yesterday in our meeting. Closing quarters, closing games and looking at the way we’ve closed quarters and games and we were in that situation again. It wasn’t so much what I needed to say that had already been said. We needed to close that quarter and close this game and our guys did.”

In the end, the result here was really a formality — McMillan referred this game as a “take care of business game” — as were the other results relating to the teams surrounding the Hawks and with Cleveland, Brooklyn and Charlotte victorious on Sunday, the Hawks’ will play the Hornets in the 9/10 matchup.

After the Hawks’ last home game of the regular season against the Washington Wizards, the Hawks left State Farm Arena unsure whether they would return to State Farm Arena this season. There was optimism that the Hawks would return home in the postseason. With Sunday’s results, they have their home game.

The Hawks have won 11 of their last 12 games at State Farm Arena and are 19-3 since January 17th but will know that home success is not guaranteed.

“We get a home game,” said McMillan on his thoughts on the Hawks’ standing. “It doesn’t guarantee anything but we’ve been pretty good at home. We know where we stand now and the position we’re in. Now it’s about preparing and focusing on Charlotte.”

“It’s going to be fun,” added Young. “They’re a really good team. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere in Atlanta. It’s going to be good.”

Ever since James Borrego joined the Hornets as their head coach, the Hawks’ fixture with the Hornets has always been one of intrigue, mostly because they are an extremely diverse team on both sides of the ball.

Defensively, they throw out a lot of different coverages and looks and have the personnel to do so. Offensively, it’s a similar story. Their small-ball and scoring options are fascinating, they have shooters one through five, players who can ignite/catch fire scoring the ball and all led by the charging LaMelo Ball.

“They are fast,” said McMillan of the challenge the Hornets will present. “They get up and down, they have a lot of guys that can create offense. They are a team that can put up a lot of points on the board. Multiple ball-handlers, one through five will be handling the basketball for them and they are always on attack mode. Defensively they play multiple defense, they change their defenses from box-and-one to zone, to man (to man), full-court press. They want to speed up the game, they want to play a fast-tempo style of game and we’re going to have to control the tempo. Not that we’re going to slow it down or anything like that but we have to control the tempo and I think that starts with us playing well on the offensive end.”

“It’s going to be a fight,” said Capela of the matchup. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us and our team. We know how Charlotte plays, we play against them quite a lot. We know we’re going to have to start the game well and be prepared. They’re going to throw everything at us.”

“On offense they play pretty free,” Capela added of the Hornets offensive capabilities. “They have a lot of guys that can really score the basketball and be really aggressive: Ball, Terry Rozier, Bridges, they’ve really got guys that can really get it going. This is a team that likes to attack the paint and kick it out and get all sorts of open threes. That’s a team that can get really hot. They take shots, they’re not hesitating. That’s a team that can get on fire at any time. I also remember some of our games against them, they also push on fastbreaks. It’s a great team overall.”

It certainly will prove a fascinating contest. Recent contests between the Hornets and the Hawks generally have been, and this particular tie will showcase a great point guard battle between two great young point guards in LaMelo Ball and Trae Young.

Speaking of Young, with DeMar DeRozan sitting out of Chicago’s regular season finale, Young officially ends the season leading the NBA in total points scored and total assists.

Young joins Nate Archibald (who accomplished this back in the 1972-73 season) as the only other NBA player to achieve this milestone.

Young credited his teammates being able to score and receive those credits for his assists, saying that without his teammates it wouldn’t have been possible.

“I think one guy has ever done that and it’s an honor to be mentioned with him and to be able to do that,” said Young of the milestone. “It’s definitely a cool thing and it shows I have great teammates that can score really well too. You can’t lead the statistical category in assists without your teammates. It’s a big thing.”

Capela in particular held high praise for Young’s accomplishment and his consistency to achieve it while also being continually available for his team.

“Amazing, special talent, consistent,” said Capela of Young’s milestone. “It’s that consistency that I see in him. Obviously I’ve played with a couple of good guys like James, Russ, Chris Paul, and I see that he has that consistency to go out there and dominate every night, to go out there be able to score and share the ball with his teammates night in and night out, not missing a lot of games. It’s special, especially at his age; 23 going on 24. It’s really amazing. The future is definitely bright for him and I’m just excited to be there with him and go to war. I’m so excited to be here and be part of it for him.”

With Capela having played with the calibre of players that he listed, this is high praise from someone who has played alongside the greats and speaks to the high company Young is keeping and is being compared to. He has been fantastic this season and it would be very unfair if Young is not named to an All-NBA team.

With another four three-pointers on Sunday afternoon, Young also broke the Hawks’ single-season three-point record, eclipsing the previous franchise mark set by Mookie Blaylock’s 231 made three-pointers in the 1995-96 season.

In addition, Young also tied Blaylock for most point/assists double-doubles in franchise history with his 42nd point/assist double-double following his 28-11 effort on Sunday afternoon:

“Trae has been the guy who establishes our tempo,” said McMillan of Young. “Tonight, as with all the games that he’s played, he’s done that for us; establishing that tempo that we want to play at on the offensive end of the floor, doing a good job creating offense for himself as well as for his teammates. It’s something that he’s done all season long for us.”

Now, the Hawks’ regular season is over. No matter what happens on Wednesday and beyond, this regular season is in the books. Overall, the Hawks finished ninth in the East with a 43-39 record having spent most of the season under .500 and on the outside looking in on a playoff berth.

Interestingly, McMillan was drawn into some reflection of the Hawks’ regular season, stating that he does not expect the Hawks to find themselves in a similar situation again next season, a situation where they are scrambling until the very end for a position simply in the play-in.

“This feeling of what we’re going through right now is not the feeling I expect next season; fighting for our lives for a play-in position,” said McMillan of the Hawks’ regular season. “Taking care of business, having that mindset from the start of the season is really important because every game does matter, whether it’s your first, second, third fourth, fifth, or 79, 80, 81, 82 — they’re all important games. To take a moment to think about where we are right now and we were able to get ourselves to this position where we are in the play-in tournament but next year we don’t want to experience this.”

“This season we were expecting to have a confirmed seat in the playoffs and we didn’t have that this year,” echoed Capela. “Next year it’s really our goal to be in the top-6 and definitely going to have to be more consistent in our wins and create that ability to have that consistency along the team, have guys who know their role so we can move forward and get better from Game 1 to Game 82.”

Always interesting when coaches/players get drawn into talking about the next season when this one is technically ongoing for the Atlanta Hawks but no matter what happens I think this season will serve as a harsh lesson for the Hawks in terms of approach and mindset: certainly two aspects where this year’s team have not been as sharp as it should have been.

But for Sunday’s contest the Hawks what as they needed to do. Nothing more, nothing less. Now, the focus shifts back to Atlanta.

The Hawks will return to Atlanta where they will await the Charlotte Hornets’ challenge on Wednesday night.

It comes down to this.

Until next time...