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Hawks ambush Hornets behind Hunter’s outbreak

The Hawks advance for the chance to earn the 8-seed

Charlotte Hornets v Atlanta Hawks - Play-In Tournament Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks survived their first ‘win-or-go-home’ Play-In game against the Charlotte Hornets with a dominant victory at State Farm Arena, 132-103.

Trae Young led the Hawks with 24 points and 11 assists. De’Andre Hunter added 22 points as all five starters scored in double digits, six in total for the Hawks. For the Hornets, LaMelo Ball scored 26 points, Terry Rozier added 21 points.

The Hawks were favored heading into this contest and from the jump they showed why they were favored to win this game, their quality playmaking and shot-making all on display from the jump.

As expected, the Hornets came out and attempted to trap Young but the Hornets also trapped some of the other Hawks ball-handlers off of screens and this led to a number of Atlanta three-pointers in the first quarter as they got off to a hot start.

Here, Bogdan Bogdanovic is shown an extra body off of the screen, weaves into some space and shows good awareness to find Kevin Huerter at the top of the break for a three-pointer:

Near mid-court, the Hornets trap Young and Young is just able to release the ball to Delon Wright, who drives inside before kicking the ball back out to Bogdanovic for three:

The Hawks’ ball movement was very good from the start of the game and it needed to be given that the Hornets were always going to throw something interesting defensively, some nice ball movement here leads to an open Hunter three:

The Hawks shot 5-of-9 from three in the first quarter, which was a welcome boost because the hosts shot 6-of-15 from two-point range before going on to outscore the Hornets 32-23 to end the first quarter.

The Hornets responded somewhat in the second quarter as the Hawks struggled at times offensively but 10 second quarter points from Danilo Gallinari meant that the Hornets only outscored the Hawks by just a point (29-28) and the Hawks still held an eight-point lead heading into the break.

The Hornets’ defense was surprisingly very poor on so many occasions last night, and a simple drive from Hunter here just opens up the Hornets’ defense and Hunter finds Gallinari in the corner for three:

Another example in the pick-and-roll here as Young finds Gallinari in the pick-and-roll and no one challenges Gallinari as he rolls to the rim and finishes with the dunk:

I like Gallinari a lot but he should not be allowed to roll to the rim for a dunk. That is poor defense from the Hornets.

Lastly from Gallinari in the second quarter, a basket I always love to see Gallinari take and make — just shoot over his opponents:

The third quarter was where this game completely flipped on its head. Initially the Hawks re-established their double-digit lead but the Hornets came out in the third quarter with an interesting zone defense that the Hawks missed some shots against. The Hornets cut the lead back down to eight points and the Hawks took a timeout at the 8:26 mark and after another couple of misses after that timeout, the Hawks’ fortunes soon changed drastically.

Even before this timeout, one Hawk who was finally finding his feet in this game was Hunter. Hunter had already scored six points before the Hawks began the run that would ultimately kill the game.

Here, a back-door cut while Young — inexplicably — draws four Hornets defenders in the paint before beautifully finding Hunter at the rim:

Next, a strong, quick drive from Hunter escapes Rozier on the perimeter and Hunter is able to elude the block attempt from P.J. Washington to finish at the rim with his right-hand:

And off of the hand-off from Clint Capela, Hunter drives again to evade the defense and score a tough layup:

Right, now begins the Hawks’ offensive stretch that saw them score on 14 consecutive possessions and it starts with Hunter scoring, already, his eighth point of the quarter as he grabs the offensive rebound off of a missed shot from Young, and Hunter scores the put-back and draws the foul:

Hunter gets on the scoreboard once again as the Hornets’ really poor defensive efforts rears its head as Ball loses Hunter — the in-bounder — and finishes at the rim for a very simple play:

The Hornets had trailed by double-digits before but now this was beginning to reach a dangerous point in this game, now down 16, and the visitors take a timeout.

It did little alleviate the Hornets’ issues however, and Hunter continued his scoring stretch as Young draws a crowd on a drive and his kick back to Hunter causes the Hornets to scramble somewhat, allowing Hunter to fake, drive and put up a successful floater:

Following a trip to the free throw line for Young on the Hawks’ next offensive trip, Hunter would strike again, this time from outside the arc as he hits the contested corner three:

This capped off a 16 point third quarter for Hunter on 7-of-8 shooting. Hunter has obviously struggled at times offensively — and wasn’t looking particularly inspired offensively to begin this game — but his spurt here in the third quarter was a welcome boost for the Hawks to help blow this game open.

Hawks head coach Nate McMillan was pleased that Hunter ‘stuck with it’ on the offensive end after scoring just three points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field in the first half, as well as limiting Miles Bridges defensively.

“I thought he stayed with it,” said McMillan of Hunter. “He missed a couple of open looks in that first half. We’ve talked about it with our guys, ‘Don’t worry about the first half when you miss a shot or two. Find a way to get that rhythm,’ and he stayed with it. He was able to get an easy basket and he knocked down the rest of his shots. A good job of staying with it. I thought defensively he did a real solid job on Bridges. He was a key guy we needed to contain and keep the ball in front of us. I thought it was a solid team effort from all of our guys in defending the paint, getting back in transition and making them score over the top.”

“I had some open looks,” said Hunter of his third quarter. “Trae found me on a few cuts. Overall just being aggressive. I wasn’t making my jumpers so I have time so let me take the basket.”

Hunter’s offensive game has been inconsistent this season and sometimes his drives and attempts at the rim have left something to be desired but his teammates continue to call on Hunter to be aggressive.

“He was playing aggressive,” said Young of Hunter. “That’s the type of aggressiveness we need from ‘Dre. Making plays, getting to the basket, getting ‘and-1’s and guarding. He got Miles frustrated, playing hard. It was a great all around game from ‘Dre.”

“I think I’m a big part of this team, I know I’m a big part of this team so me being aggressive, me scoring and defending helps the team a lot so I look forward to doing that next game and every game after that,” added Hunter.

But just because Hunter was finished scoring did not mean the Hawks were.

Young had just got to the free throw line and, on this possession, Young comes off the Bogdanovic brush and turbos freely into the paint, hitting the floater of the outstretched Miles Bridges to give the Hawks a 21 point lead:

Next, Bogdanovic gets himself involved as Young draws a second body, passes the ball to Bogdanovic who hits the three-pointer over Cody Martin:

Another screen from Bogdanovic for Young just opens up the Hornets’ defense once again, and only Jalen McDaniels stands between Young and the rim, and Young finishes with the nifty reverse layup:

The Hornets — and Bridges’ — lack of help here seemed telling, it just felt as though they has given up by this point as the Hawks blew this game wide open.

The Hawks weren’t done scoring but I think you get the idea by this point — at this stage, the game is essentially over, the Hawks’ run absolutely devastating. In the end, the Hawks outscored the Hornets 42-24, shooting 66% in the quarter and only nine of those 42 points came from behind the arc. The Hornets shot just 8-of-21 from the field in the third quarter.

“We knew that usually in the third quarter this is when teams try to get back us so we knew that we had to be the aggressor, just like the first five minutes,” said Capela of the third quarter. “We were able to keep getting stops and scoring on the other end.”

“We played hard, played fast and got aggressive,” added Young, who scored 14 points in the third quarter. “They were doubling early in the first half, second half they were a little bit softer in the traps so we were able to get into some creases and gaps and make some plays.”

Add to that a zero turnover quarter for the Hawks in the third period and between that and the Hawks making so many shots the Hornets’ fast break/transition opportunities in the third quarter were severely hindered, and their half-court offense let them down.

From that point, the fourth quarter was largely a formality as the Hawks ended the Hornets’ season in unceremonious fashion.

Postgame, McMillan was very pleased with how the Hawks set their defense both in the first quarter and the decisive third quarter.

“We established our defense,” said McMillan when asked about the third quarter. “I was really happy with how we established our defense in the first quarter, the third quarter. We did a good job, held them to 23 in that first and 24 in the third. That’s what we need to do. Establish our defense, rebound the basketball, we were able to get out into transition, we had good ball movement. I thought our guys were really solid all night long.”

The Hawks knew to expect multiple defensive looks from the Hornets, particularly on Young. As Young has proved often — especially down the stretch of the regular season where it happened often — he was able and willing to get the ball out of his hands and to his teammates, who made the plays they needed to.

“I thought he did a real solid job of getting off the ball when they put two on him and he got his teammates involved,” said McMillan of Young. “I thought later in the game they went away from that and he got loose and get some looks at the basket. Real solid job by Trae of running the team, managing those guys on the offensive end of the floor and really getting us organized and attacking their changing defenses that they play.”

We looked at a few instances of this already but here’s a couple more, this play coming from the first quarter where Young sees the extra man and it allows Capela to roll behind the defense and Young finds him for the lob, plus the foul:

“We were prepared, we knew that they were going to throw stuff at us like zone or guarding Trae, trapping him,” said Capela. “Just had to be ready to step up. For me, finish at the rim or find plays for other guys and we were ready to do that.”

This next play is a good example of Young giving the ball up and others making a play, this time it was Wright who drives inside and does well to adjust and score at the rim:

Young often faced an extra body, particularly in the first half but the Hornets changed their look in the third quarter somewhat to a box-and-one-type of zone but the Hawks — following a timeout — quickly found a way to annihilate it.

“You’ve got to attack it,” said Young of getting the Hornets out of their zone. “If teams are going to face-guard me or trap me it’s my job to make the right play and it’s my teammates job to finish and make the aggressive play and stay aggressive when they get it. That’s really what they did in the first half, they were trapping, I was throwing it to Clint and I was throwing it to Kevin and they were making the right play. Everybody was aggressive. When you do that it’s tough for a team to stay like that, especially with our shooters knocking down threes. It makes it tough for them.”

Against players with lesser passing abilities than Young and outside shot-making abilities such as Bogdanovic, Huerter and Gallinari — as well as secondary creation from the likes of Wright, Huerter and Bogdanovic — perhaps this would have worked for the Hornets. But the Hawks have the means and capabilities to break zones and still excel offensively despite Young shooting just 8-of-24 from the field and 1-of-7 from three.

The Hawks knew to expect this from the Hornets and it was clear that they were, by far, the more organized and prepared side tactically.

“I thought we prepared the game very well,” said Gallinari. “Our game plan offensively and defensively was very good. We knew that they play a lot of different defenses during the game but we did a good job whenever they changed their defense we were able to play against it and be effective.”

Another one of the keys heading into the game was the Hornets’ ability to get out in transition/off of turnovers and run, resulting in either easy baskets at the rim or three-pointers. For the season the Hornets ranked second in the league in fast break points with 16.3 points per game and third in the league in points off of turnovers with 18.6 per game.

Last night the Hornets only scored 11 fast break points and just eight points off of turnovers, the Hawks doing a good job keeping the Hornets mostly in the half-court.

“We knew we had to take care of the ball on offense and we knew that whenever a shot was going up we had to really get back to it,” said Capela of limiting the Hornets’ scoring. “From the first minute of the game we were able to force that team into playing half-court. It was good.”

Speaking of Capela, he was absolutely fantastic in this game: arguably the best player on the court last night throughout the 48 minutes with Young struggling shooting the ball from the field. Capela scored 15 point and grabbed 17 rebound, as well as coming up with two steals and three blocks.

Capela excelled last night despite two very different defensive duties in this game between guarding Mason Plumlee’s passing ability and the Hornets’ small-ball lineup.

“Anchor of our defense,” said McMillan of Capela. “There were really two coverages for Clint tonight: when Plumlee was out there he had to guard the paint but when Washington was in the game at the five he had to guard the perimeter and the three-point shooting ability of Washington. I thought he really did a solid job of being the anchor, defending the basket as well as rebounding the ball for us.”

“He was everywhere and we know he can do that every single night,” said Gallinari of Capela. “When our defense breaks down or whatever happens we know he’s got our back and can dominate the paint.”

Honestly, basically every Hawk that played last night played well. Kevin Huerter’s three-point shooting in the first quarter was huge for the Hawks, Gallinari’s second quarter as we mentioned was big, obviously Hunter’s third quarter was astronomical and Capela was all around fantastic, Young — despite his shooting struggles — led the whole unit, and Wright was fantastic off of the bench too. They played a fantastic game.

In contrast, the Hornets really disappointed last night.

Ball — coming off of an All-Star season — was poor when the moment came (shooting 7-of-25 from the field), Rozier couldn’t find his rhythm (8-of-22 from the field). Bridges — who averaged 26 points per game on 58% shooting in the four regular season contests between these two teams — scored just 12 points on just 11 field goal attempts as he was shut out of this game, nor particularly keen it seemed to impose himself on this game before getting ejected from this game.

Offensively, the Hornets’ transition game was shut out and in the half-court they really struggled but defensively the Hornets were extremely poor, their execution very poor, their shot selection (particularly from Ball) was very poor at times. It was a surprise how easily they fell apart, and while the Hawks were favored and are the better team it was surprising the gap between the two teams in the end.

The Hawks are playing, by far, their best basketball of the season and at the right time. Now, they head to Cleveland to take on the Cavaliers in another win-or-go-home game.

Where the Hornets like to play primarily small, the Cavaliers will present a very different challenge.

“There’s a possibility that (Jarrett) Allen may come back and play, that will pose a challenge because of their size,” said McMillan of the Cleveland matchup. “That’s a big lineup with both Allen, Mobley, Markkanen in that lineup. I think we’ve seen those guys all together maybe once or twice this season. A couple of our games Mobley didn’t play in, one of them I think Allen missed a game. We don’t know if he’ll back on Friday but size factor, they do a good job of taking advantage of their size, their ability to pound you in the paint with post-ups, rebounding and a lot of length. Garland is an All-Star playing great basketball for them. They’re a really good team. We’ll have our work cut out for us on Friday.”

That they certainly will.

Win. Or go home...