In probably their most important game of the season to date, the Atlanta Hawks had modest control of the game versus the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday evening until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Brooklyn had a late surge to get the game down to a three-point margin but Atlanta finally put the game away as Trae Young scored nine points in the final 91 seconds of play to secure the home court victory by a score of 122-115.
The win put Atlanta a full game ahead of Brooklyn and Charlotte in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings with eight days left on the NBA schedule.
Finishing seventh or eighth, instead of ninth or tenth, gives one an opportunity to play twice for a single win that gets you into the playoffs.
Atlanta is now winners of 10 of their last 13 games and looking perhaps on track to have a strong finish to the regular season despite playing a March (and now April) schedule regularly missing key players.
They had all of their regulars available on Saturday night except for John Collins, who hasn’t played since March 11. Having their veteran reserves made a difference as a lineup that included Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Lou Williams, and Delon Wright helped propel the Hawks to a 37-20 edge in the second quarter that provided solid leverage entering the second half.
Kevin Durant provided 30 points in the final two frames, on his way to a career-high 55 points, to keep Brooklyn from losing full separation at any point. A 5:07 scoreless stretch by Atlanta in the latter part of the fourth quarter helped make it anyone’s game down the stretch.
Young and the Hawks unlocked the offense at just the right time and took control in the final minute of play.
Atlanta didn’t have the strongest performance shooting from the field but used 49 free throw attempts, converting 37 of them, to manage a robust offensive output. Brooklyn defenders struggled to keep ball handlers in front the entire game and had to foul to prevent short range attempts by Hawks shooters. Nets opponents have shot a lot of free throws all season, but 49 attempts tied a high mark by a team in any NBA game this season.
The late season surge by the Hawks has resulted, at least partly, from finding diverse ways to attack opposing defenses that are managing to stay away from drop pick and roll coverage. Brooklyn relies on a heavy dose of switching and, on Saturday evening, worked to apply additional pressure onto Young as he navigated balls screens. The Nets would use the second defender as to try to cut off any immediate path to the paint.
The Hawks were aggressive moving the ball which provided opportunities to attack the Nets defense as it worked to recover from the effort to pressure Young. These situations led to dribble drive opportunities that the Brooklyn defense couldn’t contain, which resulted in fouls and the significant free throw volume.
“I thought we stayed with it, kept our composure, and was able to withstand that run,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan in post game comments.
“With KD, we knew that he would be more aggressive,” McMillan continued. “We knew that we would get more fouls called. We shot 30 free throws in that first half. So, that was tilted in that first half. He got more aggressive and started to make some shots. And we just tried to get a double team to him as quickly as possible. And make some other guys make plays. I thought that kind of wore him down. We were able to finish this game and win this game.”
“That’s a tough challenge,” he added when asked about defending Durant and Kyrie Irving. “You don’t stop those guys, you just try to make them work. What we tried to with our guys is we didn’t help off of them, we tried to deny their catch. I think that’s the best defense you can really play on them.”
“We’re playing some really good basketball right now,” shared Young. “We’re playing with great pace, playing hard, playing with energy. And just having fun. It’s been good for us.”
“I think we are playing good basketball,” Gallinari agreed.
“We still need to improve and we have a lot of things to work on,” the veteran power forward added. “But we are definitely playing at a good level now.”
As Atlanta looks to find it’s stride heading toward postseason play, it was consistent second and third efforts that helped make a difference in this game. Also, effort from players struggling to make shots stood out as something they haven’t gotten consistently enough this season.
As an example, Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic combined to go 2-11 from the three-point line but were +13 and +15 respectively in the box score, an impact helped significantly by second and third defensive efforts.
De’Andre Hunter demonstrated work in this area also, especially providing more help on rebounds. He managed 10 boards, one short of a career high. It’s an especially critical part of his play now that he is playing more at the power forward position with Collins absent.
Elsewhere in the stat book, Young led all scorers for the winning team with 36 points while adding 10 assists. He used 31 shooting possessions but worked through a lot of defensive pressure to make enough good plays, especially down the stretch.
Hunter had 15 points to go along with his work on the glass. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot also had 15 points playing while making his 17th start of the season.
In reserve play, Gallinari had 15 points and five rebounds while Bogdanovic and Lou Williams each added eight points.
For the visitors, Durant was ridiculous producing 55 points on just 33 shooting possessions. There are reasons no team wants to face Brooklyn in the playoffs and this is the primary one. He made eight of his 10 shots from the arc.
Irving produced 31 points on 32 shots without a single visit to the free throw line.
Both Brooklyn superstars played the entire second half and took 16 of the Nets’ 21 shots in the fourth quarter.
Let’s take a look at some of the action.
As Brooklyn sets up to switch versus this “strong” or “away” action, Hunter smartly cuts to the rim for an easy score:
On a later possession the Nets opt to not switch. Hunter takes advantage and attacks the middle of the paint with the dribble:
The aggressive attack leads to free throws.
A nice execution in pick and roll leads to an open three for Hunter:
An impressive part of this play is how Young waits out the defenders, Durant and Nic Claxton. As he manipulates the defense notice how much rebounding space Okongwu ends up having.
Brooklyn worked hard to get Durant switched onto Young:
Here, they have success which leads to a comfortable score for Durant.
The Nets run the same set on the next possession:
Look at the adjustment by Young. He plays strong “show” or hedge” coverage which forces Durant to pick up his dribble. He then works back to Patty Mills and is able to disrupt the play and create a turnover.
Despite the rough shooting night, Bogdanovic did helpful work on defense:
Keeping Irving in front of you is a challenge for anyone.
This sequence is an example of the second unit using defense to create offense:
Durant makes a play very few players in the league can make:
After Young draws Claxton via a switch, Gallinari goes to work on Irving at the nail:
This is a ridiculous delivery from Young to Capela:
Luwawu-Cabbarot turns defense into offense:
Something here Atlanta has incorporated recently and starting to use more especially when Hunter is at power forward:
They set up the power forward-center double drag action. Only Hunter (the power forward) slips to the rim. Young threatens to use the Capela screen as to occupy Drummond.
It leads to a Hunter lay up without the worry of having to deal with a rim protector.
Durant’s shot making just starts getting silly:
After doing a solid job of at least trying to take space away from Young, the Nets defense loses track of it on this possession:
Onyeka Okongwu is helpful here as James Johnson is working to keep himself available to double Gallinari of he works toward the paint:
The young center flashes to the paint above the line Johnson is trying to manage and turns it into more free throws.
The Hawks threaten to pull away as Wright collects an offensive rebounds and finds plenty of space to put up a three:
But Durant just keeps making enough shots to keep the game in range:
Boganovic makes an incredibly clutch shot:
Then Young delivers the dagger:
The Hawks will play in Toronto on Tuesday evening in a match up that will feature two of the hottest teams in the league. The Raptors have won 11 of their last 13 games. Tip is scheduled for 7:30 pm ET.