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Career night from Okongwu, late tip-in from Collins just enough to outlast Pacers

A win is a win is a win.

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks traveled to Indiana having endured quite a whirlwind of media pressure and outside observer speculation in recent days. First, it was reported early Friday that former Atlanta Hawks All-Star player Kyle Korver was in the process of finalizing a deal to make him the organization’s assistant general manager. This would form a tandem that paired Korver with another former NBA player in Landry Fields, the current Atlanta Hawks general manager.

Then, a piece from Sam Amick of The Athletic detailed some of the decision-making process that led to the front office instability, including the resignation of many prominent and high-level officials within the operations and scouting structures of the organization.

Needless to say, the players were looking forward to putting this outside noise behind them when they hit the court in Indiana. It would be a topsy-turvy game that took every second of the 48 minutes to decide, but a John Collins tip-in with just 0.7 seconds left to play ultimately decided the outcome for the visiting Hawks, 113-111.

The big story was Onyeka Okongwu’s career day filling in for the injured Clint Capela. With Capela missing his ninth straight game – and twelfth of the last 13 – Okongwu logged 18 points, a career best 20 rebounds, four assists, four blocks, and two steals on a night in which the Hawks needed every bit of his contribution. The seven offensive rebounds alone also tied a career high for the third year big man.

The Indiana Pacers were missing Myles Turner and Daniel Theis to injury as well, two big bodies that could have punished Atlanta’s lack of size sans Capela. But credit Okongwu for seeing this as an invitation to attack, like in the below clip rolling to the rim and using his post moves to find space for the shot.

Okongwu often flashed deft skill and footwork, like on this nifty dribble handoff fake in one direction and spin the opposite direction to free himself under the basket. He would log 14 of his 18 points in the first quarter alone before the Pacers could work out any needed adjustments.

“[Onyeka Okongwu] is playing a lot of minutes,” head coach Nate McMillan explained about the 39 minutes logged in Indianapolis on Friday night. “He just keeps showing growth. Tonight, to have a double-double. 20 rebounds – we needed every rebound from him tonight.”

Defensively, Okongwu was also a major force during the contest, blocking four shots and altering numerous others. Here was a big one tracking the curl toward the rim and low lay-up attempt from impressive rookie Bennedict Mathurin.

And another one here, this time victimizing Andrew Nembhard which helped start a fast break for the easy bucket for Dejounte Murray.

“He was switching out, trapping, doing a lot of things for us on that defensive end of the floor,” continued coach McMillan about the center. “I thought he did a really good job of taking advantage of putting a small [player] on him, pounding the boards, and really making them pay for that matchup.”

Atlanta and Indiana were locked in a vicious battle all night long that saw the lead swing from side to side as both teams traded scoring runs back and forth. The teams swapped leads 12 times and were tied 11 times as well.

As a team, the Hawks shot 16-for-33 (49%) from three-point land compared to just 7-for-30 (23%) for the Pacers. The Hawks gave up dribble penetration all night long, however, en route to ceding 64 big points in the paint, so their big night from behind the arc was especially necessary to put them over the top.

De’Andre Hunter also had a big night powered by his 6-for-9 (67%) performance from three. The six triples — all of the catch-and-shoot variety — tied a career-high for the forward. He finished with 25 points as part of a very hot stretch of games for Hunter.

‘Dre’ was able to find spacing working off of Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, and even Onyeka Okongwu at times, and fired from long range with confidence. In this clip below, the Pacers are worried about Trae Young coming off of the double screen action that Hunter can calmly fade to the three-point line for an easy attempt.

Once Okongwu got going, the Pacers loaded up to combat him in the post. Here, defender Buddy Hield has two feet in the paint to help on Okongwu as Murray whips a pass across to Hunter for the score.

Trae Young also had a big night, albeit with a bizarre scoring split. Young finished 6-for-10 (60%) from behind the arc, but 0-for-6 from inside of it. Still, he did a masterful job of carving up the Pacers defense with either a quick shot release in space or driving to draw in the defense before kicking the ball out.

John Collins’ tip-in with under one second left to play rescued what was shaping up to be a very forgettable outing for him. Collins was just 1-for-8 (13%) from the floor up to that point, but his alertness and effort on the offensive glass didn’t waver a bit as he rose for the deciding rebound and put back.

It was a frantic possession from the start, with Trae Young receiving a double team far from the basket as time wound down. Seeing that he had a 4-on-3 numbers advantage for a possible offensive rebound with a sliver of clock left, Young heaved from long range. After a Murray missed follow attempt, Collins swooped in to save the day.

“John [Collins] didn’t drop his head,” said coach McMillan about Collins’ rough showing up until the last offensive possession. “We put him back in late to try to get a sub for [Bogdan Bogdanovic] and try to go defense for offense because we needed help on the boards for [Okongwu], and he ended up finishing the game and having the biggest play of the game tonight.”

The Hawks (20-22) badly needed a win in the standings as well as a win to erase some of the negative energy surrounding the organization. Things appear to remain in flux as to the future direction of the franchise, but the players have hung around in a lot of recent road contests and shown fight even when it was easy to count them out. The Hawks have little time to dwell on this victory, however, as they quickly face off against the Toronto Raptors north of the border Saturday night.