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Hawks dominant in first half en route to victory against Bucks

The Hawks are off the mark.

Atlanta Hawks v Milwaukee Bucks

The Atlanta Hawks notched their first victory of the 2023-24 season with a commanding 127-110 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum on Sunday night.

Trae Young led the Hawks with 20 points and 11 assists with Bogdan Bogdanovic adding 17 points. For the Bucks — without Kris Middleton — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 26 points. Malik Beasley added 18 points.

After starting 0-2 on the season, the prospect of coming into Fiserv Forum to buck the trend wasn’t going to be straightforward. Hawks head coach Quin Snyder made a change to the starting lineup, inserting Jalen Johnson in place of Saddiq Bey, and it was an inspired change with Johnson contributing heavily to a first half in which the Hawks dominated with 14 points.

A 12-3 start was quickly followed by a double-digit lead before the Bucks trimmed a 15 point lead down to one point between the first and second quarters before the Hawks found their form once again and reestablished their double-digit lead before even pushing it beyond 20 points before the end of the first half. The Hawks outscored the Bucks 37-22 in the second quarter, shooting 54% from the field and hitting five threes. In contrast, the Bucks 7-of-22 from the field.

From the second half on, the Hawks maintained their composure and the lead never dropped below 15 — reaching as high as 31 points — and the Hawks secured a wire-to-wire victory in Milwaukee to get their season started.

“I thought we executed tonight,” opened Quin Snyder postgame. “That’s always something that’s really good to be able to say. Those are the things that we’ve been working on. We talked a lot about trying to develop an identity as a team and our focus was on those things. It’s good to be rewarded for that execution.”

What will encourage the Hawks is that no one player needed to dominate last night. Eight players (the eight-man rotation in the first half) all scoring in double figures — 20 for Young, 17 for Bogdan Bogdanovic, 15 for Hunter and Murray, 14 points for Johnson and Onyeka Okongwu, 13 for Bey and 12 for Clint Capela.

This balance came in two halves: in the first, it was Johnson (who scored all 14 in the first half), Murray (13) and Bogdanovic (12). In the second half, Hunter and Young found their way, both scoring 12 points in the second half while Okongwu scored 10. Against a top-team in the Bucks, it’s encouraging to know that you didn’t need a 40-10 performance to top them, that the group could go out and evenly contribute.

“It shows how they’re playing together,” said Snyder of eight Hawks in double-figures. “It shows the unselfishness that we’ve talked about. Guys are trying to make the right play and when you do that and you’ve got a lot of guys that are capable of putting the ball in the basket that’s what you end up with. It won’t be like that every night but the fact on a given night you can see that says a lot about the unselfishness of our group.

“Our guards did a much better job of organizing us, even in transition. You can be organized even when you’re playing fast and you saw that with Bogi. He really ran and he got rewarded for it. He got some good looks, he can really shoot.”

You could also look at this as a sign of maturity from this team. Certainly, Bogdanovic referenced the sacrifices the team made: to give up some opportunities to create better ones.

“Most of the guys on this team they can score, take the ball and go and score 30 points just off of skill, talent, whatever,” said Bogdanovic. “But we know we need to sacrifice in that way, not just sacrifice and be passive but sacrifice and help others and put them in a better position, look for that better option. That’s going to come with practice games and experience.”

Let’s take a look at the starting lineup change with Johnson coming into the lineup, scoring 14 points (all in the first half) on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 2-of-3. Johnson’s outside shooting was the most impressive aspect of his game offensively, the Bucks initially allowing him to take that outside shot without urgency to close him down:

Johnson could have even directed this back to Hunter in the corner and Brook Lopez would’ve been screened by Capela to prevent the interesting play for the Hawks to consider in the future.

This play from the second half was an interesting one. With Capela on the ball and awaiting movement, it seems like it’s set for Bogdanovic to set the screen and Murray to receive the ball to get the switch. But Bogdanovic slips the screen, gets ahead of Beasley, Capela finds Bogdanovic on the move forcing the rotation from Antetokounmpo and this leaves Johnson free in the corner to hit the three:

In transition Johnson is always a threat, and he was unlucky for this play not to result in a three but a long-two instead with the Bucks again not able to go out and challenge him:

Off the dribble this time, Johnson easily steps through in transition after running the floor to finish with the dunk:

In the halfcourt this time, Johnson drives left, breezes past Antentokounmpo and an excellent screen/seal from Capela on Lopez opens up the attempt for Johnson, who lifts his layup high and gets the roll:

Defensively Johnson was getting after it too, producing this great block in transition coming from behind:

It did take a review, since this was called a foul on the floor, but a successful challenge credits Johnson with the block.

Add two steals to the mix to go with seven rebounds and you have a very productive game from Johnson, who just continues to impress and improve.

“I’m just looking forward to getting better every game,” said Johnson. “Just knowing where I can find my spots during the game because every matchup is different. I knew right away tonight I had to come out ready to play.”

Johnson did run into some foul trouble in the second half and says he’s still learning how to navigate NBA officiating.

“Some plays have different whistles, you just have to adjust to that,” said Johnson. “I’m still learning all that, still learning different strategies with that. It’s definitely going to get better over time.”

Johnson stepping into the starting lineup meant Bey came off the bench as part of Snyder’s eight-man rotation in the first half — unusual for a regular season game. Snyder eventually inserted A.J. Griffin into the lineup in the second half and was pleased with his impact but also his team’s humility.

“It’s been good to have everyone figure out that Saddiq and JJ can play together,” said Snyder when asked about Griffin. “Now it’s good to figure out we can go big with O, we can put shooting on the court with A.J. Tonight was a matchup where we started JJ, we can do that. Frankly, for a coach to be able to coach a team whose willing to accept those type of adjustments, whether it be a starter, someone finishing a game, it’s a credit to A.J. We wanted to see him in there after the first half, we thought he could give us something and he did right away. He did it not just with making a shot but he was on the glass, he was shifted on defense, he did all the little things. It was good to see.”

On the Bucks’ side of things, Antentokounmpo proved a handful inside as you would expect (26 points on 9-of-14 shooting) but the struggles of Lillard was one of the aspects of this game that contributed to their issues. Lillard scored just six points on 2-of-12 shooting to go with six turnovers.

The Hawks did well to keep Lillard mostly confined to the three-point line (eight of his 12 field goal attempts were threes) and they contested many of these well.

A good contest from Hunter here on the deep pull-up:

A bit of a late switch between Johnson and Murray here leads to what looks like will be an open three for Lillard but Murray does decently to get out to the corner and get his hands up to contest the shot:

A shift in momentum from Lillard sheds Murray but Capela does well to get a contest up on the fallaway three-point attempt from Lillard:

With the second quarter ticking down, Lillard goes for the one-on-one pull-up three but is thwarted by the length of Murray who blocks the attempt:

A great block from Murray there.

It was an effort by committee at times, this time the screen from Bobby Portis taking Murray out of the equation but Johnson steps up to contest the Lillard three:

There were a few shots that Lillard would have been expected to hit but the Hawks did very well to contest the majority of his threes: some nights they still go in, others — like last night — they don’t.

The Hawks also made Lillard’s life handling the ball difficult, getting in his space and forcing multiple turnovers.

De’Andre Hunter does well here to knock the ball from Lillard before taking it himself in transition and pulling up for three:

Quin Snyder spoke postgame about this play as one he really enjoyed from Hunter.

Between Murray and Capela, Murray disrupts Lillard and Capela picks up the pieces to force another turnover on Lillard:

Again, Murray is up in Lillard’s space and deflects the attempted pass right at its source, creating another turnover and transition opportunity for Bey:

Snyder praised not just Murray for his efforts on the night but Young too, praising their ability to be coached when asked about Lillard’s rough night.

“Sometimes even great players have rough nights,” said Snyder on Lillard. “I thought Dejounte did a terrific job, I thought Clint did a terrific job. You can’t guard Damian Lillard with one guy. There was a purpose with DJ, I think he was really focused. Frankly, that was something we talked about: getting his pick-up points higher.”

“Our two guards, they’re unbelievably coachable. Trae’s had a couple of games where the ball didn’t go through the hole, even tonight in the first half. I thought his poise tonight was terrific. He just stayed the course and it’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t get the result you want, and eventually the ball did go in because he’s a good shooter. Those two guys, for me personally and for our staff, we’re talking about stuff, they want to get better, we’re demanding stuff of them and they’re trying to do it, that’s what we want, that’s what we saw. De’Andre, you could really feel him tonight as well. I thought his aggression from the three-point line—he shot that one walk-up off the dribble with confidence and that allows him to get him to the rim too.”

There aren’t too many times when Lillard is kept this quiet and the Hawks executed their defensive game-plan on Lillard excellently, starting with Murray but extending to much of the roster.

Fiserv Forum has been a difficult place at times for the Hawks to go to and pick up a victory. Not only did they do that but with conviction: a wire-to-wire victory leading by as many as 31 points — what a way to bounce back after starting 0-2 on the season.

“It feels great, it’s motivational,” said Bogdanovic of the win. “It gives us another level of motivation to work on our things, our game. Not enough time to rest and enjoy, another game tomorrow.”

What do the Hawks need to do to carry this momentum to tonight’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves?

“You have to do it again,” said Snyder. “Sometimes having teams make shots when you don’t contest them, they made some tonight, but that’s what we want to do. Regardless whether the ball goes in or not, those multiple effort plays, that’s what it requires: to get there and make those contests, to be disruptive to the extent we can do that with discipline. Those are the things we want to do.”

The Hawks (1-2) are back in action tonight against the Timberwolves (1-1) at State Farm Arena.

Should be fun, until next time.