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Okongwu dominates fourth quarter as Hawks hold on to victory over Rockets

The Hawks held on after taking full control early in the fourth quarter.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks notched a second consecutive victory as they emerged 134-127 winners over the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on Wednesday night.

Trae Young posted another ‘30-and-10’ game with 30 points and 14 assists, while Bogdan Bogdanovic returned from a two-game absence with a 22-point showing off the bench. For the Rockets, Jabari Smith Jr. scored a career-high 34 points with Fred VanVleet adding a season-best 32 points and 15 assists.

Coming off a victory at home against the Pistons, the Hawks were back on the road against a Houston side that has lost some momentum since the start of the season. The visitors got off to the better start and ran out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter thanks to eight first quarter threes — six of them coming from Young and Dejounte Murray (three apiece) with Murray scoring 14 points in the opening frame.

The second quarter looked as though it was heading the Hawks’ way, too. The visitors stretched their lead to a game-high 20 points and they reached this mark in the latter stage of the second quarter, but a flurry of Houston threes and some Atlanta miscues — including a costly one where a Young turnover on a play that, had the pass been successful, would have resulted in points turned into a VanVleet three — meant the lead was only 12 points.

The third quarter went all the way of the Rockets as the Hawks went cold to begin the second half: 33% shooting and 0-of-8 from three in the third as the Rockets overturned the Atlanta lead and took the lead themselves as Smith Jr. and VanVleet combined for 25 of the Rockets’ 35 third quarter points, outscoring the Hawks 35-21. The Rockets held a two-point lead going into the fourth quarter, and it was the start of the fourth quarter where the Hawks found their feet from the first half again and went on a mega run, spearheaded by Onyeka Okongwu.

The bulk of Okongwu’s scoring was done in the early stages of the fourth, giving the Hawks their separation, starting with the slip of the screen here where Young finds him for the alley-oop:

A combination of a slow tracking of Okongwu with Alperen Sengun and Smith Jr. not rotating doesn’t help here, but in Smith Jr.’s defense the man he’d have been leaving was Bogdanovic which would have been the wrong man to leave. It’s on Sengun here more than Smith Jr.

However, Smith Jr. is liable for this possession as he doesn’t rotate to contest Okongwu after the pick-and-roll with Bogdanovic who finds Okongwu for the finish:

In the open court, Okongwu’s pace is again too much for Sengun as he slips the screen and Sengun is unable to backtrack quick enough to prevent another Okongwu lob:

Okongwu gets the better of Sengun, again, but this time it’s on the glass as he outmaneuvers Sengun to collect the rebound and score the second chance points:

To complete a nightmare opening stint for Sengun, he somehow gets caught on a Bogdanovic screen which had already engaged another Rockets player and Okongwu escaped behind the line for another lob:

Okongwu was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field as he scored 12 points in the final quarter, his lively boost to begin the fourth giving the Hawks all the momentum.

“It just builds not only my confidence but my teammates confidences in me,” said Okongwu postgame. “Especially doing something like this against a team making runs like that, it makes everything better.”

The other two points from Okongwu came by way of a flagrant-1 foul from Dillon Brooks making contact to Okongwu’s groin, after which Bogdanovic scored two consecutive baskets to give the Hawks an 18 point lead and seemingly cruising to victory having weathered the storm.

The hosts, however, had a 14-0 run in them to bring this game to a somewhat uncomfortable end. The Hawks eventually held on to secure victory after Saddiq Bey made a big three (what Hawks head coach Quin Snyder would call the biggest play of the night) before Young’s late basket sealed the deal.

In what was a game of runs, Snyder was pleased with his team’s ability to maintain their composure (despite the occasional lapse) as they found their feet both to start and end of the fourth quarter.

“I thought we kept our composure,” said Snyder. “When you get a hot start the way we had, you know the other team is going to make a run. They did, and we kept our composure and then I thought late we had some mistakes — execution, being connected and handling a few things they were doing — and we got our composure again. Saddiq hit a huge shot, Trae made a big bucket and we were able to get stops without fouling, which I thought was big.”

“We did a good job of not letting their run affect us too much,” added Young. “They got on a big run to start the third and got back into the game and took the lead. We didn’t flinch, we stayed with it and took the lead back and kept rolling from there. At the end of the game they got into a run and, same thing, we didn’t let it affect us and we made a couple more plays down the stretch that meant a lot to us and got us the win.”

Young and Okongwu were instrumental in the fourth quarter between Okongwu’s 12 points and Young’s eight assists with Snyder praising Okongwu’s contributions when the Rockets went small.

“When they went small and switching everything with Smith at the five, O did a great job of getting out quickly on his roll and we were able to get some high percentage shots just out of pick-and-roll,” said Snyder of Okongwu.

Young’s eight fourth quarter assists took him to 14, extending his assist streak and now taking his average to over 11 a game now. 11 assists would have been enough to lead the league in assists the last two seasons but Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton continues to lead the way this season with 12 assists per game. Young’s 14 assists last night were somewhat a product of the not only his passing ability but the Rockets doubling Young at times which did result in a few turnovers and it’s something Young wants to improve upon with his teammates.

“It’s a two-way street, something we’ve got to continue to work on,” said Young on keeping focus on finding teammates after the double team. “I had some turnovers there but some of those turnovers could be prevented but it’s more working together and us realizing that when your man goes up to trap to run to the middle and create a closer gap between me and my teammate so they can’t run through the passes. That’s something we need to get better at, I got to be better at communicating to them and letting them know I need them to do that. That’s something we need to get better at, when I get trapped guys have to come to the ball. At the same time, I’ve got to continue to let them know that. We’ll be better at that.”

There were two instances of this in the fourth quarter, here was the first Young is forced to find Murray on a tightly guarded sideline which results in a scramble for possession:

This is likely the play Young had in his mind when he was doubled. No Hawk came to him and Young’s pass inside results in a turnover:

Young and Okongwu were in conversation heading to the locker room after a difference in opinion on the final play of the first half where the Hawks ended the half without a shot but they certainly made up for any misunderstanding in the fourth quarter with their combined performance — they were very strong and instrumental in leading the Hawks’ charge.

Young finished with 30 points on 10-of-18 from the field, 5-of-8 from three and 5-of-7 from the free throw line. The second leading scorer was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who returned after a two game absence to score 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field and 4-of-8 from three in 29 minutes off the bench.

“You can tell what an important part of our team he is,” said Snyder of Bogdanovic.

Elsewhere, Dejounte Murrays’ 14 point first quarter performance didn’t carry-over through the rest of the game, finishing with 21 points on 7-of-15 from the field. Murray was solid overall but a bit quiet in the second half. De’Andre Hunter and Clint Capela had somewhat quiet nights — Capela more so on account of Okongwu’s outburst resulting in him playing the entire fourth quarter. Garrison Mathews provided good effort off the bench in 16 minutes of action and two three-pointers. Bey was a quiet 3-of-11 but did hit a big shot towards the end of the game to give the Hawks their cushion.

Overall, the Hawks played a solid game here. Their cold stretches were very cold but were very efficient shooting the ball (52% from the field and 42.5% from three) and had 31 assists with just nine turnovers, seven of those coming between Young and Murray. Young continues his run of form, Okongwu was fantastic and Bogdanovic’s return was welcome and effective.

The Rockets were favored heading into the contest, and given the Hawks’ recent form you’d be forgiven for any skepticism in this spot, but to their credit Atlanta played well and survived a career night from Jabari Smith Jr. and a season-effort from VanVleet — around whom the defensive strategy was somewhat confusing in that Young guarded him. It was a relatively easy 32 points for VanVleet, but that wasn’t enough for the Rockets to prevent only their second home loss of the season who are now 11-2 at home.

Alas, the Hawks need every win they can chalk up and continue the road back to .500.

The Hawks (12-15) are back in action on Friday on the first night of a back-to-back against the Miami Heat (16-12) in Miami, before heading back home for a Saturday night game against the Grizzlies.

Until next time!