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Okongwu’s strong March continues, ties career-high as Hawks edge Cavaliers

A narrow victory for the hosts with Murray and Okongwu at the heart of it.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks nudged by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a close encounter at State Farm Aren on Tuesday night as the push for the play-in continues, 120-118.

Dejounte Murray led the way with 29 points, while Onyeka Okongwu tied his career-high with 21 points to go with nine rebounds and three blocks. For the Cavaliers, there was an awakening in the second half from Donovan Mitchell, scoring 32 of his 44 points in the second half as he reunited with former coach Quin Snyder. Darius Garland added 27 points.

It looked as though this could be an early uphill battle for the Hawks, who fell behind by double-digits early in this game before not only rallying but also taking a 15 point lead themselves in the second quarter.

The Cavaliers were having success scoring at the rim when they took Clint Capela away from it out front, or taking him away from it after a defensive breakdown in front of him and making the extra pass. Conversely, the Hawks’ second unit in the second quarter gave them a boost — as well as their overall three-point shooting in the first half — and helped them come back into this game, take and build the lead.

The third quarter didn’t begin well for the hosts, with Hawks head coach Quin Snyder proceeding to take a timeout with under a minute elapsed in the third but the Hawks recovered, and though they would lose their lead later in the third quarter they not only re-took it but build back to double-digits.

The Cavaliers rallied again to take the lead and with Donovan Mitchell hitting shot after shot it came down to stretch plays. The Cavaliers took a timeout with 3:12 remaining with the Hawks holding a 112-111 lead.

After a missed shot from Mitchell and a 24 second violation for the Hawks, Mitchell drives into the paint and his combination of step and contact draws the whistle from the officials and Mitchell would go to the free throw line:

There were several poorly officiated moments in this game and the Hawks had already, successfully, used their challenge by this point, if this was something they wanted to challenge. Alas, they could not and Mitchell knocks both free throws to give the Cavs a lead.

This would not last long, however, as Murray — not for the first time nor the second time — was fouled on a three-point shot, enraging the Cavaliers who would unsuccessfully challenge this call:

I thought perhaps that the Cavs might have a case to overturn this based on the way Murray’s legs kicked out in his motion but the officials concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call, and Murray’s three free throws give the Hawks the lead again.

The Cavs would tie the game as Evan Mobley tips in the miss from Mitchell inside after freeing himself with another euro-step:

The Cavs obviously tried whenever they could to put in the action defensively and Young, to be fair, showed effort even if the end result obviously isn’t there.

In response, the Hawks go to a bread-and-butter pick-and-roll with Young and John Collins. When Collins receives the ball from Young, the Cavaliers’ defense steps up and Collins makes the quick read and lobs the ball up for Capela who finishes the play to give the Hawks the lead again:

Collins has gotten much better at this type of play over the years and he comes through with it at an important moment.

The Hawks would catch a bit of a break with Garland missing two makable shots in succession, and off of those misses the Hawks push with Young, whose shot at the rim is blocked by Mobley. Garland can’t save the loose ball to a teammate and it ends in the hands of Murray, who takes the initiative and goes one-on-one with Caris LeVert and sinks the contested jumpshot to give the Hawks a four point lead with under a minute remaining, leading to a Cleveland timeout:

Murray’s shot has been off of late but last night he had it going and you just had that sense that given the night he had had that this was going to fall for him. A great shot made from Murray here.

The Cavaliers using their last timeout here with just under a minute to go was a surprise and would certainly bite them later.

For now, coming out of said timeout, only a few seconds expire off the clock before Mitchell would sink the contested three over Murray:

Watching Mitchell hit some of these shots in the second half was a treat for the neutral, just a great shot-maker.

On the out-of-bounds play on the baseline with five seconds on the clock, Young initially fakes the pass to Capela before his attempt to pass to him is collected well by Capela to get the ball up towards the rim but falls short, as does the follow-up attempt from Collins:

Now the Cavaliers have the chance to take the lead but no timeout to draw up a play, so Mitchell goes it alone against Murray and misses the three:

I don’t think Mitchell wanted to take the shot he did. I think he may have wanted his teammates to clear out and drive instead but with Lamar Stevens’ presence allowing Collins to block the driving lane, Mitchell — with the clock beginning to wind down — has to go for it.

With the miss, the Cavaliers are forced to foul and after a Hawks timeout, Young splits the free throws to give the Cavs a small window of an opportunity trailing by two points all of the court to traverse in three seconds (having used their last timeout) and Mitchell’s heave from mid-court is long and the Hawks hang on to secure victory.

It really was a game of runs, to lean into a cliché and when the Cavaliers made their runs Quin Snyder was pleased that these runs only served to strengthen his side’s togetherness.

“To me the most significant part of the game was at various times when there was adversity — whether it was at the beginning of the second half, when they made a couple runs, made some plays — we didn’t split apart we came together,” said Snyder via Bally Sports. “It showed down the stretch defensively down the stretch and with our execution the fact we were sharing the ball late.”

On the topic of sharing the ball, the Hawks totalled 25 assists, 10 of them coming from Young. Young began this game 0-of-7 from the field but I thought did well to not force the issue and his offense came to him in the second half, scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting and 2-of-2 from three in the second half to add to the free throws he was making, finishing with 16 points and 6-of-9 from the free throw line.

Young was happy to let Murray cook as he did and it was good to see that recognition occur when Murray has it going (and he has not had it going recently). Murray scored 27 points on 11-of-22 shooting from field, 3-of-7 from three and 4-of-5 from three, including two four-point play opportunities.

“Him being aggressive from the three-point line is a big thing for us and a big thing for him,” said Snyder of Murray. “Also getting downhill and getting to the rim. When he does those two things it really puts pressure on the defense. The ability to make a play and rise up and take a contested shot, that’s when his mid-range game is so important during those times because he’s able to rise up and use his length. I thought he and Trae played together in a way that I was really happy to see that. I thought they played off each other, you could see a connectivity there that’s important to our whole team. We had great effort off the bench as well, Saddiq, O in particular really gave us a lot. We were able to build a lead when those guys were in the game.”

Murray’s shot over LeVert was one of the key moments of the fourth quarter. Not only was it an impressive shot, it gave the Hawks a two possession lead and nudged Cleveland to use their final timeout. The Hawks knew it was good as soon as it left his hand.

“That’s his shot,” said Saddiq Bey of Murray’s clutch shot via Bally Sports. “He has a real high arcing shot and when he has that spin or gets to his spot we knew it was good as soon he released it. That’s what he does.”

In the eight games prior to this one, Murray had averaged 15.4 points per game on 35.6% from the field and 14.8% from three, so it was great to see Murray have a strong game and be the guy the lead the Hawks last night thought there was a period where Murray cooled off a bit in this game he hit the big shot when it mattered.

Murray had help last night, the play of Onyeka Okongwu again was at a high level as it has been throughout the month of March. Okongwu finished with a tied career-high of 21 points on 5-of-5 shooting and 11-of-12 from the free throw line, a career-high in foul shots.

Asked if he knew he could those free throws, Okongwu simply replied, “Yes!”

Quin Snyder joked that he told Okongwu to go for one more before describing why it is important for bigs to make their free throws.

“I told him after the game he’s got to go 12-for-12!” said Snyder of Okongwu’s free throws. “There’s more out there. Whether it’s the offensive glass, he’s impacting— I think his spirit too. You see him, he enjoys playing. It’s good to see him growing as a player. He’s got great hands, he finishes. For big guys like that making free throws is really, really important because they’re down there, they’re mixing it up and to be able to punish the defense for fouling you is a big deal. To miss those shots sometimes is deflating. He’s getting in and-1’s and making his free throws. He’s efficient right now.”

“It’s big time,” added Bey of Okongwu’s free throws. “He works on it every day. We trust in him.”

Okongwu’s ability to catch, to put pressure on the defense on his slips (which he has gotten so much better at positioning himself), his improved strength to absorb more contact inside, his touch inside...he is really making the impact the Hawks surely envisioned when they selected him sixth overall back in 2020.

Not to mention his blocks of course. Bally Sports broadcaster Bob Rathbun mentioned in third quarter a stat that Okongwu has had a block in the last 10 games. When Rathbun mentioned that, Okongwu hadn’t yet had a block in the game. He finished with three, some good ones too, including this block on Mitchell’s second attempt:

And this one on the attempt from Ricky Rubio underneath the rim:

Since the All-Star break, Okongwu is averaging 11.6 points on 69.6% from the field, 81% from the line on 3.9 attempts per game, seven rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in 20 minutes per game.

Both Capela and Okongwu have been great since March, there’s not a ton you can fault them for in this run-in, they’ve both been great.

Oddly, it wasn’t Okongwu who had the double-double off the bench, that belonged to Saddiq Bey who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“Just playing hard, that’s what we said to each other on the bench,” said Saddiq Bey of his and Okongwu’s impact. “To say ‘Hey man, all we can do is control what we can by playing hard and let it come to us.’ We feel like we try to be the energy guys off the bench and either maintain the lead or exceed it. It was a full team effort.”

With Bogdan Bogdanovic hitting three threes en route to 12 points off the bench, it was a strong effort by the Atlanta bench, outscoring Cleveland’s bench 44-14.

Coming off the bench, there was a surprise rotation spot last night for Vit Krejci, often only used in garbage time situations but played eight minutes last night.

“This has been a process of looking for guys who want to compete, work and that are selfless, and that’s what he’s been for us,” said Snyder of playing Krejci. “I felt like it was a good time to give him an opportunity, no disrespect any of the other guys who didn’t play. He can pass, and that’s a connective play. And that’s what he did.”

“He has a lot of length, a lot of skill, a lot of intelligence,” added Bey of Krejci. “He works tirelessly each and every day on the court, off the court. It was great to see and he did a great job today.”

Snyder is very much just trying to see what he has but it’s nice to see the Hawks speak highly of Krejci’s efforts, both his selflessness and his work on and off the court.

This was a very solid victory for the Hawks last night. The Cavs are essentially set for the 4-seed and a first round matchup against the New York Knicks but they certainly went for the win here, even leaving Mitchell in when he tweaked his ankle in the fourth quarter. They wanted this win and the Hawks overcame a big Mitchell game to do so.

Not only that, the Hawks hung 120 points on the league’s best defense, both in defensive rating and opponent points allowed (allowing 106 points per game).

“The key for us is to have our eyes out and space and share the ball,” said Snyder when asked about scoring 120 points on the league’s best defense. “If we’re not spaced we can’t find people, if our eyes aren’t out we can’t pass the ball then we got to move it to the open man, For the most part I thought we were conscious of that. I thought Trae with one turnover in the second half was a big deal, he was really letting the game come to him. Dejounte was making plays. JC had a big play late — we had contributions from a lot of guys — when he got in the pocket and made that pass (to Capela). Good things all around.”

Good things all around is a good way to describe last night: 120 points on 46% shooting from the field, 12 made threes on 44% shooting, 33 free throws attempted, 44 bench points, a 51-40 rebounding advantage, 14 offensive rebounds, 14 second chance points, 25 assists, just 12 turnovers and seven players in double-digits. There was a lot to like last night from the Hawks.

Speaking briefly of John Collins, Collins’ 3-of-4 shooting night from three helped nudge his post All-Star three-point percentage to 37%. It’s been a tough season for Collins shooting the three but a solid output since the break.

The Hawks (38-38) are back in action on Friday against the Brooklyn Nets (40-35) at Barclays Center.

Should be fun, and could also play an important role in who the Hawks face in the play-in if they remain in the 8-seed, with Miami and Brooklyn currently separated by just half a game vying for the final playoff spot.

Until next time...