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Hawks clinch play-in spot with victory over Wizards

The Hawks secure their place (sort of) for postseason basketball.

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks won a comfortable affair against the Washington Wizards 134-116 on Wednesday night at State Farm Arena.

Trae Young led the Hawks — playing without De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic — with 25 points and 16 assists, with John Collins adding 23 points. For the Wizards, Daniel Gafford scored 25 points and 10 rebounds. Johnny Davis added 20 points.

The Hawks entered this game as considerate and understandable favorites, the visiting Wizards were without Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, Delon Wright and Monte Morris.

The Washington ‘B Team’ put up a solid effort for the game but in the second half were edged away from by the Hawks as the hosts stretched their margin to double-digits for the first time in the third quarter before gently increasing the lead as the third quarter progressed, reaching a lead as high as 21 points in the fourth quarter.

All of this on the second night of a back-to-back (for both teams) and the Hawks got back into Atlanta on the afternoon of the game after maintenance issues with their plane coming from Chicago.

It was Atlanta’s focus on the game despite the travel and being on the second night of a back-to-back that Hawks head coach Quin Snyder was pleased about.

“I thought we were really focused after a good win last night and travel,” said Snyder postgame. “We started the game made a few mistakes that they converted but I thought we settled in after that. This was a good win. A different win but a really good win. I think our guys deserve a lot of credit for their mental focus and energy that they played with.”

The Hawks’ three-point shooting and their free throws were the two areas of the game that they comprehensively won and given their disparity in comparison to Washington’s numbers in those areas were likely the key to the game.

From behind the arc, the Hawks shot 13-of-30 for 43% (hitting seven threes in the first quarter alone), while the Wizards shot 6-of-28 — a 39-18 edge.

“I think we pushed the ball up the court, we’re beginning to understand how important spacing is,” said Snyder. “It allows you to play together. We’re spacing throughout possessions, particularly in the beginning of a possession where it gets us moving the ball up ahead and teams have to guard you more from the early part of the possession. It connects us and helps us defensively too. We want to attack with intelligence, I think that’s a really important component for our team.”

AJ Griffin hit four threes off the bench, with Collins adding three himself in another strong shooting night from beyond the arc. Saddiq Bey — starting in place of De’Andre Hunter — added another two.

Trae Young shot 1-of-4 from three but both he and Collins’ three-point shooting percentages have been much better since the All-Star break, both shooting 37% from three since the break. Both have missed their outside shot for the majority of the season but it’s good to see they’ve both been able to find their way before the season ends.

Looking at the free throws, the Hawks made 35-of-40 at the line — both marking season-highs in makes and attempts. Trae Young led the way with a tied season-high of 16 free throws on 18 attempts, with John Collins 8-of-8 from the line. Compared to the Wizards, who shot 20-of-26 from the line.

Between the 21 point advantage at the three-point line and the 15 point advantage at the free throw line, there was more than enough room for the Hawks to help offset the 16 extra points in the paint the Wizards scored over the Hawks (66-50).

The Hawks were a perfect 12-for-12 at the free throw line in the third quarter, the quarter the Hawks put distance between themselves and the visitors, outscoring the Wizards 39-30 in the third.

“Sometimes that big a difference is maybe you make a few more shots, it’s a few possessions here and there, you get a couple stops,” said Snyder of the third quarter. “I think it was a little bit of everything. We were able to get to the line. We did a good job of forcing them to be in tough situations defensively by attacking the rim. We shared the ball. When we share the ball like that particularly in the open floor you’re tough to guard.”

The Hawks outscored the Wizards 14-2 in fastbreak points — not that that is a massive amount for the Hawks but an unusually small number for the Wizards. I wouldn’t call the Hawks’ defense strong last night but they had some good contests at the rim in transition, even if the Wizards collected some second chance scoring opportunities after the first stop.

On the defensive end, Snyder outlined some aspects he’d still like to see the Hawks improve upon.

“I’d like to see us gamble a little less,” said Snyder. “I think we give up some easy buckets on back-doors and trying to stop the break high. Think we can be more disciplined there.”

Snyder dropped that line when talking about the bench, who gave the Hawks a good lift last night.

AJ Griffin hit four threes, Aaron Holiday gave the Hawks a solid 21 minutes and hit two threes and Jalen Johnson — for the second night in a row — scored 16 points, tying the career-high he set on Tuesday night.

“He’s given us a lift,” said Snyder when asked about Johnson. “When I talked about some of those defensive plays, making plays in transition, that’s something he excels at. Not just Jalen, AJ came in and was not just aggressive shooting the ball but really efficient. He’s one of the guys his ability to space is a really big thing and we were finding each other, guys were looking for each other...our bench, they were prepared to play. In a night after last night and interesting day of travel— I say day because we didn’t get to travel last night. But that’s part of it. Your ability to put that behind you and focus on the moment. It’s the sign of a team that is maturing.”

Johnson’s game continues to look smoother with each passing month and he’s doing a good job using his athleticism but he also just looks so much smoother in his movement, especially in his initial perimeter dribble driving to the rim. In a disappointing season for the Hawks, Johnson continues to provide one spark of hope.

In the end, this was a routine victory for the Hawks. The travel aspect of it made it an unusual game but the Hawks did well in light of that. They had some fun plays from last night, including this steal from Clint Capela:

This no-look, left-handed lob pass from Young to Collins:

And this reverse dunk from Collins that kind of came out of nowhere:

The victory marks the Hawks’ third in a row and they move two games above .500 for the first time since January 21st 32 games of flip-flopping between one game of .500: above or below, or in between.

The Hawks have been the definition of mediocrity but Snyder is pleased about some of the progress his side have made since he arrived.

“I’d like to not get too excited about three in a row,” said Snyder. “But I do think our guys should feel good about some of the progress we’ve made in a few areas. Playing better offensively, spacing better, executed, more connected — really helps our defense. We’ve had a better focus on the defensive end, that’s something we need to continue to do. It can’t be a function of ‘win a couple in a row, lose a couple in a row.’ They’ve just got to continue to be who we are. The more you do something the more it becomes who you are.”

With the victory, the Hawks also secured a spot in the play-in tournament, and with their victory over the Bulls and Toronto’s loss last night, the Hawks — unless they go through a situation where they lose-out and the Raptors win-out (and visa versa for the Miami Heat) — are basically set for the 8-seed and a play-in game to come against the Heat. There’ll be time to preview that fixture later but victory over the Wizards as well as Toronto’s loss last night essentially confirmed the start of the Hawks’ postseason journey.

The Hawks (41-39) are back in action on Friday night against the Philadelphia 76ers (52-27) at State Farm Arena. The Sixers are in action tonight in Philly against the Heat before heading to Atlanta.

It’s very possible the Sixers will rest players, since they’re not only on the second night of a back-to-back and locked into the number three seed but time will tell on that end.

Until next time...