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Hawks narrowly hold on for victory in high-scoring affair versus Thunder

The Hawks begin 2024 with a victory.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks began 2024 with a narrow victory over the high-flying OKC Thunder — winners of five in a row prior — at State Farm Arena on Wednesday night, 141-138.

Jalen Johnson led the Hawks with a career-high 28 points with Trae Young adding 24 points to go with 11 assists. For the Thunder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a game-high 33 points while Jalen Williams contributed 21 points.

The Hawks were pegged as slight favorites heading into this contest on account of OKC’s high-stakes, closely contested victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday as well as travel issues getting into Atlanta — and the first quarter played as though those factors were extremely telling. The hosts ran out to an 11-0 lead and led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter with Bogdan Bogdanovic scoring 11 points in the first frame off the bench behind three made threes. The Hawks were getting baskets in all manners: transition, second chance, behind the arc. The Thunder, conversely, just couldn’t get things to go their way — thrown balls out of bounds, blocked shots, Atlanta steals, and a 1-of-6 start from Gilgeous-Alexander not helping the Thunder’s cause, eventually outscored 39-25.

The second quarter also went the way of the Hawks — the lead never dropping below double-digits and extending to as many as 21 points before taking a 17 point lead into the third quarter thanks to 19 first half fastbreak points. The Hawks have been in this spot before and the lead, as has been the case of late, was eaten into in the third quarter with the Thunder starting out with a run to reduce the lead to 11 points in just over two minutes to force an Atlanta timeout, and the Thunder would continue to chip away at the lead over the quarter. The visitors took this lead down to as little as seven points with just under half of the third quarter remaining, giving the Thunder ample time and opportunity to complete a turnaround.

How the Hawks started this game in the first quarter was hugely important in contributing to victory, but I’d argue what happened in the third quarter was as important. We’ve seen the Hawks build first half leads and squander them in the second half. What we haven’t seen as much is when a team fights back, as the Thunder did, is the Hawks stabilize and push the lead back out to a very comfortable margin, and that’s what they did in the third quarter as they recovered their double-digit lead and stretched it out to 17 points before entering the fourth quarter with 13 points.

A 12-4 gave the Hawks this 17 point margin towards the end of the third, let’s take a look at it.

It begins, of all places, with a Trent Forrest floater as he rocks Isaiah Joe with the crossover before driving into the paint:

Forrest was impactful on the defensive end in the third quarter, including the next play where he stays in front of Gilgeous-Alexander, prevents his drive inside and blocks his shot attempt inside, off of which the Hawks push in transition with Dejounte Murray, who draws the foul and free throws:

A three from Jaylin Williams prompts an Atlanta timeout, out of which Onyeka Okongwu gets to the free throw line after drawing the foul from Gilgeous-Alexander after Williams doesn’t track back in time:

Two makes from Okongwu pushes the lead back to 11 points, and the Hawks would get a chance to add to it as Forrest again stays in front of Gilgeous-Alexander, who loses the ball and kills his dribble before throwing a pass out-of-bounds:

The Hawks run a three-man action with Young, Bogdanovic, and Okongwu, which opens up for Young who kicks the ball back to Bogdanovic for three:

The Hawks catch a break on the next possession as Forrest does well again on Gilgeous-Alexander but Young falls asleep and allows an open shot for Aaron Wiggins at the rim, and the Hawks are fortunate he blows the layup:

Young would make up for this and more as he weaves off the Okongwu screen and hits the three to cap the run and give the Hawks a comfortable 17 point lead:

The Hawks would hold a double-digit lead for a significant chunk of the fourth quarter, including a 15 point lead with 2:27 remaining after a basket from Jalen Johnson. Both Johnson (11 points) and Murray (seven points) were instrumental in the fourth quarter, hitting big shot after big shot when the Hawks needed it.

Up 15 with 2:27 remaining...the game should have been a done deal, but the Thunder didn’t quit and hit a flurry of shots and layups to bring the game to down to three points after a pretty poor sequence for the Hawks between Murray’s missed shot at the rim and Gilgeous-Alexander scoring immediately in transition:

Really poor clock management from Murray here for a shot that, sure, he can make but it was a poor decision in this spot with the clock situation as it was. Instead, Murray misses the shot and Gilgeous-Alexander scores with enough time for the Thunder to get another shot and tie the game should the Hawks miss, which is exactly what happened as Bogdanovic can’t get his shot to fall:

Now, the Thunder take a timeout and advance the ball with a chance to tie the game with a three. They get an excellent look at one with Joe in the corner as Forrest falls asleep and the Hawks catch a break as Joe, a 58% three-shooter from that corner (the league average is 39%), misses the shot and the Hawks escape with victory:

A very lucky break for the Hawks here, Joe doesn’t miss many from there. Forrest was great in this game but that was a lucky escape on his behalf on that last possession.

Nevertheless, the Hawks emerge with a much-needed victory against a good opponent, and postgame Hawks head coach Quin Snyder was pleased with the defense in the first half and attributed Jalen Johnson’s foul trouble as a contributing reason why the Hawks’ defense dropped off when he hits foul trouble.

“I thought the first half defensively we were really good,” opened Snyder postgame. “Alexander is tough to handle when he gets going. When JJ got into foul trouble there was a stretch there where we had a really hard time getting stops. But we kept our composure. Got the lead back to double-digits and then obviously at the end of the game we held on. It’s a good win and a home win.”

Asked by Brad Rowland about the untidy ending to the game where the Thunder almost tied the game, Snyder mentioned the Hawks’ hesitation in not wanting to foul (especially Johnson, who had five fouls), as well as OKC getting a full head of steam offensively.

“When you’re ahead and if a team gets you on your heels, in JJ’s case there were a couple of times where he didn’t want to foul,” said Snyder. “If that is the case with any of us, when someone’s got their head down and they’re going full speed in transition you can’t guard them one-on-one. We just have to shift to the point where they see bodies and don’t allow them to get through those gaps. In that time when you have a lead, the offense is in full blown attack mode and it takes more urgency, even if you score, to get back. There were a few times we hit a shot and they’re back and they score in six, seven seconds. Those possessions are tough. Tonight we did enough offensively to give us a cushion.”

The cushion Snyder refers to is the cushion of the work not just in the third quarter but between Murray and Johnson in the fourth.

Young, meanwhile, was also led to the same conclusion as Snyder in the Hawks’ desire not to foul the Thunder, who were in the bonus in the fourth quarter with 6:27 remaining.

“Sometimes it’s scary getting those leads, to be honest with you,” said Young. “It’s a game of runs. When you get on a run it’s a natural habit to relax. I don’t think we relaxed, I think we had a solid lead throughout the whole game and late again in the game they played more aggressive and we were playing too much trying not to foul and not give them and-1’s, not as aggressive as we were in the first three quarters. Maybe it was because they were in the bonus early in the fourth and we didn’t want to give them free throws but we’ve still got to be more aggressive and late in games when they’re trapping me. Guys have got to be continue to be aggressive when they’re trapping me. We’ll continue to get better at it. I’m just glad we can learn off a win.”

The takeaway I would have from all of these comments: Jalen Johnson is really flipping important to this team and when he’s off the floor (with foul trouble or otherwise) the Hawks are worse off. It’s remarkable to think how quickly this scenario has become the case for the Hawks and Johnson but time and time again the comments from the Hawks echo that sentiment, whether it’s outright stated (which it has been on a number of occasions) or not.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson was brought up a number of times postgame after he posted another career-night of 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting from the field, 2-of-4 from three, 4-of-4 from the line, seven rebounds, three assists and four steals in just under 29 minutes of action (limited with that foul trouble).

“It felt good to get the win, that’s the most important thing coming into the night,” said Johnson when asked of the career-night. “My teammates finding me in the right spots, creating looks for me and letting me capitalize. I wouldn’t have got it without them.”

Johnson took the ball himself in transition at times, finishing with authority at the rim and continues to make highlight plays, including a dunk on rookie of the year contender Chet Holmgren. Snyder believed that the Hawks and Johnson himself are getting more comfortable with the ball being in his hands.

“Whether you want to call it playmaking or facilitating I think he’s getting more and more comfortable — and our team is getting more comfortable — with him having the ball in his hands,” said Snyder of Johnson. “Whether it’s transition or in situations tonight where they were coming to double-team and impact our guards. He’s capable of making plays and making plays for other people as well. You’ve seen him do that in practise settings but I think his comfort and his confidence doing those things in a game against a good team, that’s something that’s unique to him with his size and athleticism.”

Defensively, the Hawks are also continuing to challenge Johnson, already a very capable defender.

“The other thing, we want to continue use him defensively in various matchup,” added Snyder of Johnson. “He’s learning to do that as well, learning to play out on the floor more, guard the ball more and that’s tough because sometimes it puts him in some situations. He didn’t really foul when he was guarding the ball, he had some help situations. Those are tough situations. Not saying he didn’t foul but I don’t know what kind of advantage was gained, we just have to be more disciplined in those situations, and he does obviously because we need him.”

I remember writing a few seasons ago here that the most important player on the Hawks wasn’t necessarily Trae Young — as there were others who could shoulder a scoring load and win games while Young was out, as we saw with Bogdanovic during that stretch in 2020-21 — and that it would an absence to Clint Capela that could prove potentially devastating (and we saw how worse off the Hawks were in 2021-22 without a healthy Capela). I think we’re reaching a similar junction with Johnson, maybe not quite on the same level yet as Capela at the time, but the team was obviously much worse off without Johnson because there are so many things he does that no one player can do on their own: his combination of rebounding, defense, ball-handling, penetration, three-point shooting, transition...

Jalen Johnson is quickly becoming irreplaceable in this lineup.

While you can debate that statement, what is clear and certain is the Hawks have a lot of trust and confidence in Johnson, and he’s not the only player the Hawks feel this way about. Trent Forrest got to see some extended rotation minutes last night to help with the Gilgeous-Alexander matchup and when Snyder was asked about Forrest — while he did ensure to get a Johnson mention in — he spoke to the degree of trust he has in Forrest.

“We have a lot of confidence in Trent and he really knows who he is as a player,” said Snyder of Forrest. “We felt, along with JJ, that Trent was a good matchup where we had the opportunity during various rotation situations we needed a matchup on Shai. Trent was able to defend and defend without fouling. On the offensive end, he’s capable of getting in the lane and making plays. He’s got a lot of poise in the lane and he made his floater a couple of times. I think our coaching staff — and his teammates as well — have a lot of confidence in him ... tonight was a night where we felt Trent could give us something unique and he did.”

Aside from the final possession, Forrest gave the Hawks much-needed defense at the guard position and halted Gilgeous-Alexander on a number of occasions. Forrest is a player who, as Snyder alluded to, plays to strengths and not as someone he’s not — he doesn’t chuck shots, often electing not to shoot at times. Forrest brings a stability to the lineup because you know exactly what you’re getting and it’s usually consistent.

Elsewhere, Young had a relatively quiet night with just 13 shot attempts but did score 24 points on 6-of-13 shooting (all of his misses in the game coming from the perimeter, where he shot 2-of-9) and 10-of-11 from the line. Young picked his moments in this game and it was refreshing to see him be this efficient without taking a ton of shots — a good game from Young. His backcourt partner Dejounte Murray was solid once again, scoring 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting but it was his contributions in the fourth quarter that were vital, some very timely buckets from Murray.

Bogdan Bogdanovic scored another 23 points off the bench, including 5-of-11 from three. Not much else to add there, just another good shooting night from Bogdanovic. Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, and Saddiq Bey had relatively quiet games but all had their moments, all scored in double-digits, while Garrison Mathews was also solid off the bench.

The only real hole you could pick in any Hawks player last night (aside from Young’s three =-point shooting and six turnovers) was Bey’s 3-of-12 shooting split but he did add eight rebounds to the cause and scored half of his points in that first quarter, which was obviously a big one for the Hawks.

From the Thunder’s side of things, it was going to be a difficult one for them given the circumstances with a game on Tuesday and late travel, and they gave it a good go, credit to them. On the second night of a back-to-back, down 15 with just under 2:30 to go in the fourth, they had no right to be in with a shout to tie this game and send it to overtime as they almost did. The Hawks will need to improve this aspect of their game in sealing the deal on double-digit leads they hold.

This game was the first of 10 games at State Farm Arena in January and with the Hawks having a better road record than home record, this is an important month to make that right.

“We’ve a lot of home games this month so we’ve got a chance to put a stamp on our home court advantage this month,” said Young.

Last night’s win against a good team is the perfect way to right the wrongs that have occurred so far this season.


Despite the home-heavy schedule to come, the Hawks (14-19) will embark on a brief two-game trip beginning with the ever-entertaining Indiana Pacers (19-14) and a great point guard matchup with Tyrese Haliburton in Indiana.

Should be a blast.

Until next time...