Coming into the 2020-2021 NBA season, depth was the thing that was supposed to make the biggest difference for the Atlanta Hawks in the standings as compared to the last couple of seasons. There was a general talent upgrade, by way of the additions of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and others, that was expected to be of benefit, especially as it relates to the workload of Trae Young.
From there, historically reliable veteran contributors — in the form of Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell — were viewed as meaningful additions such that Atlanta could be at least two deep at every position on the depth chart. However, injuries have largely robbed the Hawks of the depth advantage that was supposed to help make a difference in this season, especially when considering the condensed schedule.
They’ve still yet to have a game where they could roll out their best rotation but, on Saturday night, the Hawks were able to put a meaningful collective effort to use to outlast the visiting Toronto Raptors in a 132-121 victory.
The win salvages what would have otherwise been an 0-4 week despite being very competitive in each game except for the one Trae Young missed, which also happened to be on the second night of back-to-back games.
They played each of the four games this week without their second year standout, De’Andre Hunter, and they continue to miss the services of Bogdanovic. So better days could still be ahead for the team greatly hoping to participate in the playoffs this season.
In this contest, a ten-man rotation was enough to get a win over a savvy, experienced Raptors team that just kept working their way back into the game. Atlanta used their best shooting performance of the season, as well as a resolved interior defense, to keep Toronto at arms length until they took full control in the final minutes.
“I thought that was our best win this year in terms of efficiency, shooting, moving, playing together,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said about the victory. “I thought our defensive intensity was really good. It was good to see the spirit. They scored well in the first half after makes. There were obviously some letdowns that you’re concerned about. But I thought the spirit of our guys was really tremendous. And for me that was really encouraging to see.”
There were a couple of things the Raptors tried to do from a tactics perspective as to control the game. They worked to force the Hawks secondary playmakers, meaning guys other than Young, to initiate the offense.
Additionally, they tried to throw offensive actions and lineup rotations at Atlanta that might force them to take Clint Capela, their starting center, off the floor. This is something the Hawks have been seeing more of from opponents as of recent and it speaks to the impact Capela is having, especially on the defensive end of the court.
“We knew they were going to throw a lot of looks at use defensively,” Pierce commented about the Toronto defense. “I thought Trae set the stage for us early. John (Collins) hits two threes versus kind of a blitz, kind of a hit. And that simple play mentality to start the game out, obviously it gets John engaged, it gets Trae some easy looks. So, they’ve got to soften up some of their coverages.”
“And so it empowered other guys and I thought we felt that all night,” he added.
Unlike how things looked on Wednesday evening versus the Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta seemed ready for the pressure the Raptors threw at Young as soon as the Hawks went to the high pick and roll:
They simply spaced Collins on the opposite side of the trap and set him up, as a 41% shooter from the three point line, for the perimeter shot.
The very next possession almost looked like an instant replay:
Across the game, it ended up being about much more than simple lateral passes that led to the open three point looks. Atlanta generated 31 assists on 42 made field goal attempts. Young managed an impressive 13 of them but that left a lot of other play making to be handled.
Collins and Danilo Gallinari, who collectively manned the power forward position the entire game, each had four assists, as did Kevin Huerter, who started as Young’s backcourt mate.
“I talked about the spirit and the reason why this was such a good game for us was the spirit was great,” Pierce said about how his team generated 132 points in the game. “Thirty-one assists is how you get great spirit. Ball movement, empowerment, guys feeling like they were part of every play. We made simple plays throughout the night. That’s why you get good spirit when you’re out there.”
“The ball was moving. Shots were going down,” said Young about the offensive performance. “I think when shots go down… it kind of just carries over to the whole game.”
Atlanta had six players that scored at least ten points in the contest and that included all five starters. It’s a rare occasion when a team produces 132 points and no single player takes more than 15 field goal attempts. They had seven different players attempt at least four shots from beyond the arc.
The Raptors seemed to want to test the Hawks ability to initiate shots as a team as opposed to relying primarily on their best player and, in this game, they passed the test with room to spare.
It has to be encouraging, if not relieving to a degree, to post an offensive performance like this at the end of such a challenging week. On Monday, their first game adjusting to the absence of Hunter, the top defense in the league, the Los Angeles Lakers, held them to 99 points. On Thursday, the fourth-best defense in the league held them to 91 points. Of course, they were playing without their star point guard.
Atlanta had substantial offensive outings against the teams they faced this week that are more of the league average (or worse) variety defensively. And that has to help with the confidence.
On the other end of the court, Capela continues to play at an all-defense level. A couple of famous defensive anchors in the league will have some say about whether he gets recognized as such, but the season Capela is having is on that level. From there, opposing teams are starting to take him very seriously, even to the point, it seems, that specific game planning is done as to try to get him off of the court.
In this game, reserve Toronto center Chris Boucher played a career high 32 minutes. He’s emerging as one of the best young stretch centers while shooting it 42% from the three-point line. And he wasn’t hanging out in the corner like some bigs do.
In many cases, he would just stop at the arc and wait for a kick out after a teammate collapsed the Atlanta defense:
Bocuher isn’t the strongest interior defender. So it seemed a calculation by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse that he may be able to get the Hawks elite interior defender to the bench if Boucher couldn’t be accounted for on the perimeter.
Collins mirrored Boucher’s 12 minutes of play in the fourth quarter which offered Atlanta some flexibility about how to deal with him as a shooting threat.
With eight points in the final quarter, all on put-backs, Boucher became a problem on the offensive glass, but Pierce never relented. Capela anchored the defense to close the game in it helped to stabilize the Hawks defense even at moments when it seemed as if Toronto was just about to mount a run to steal the lead.
It was a game of statistical anomalies in a sense. Despite Capela’s presence and good work the Raptors took 23 more field goal attempts than the Hawks, thanks to having ten more offensive rebounds and 12 fewer turnovers.
Toronto was +16 on field goal attempts generated in the paint. Thanks to the effort on the part of the Atlanta defenders at the rim the Raptors shot just 23 of 49 on shots in the lane.
The Hawks, in their current form, aren’t impressively deep with point of attack defenders and the Raptors put them to the test with drives from Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet. It took a team effort to generate resistance near the rim and the home team was able to force enough misses. Toronto had 17 field goal attempts in the paint in the fourth quarter and converted just seven of them.
On the other end of the court, Atlanta was producing desirable shots with impressive consistency, especially late in the game. They posted 66 points after halftime despite 12 turnovers and just one offensive rebound. They did this by shooting 9 of 14 on two point attempts and nine for 16 on three point attempts. As a bonus, they were a perfect 21 of 21 from the free throw line.
After riding a second unit reliably in the first half, Pierce leaned heavily on his starters in the final two periods. Gallinari and Tony Snell were the only reserves to play more than five minutes after the break.
Snell was specifically relied upon as an on-ball defender. In contrast, Toronto worked to attack Gallinari’s defense, but he efforted to give as much back on the offensive end of the court.
In the end, Atlanta rode an absurdly efficient shooting performance to a much needed win. They now sit with an 11-12 record on the season in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
In the stat sheet, Young had 28 points to go along with his 13 assists. He hit two of his four perimeter attempts and all of his fourteen attempts at the free throw line.
Capela had 23 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots on efficiency he’s recently struggled to find. He made 10 of 13 shots from the field and converted three of five attempts at the charity stripe.
Collins and Kevin Huerter each managed 19 points in addition to their four assists each. Collectively, they needed just 23 shooting possessions to generate 38 total points. Cam Reddish had a mostly quiet 10 points and five rebounds but played mostly error-free basketball, which helped.
From the bench, Gallinari made timely, important shots on his way to 14 points. Solomon Hill and Tony Snell helped keep the offense on track in the first half and ended up with eight and six points respectively.
Boucher led all Raptors scorers with 29 points on just 19 shooting possessions. He had 10 rebounds and two blocks. VanVleet had 25 points and 10 assists but struggled to shoot the ball apart from a few early minutes un the fourth quarter that he was not able to sustain.
Norman Powell was aggressive in his work en route to a 20-point performance. Pascal Siakam seemed invisible for stretches of the game but still managed 15 points, six rebounds and three steals.
The Raptors fought hard, as is their reputation, and kept recalibrating their attack until they just ran out of time. Atlanta simply deployed more shot makers in the game and that ended up being the difference.
Let’s take a look at more of the action on film.
Early in the game, VanVleet worked to put Young into the pick and roll:
They are not the first team to look to make Young work hard on defense in hopes of affecting his workload on offense.
Despite the success Atlanta had using Collins to space the floor as a shot maker in the first quarter, they still wanted to get Young going offensively. Here, they use a double drag set up to get the point guard to a second screen:
In encouraging fashion, Collins is able to make a drop of pass to Capela who gets the dunk.
If this form of interior passing can become a regular item, it could provide a lift to the offensive ceiling of lineups that feature both of the Hawks starting bigs.
Toronto was aggressively pushing the pace early in the game, even after Hawks makes:
Siakam uses his length and athleticism in the open court to generate the easy points.
They were equally aggressive after misses:
Powell gets the bucket and the bonus free throw attempt.
With Hunter out, Collins is getting prioritized a bit more especially when he draws a mismatch as he does here:
Young still get criticized for not working off of the ball on offense, but here this is an example of where he contributes by just being physical with his defender in the middle of the offensive half court. It opens a path for a cut to the rim by Reddish and Collins dimes him up.
Here is a look at some of the ball movement Pierce was talking about:
Gallinari makes the extra pass which sets up Hill for the three-point make.
Toronto would use a zone to largely scrap the Hawks designed play to start the second quarter, but Gallinari would use his passing acumen to create a shot at the rim for rookie Onyeka Okongwu:
The result is an and-one opportunity.
This possession offers a glimpse of what Atlanta had hoped to put to use this season with their roster design. Five veterans are on the floor. Four of them are reserves.
Look at the ball movement and the flow of off-ball activity by the players:
Hill benefits from his own work and ends up with an open look from the three-point line.
More great work by the veteran lineup:
Even though Toronto gets five players back, Rondo attacks the paint and Gallinari works to the corner which open up a trail three for Snell.
Toward the latter part of the second quarter, the offensive chemistry really becomes visible. On this possession, the action (more double drag, even if it’s really spread out) causes the Raptors to really have to pull in from the weak side to help on Young and Capela:
Collins seals DeAndre’ Bembry on the back side of the play to create the open shot for Reddish.
Toronto goes to a set that is starting to become popular across the league:
They put Boucher on the perimeter as to get Capela out of the paint. Then they plant Bembry at “the nail.” He doesn’t function as a screener, but he puts Young, the Hawks smallest defender, into the interior of the defense which keeps Atlanta’s bigger wings on the exterior.
Collins is able to coax a miss from Siakam. But keep an eye on this as others teams likely show some interest attacking Young in this way going forward.
Coming out of the half Atlanta makes a major defensive adjustment by putting Capela on Siakam:
This worked well, in part because Toronto kept parking Siakam in the weak side corner. This allowed Capela to function as the weak side rim helper which was valuable considering how much the Hawks were struggling to contain the ball, at times, at the point of attack.
Atlanta was often forcing switches and mismatches in the second half:
Boucher ends up matched up on the perimeter and Gallinari gets Powell in the post who creates room for a comfortable shot.
When your best offensive player is working hard on defense, it makes a difference:
This was likely Young’s best defensive game of the season.
When the Raptors started doubling the post on plays in which the Hawks would attack the mismatch, Atlanta would use simply spacing and ball movement to create great looks:
Huerter knocks down a squared up three.
VanVleet looks to attack Gallinari while Capela is off the court. Notice Bembry at the nail again:
For a few minutes, it looked like VanVleet might put his team on his back and get them well back into the game.
What a weapon Gallinari is on the offensive end:
Notice how hard the Raptors work to cover all of this action and, in the end, Gallinari just shoots over the top of them for three.
What’s an opposing team supposed to do when Collins has a mismatch in the post and Gallinari gets the switch onto a guard on the perimeter?:
It just makes everything easier for the offense.
And the shots start coming effortlessly:
That’s really nice improvised action by Snell and Huerter to create the easy three.
And the Hawks really start to lock their defense in:
How many of us imagined Young and Collins keying a defensive possession like this in a critical part of an important game at any point this season?
With the Hawks threatening to pull away (and with Capela still in the weak side corner), VanVleet is not quite as interested in attacking the paint on this possession:
But he sets up the three-point look and knocks it down to keep the game in reach.
This picks up a bit late in the shot clock, but it captures an important dynamic:
From there, Atlanta basically stayed in control on both ends of the court and got the hard-fought win.
The Hawks don’t suit up again until Wednesday when they play the Mavericks in Dallas for their only national broadcast game in the first half of the season. ESPN will carry the game, which will tip off at 7:30 pm ET.