Hawks at Spurs Game Preview

Ben Ladner

Games, seasons, and even careers in the NBA can often hinge on single moments – inflection points that represent some change in direction or identity. For the Spurs, that moment came on December 23, when LaMarcus Aldridge scored 40 points and attempted five 3-pointers in a 30-point win over the Grizzlies. For most players, that kind of night would stand out only for its raw scoring volume, and we’d all move on. For Aldridge, it represented a massive step outside his comfort zone. The big man had attempted only 44 3-pointers to that point in the season; in the 11 games since then, he has taken 56 and shot 53.6 percent, and only the Utah Jazz have posted a more efficient offense than San Antonio.

Game Time: Friday, January 17, 2020, 8:30 p.m. ET

Location: AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX

TV: FOX Sports Southeast, FOX Sports Southwest

Streaming: NBA League Pass, FOX Sports Go

It’s rare for a team to fundamentally change the way it plays midway through a season, but something had to give for the Spurs, who were 11-17 with a minus-3.4 net rating prior to their recent mini-revolution. Since then, they are 6-5 with a plus-5.8 net rating – the sixth-best mark in the league over that time. Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan’s outright refusal to shoot 3s cramped San Antonio’s floor spacing, and the team doesn’t have the kind of defense that can make up for those deficiencies. Aldridge’s willingness to step beyond the arc and his efficacy as a 3-point shooter has not only given the Spurs the benefit of an additional point on those shots, but opened up the floor for teammates as well. DeRozan, currently in the midst of an unsustainable hot streak, has played so well in his last 11 games in part due to the extra breathing room he now has with the ball in his hands. Aldridge is scoring more effortlessly, and San Antonio’s has finally moved into the modern NBA.

That makes the Spurs a decidedly different opponent than the team the Hawks defeated in early November. Aldridge was in the middle of a rut and Gregg Popovich had yet to figure out how to balance a strange rotation. Atlanta, meanwhile, played one of its best games of the year in a 100-108 win, outscoring the Spurs by 16 points in the final quarter. Atlanta will play with a different set of considerations this time around. The Spurs remain thin on shooting in the starting lineup – only Aldridge and Bryn Forbes are true threats to burn opponents – but the value of something like floor spacing increases exponentially with each additional shooter. The Hawks will likely start small, with John Collins at center, which could pull their only rim protector away from the basket, leaving room for DeRozan and Dejounte Murray to barrel downhill.

Collins, who was serving the first game of a suspension the first time these teams played, will stretch Aldridge away from the basket (though the impact won’t matter quite as much given Aldridge’s inability to protect the rim in the first place) and use his speed and skill to create advantages on the perimeter. Perhaps the most important matchup to watch, however, will be in the backcourt, where Murray will get a second chance at guarding Trae Young. The lanky 23-year-old struggled in his first outing against Atlanta’s point guard, picking up five fouls in just 19 minutes while being effectively neutralized on offense. But Murray is among the NBA’s elite perimeter defenders, and his length and quickness will present challenges Young has seen before but will have to reckon with all the same.

On the other end, it’s likely that Young guards Forbes, who has less juice than Murray with the ball in his hands but constantly speeds around screens and launches quick 3-pointers. Kevin Huerter will likely guard Murray while Cam Reddish checks DeRozan. Offensive woes aside, Reddish has been Atlanta’s best defender this season, and DeRozan will test his discipline and reaction time like few players can. The actual value of DeRozan’s game can be debated, but he is undoubtedly one of the craftiest and most skilled individual scorers in the league. He baits inexperienced defenders into reaching for the ball, fools his man into lurching out of position, and creates space with innumerable moves and counters.

In some ways, the gameplan against San Antonio is to simply make DeRozan play his game. He doesn’t settle for midrange jumpers so much as he actively seeks them, and smart opponents leverage that inefficient appetite against him while taking away the rim and making the jumpers he attempts as difficult as possible. Reddish has shown a proclivity for doing exactly that, though if Collins sticks to Aldridge on beyond the arc, it could make Reddish’s job more difficult without help behind him.

Beyond its starters, Atlanta will be extremely thin Friday night. Alex Len didn’t travel with the team to San Antonio due to a back injury and the fact that the Hawks play again in Atlanta on Saturday, and Jabari Parker remains out. Allen Crabbe is now a Timberwolf, but Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham won’t join the team until Saturday at the earliest. Bruno Fernando is active but hasn’t played since January 6. Paul Watson is gone. That functionally leaves the Hawks with just nine players (Evan Turner and Chandler Parsons have virtually fallen off the map lately). Perhaps that prompts them to save some of their bullets for the second night of this brutal back-to-back against an inferior Detroit team, though it’s difficult for coaches and players to actually show that kind of restraint once the game begins.