Typically, when Trae Young shoots the ball the way he did on Friday night, Atlanta’s offense goes to a dark place. The Hawks were 0-13 entering tonight’s game when Young scored fewer than 24 points, with none of those losses coming by a single-digit margin. He has been the team’s lifeblood all season long, and it has needed him to score at great volume just to put itself within striking distance of victory.
On Friday, however, Atlanta won handily over the Nets despite just 22 points from Young. The Hawks put up an astounding 1.3 points per possession with a balanced scoring effort from their starting lineup, and needed no more than 33 minutes from any player to earn a 141-118 win on the front end of a back-to-back. It was Atlanta’s second-most efficient offensive output of the season and nearly every Hawk who took the floor played above his usual standard.
John Collins led the scoring effort with 33 points and 13 rebounds on 11-of-15 shooting, including 14 points in the first quarter alone. Brooklyn started out conceding open 3-pointers to Collins -- who started at center -- but once the big man hit his first two it forced Brooklyn to adjust its approach. The first time he drew a closeout from Jarrett Allen, he drove past the afroed big man for a layup and earned his team a crucial strategic upper hand. “If John is pulling anyone out it kind of opens everything up,” Pierce said. “We know what he does when he gets behind the defense. It’s a little bit different when he’s pulling everyone up the floor towards him.”
“Definitely a big start when anybody can get started like that,” Collins said. “I feel like it just gives everybody some energy, especially when I’m dunking, running the floor, and playing my game.”
Whether because of Collins or not, that energy translated to his teammates over the next three quarters. Cam Reddish hit six 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 26 points -- 17 in the third period -- and showed no hesitation to attack the basket or fire from beyond the arc. De’Andre Hunter (18 points, 10 rebounds, 6-of-10 shooting) played one of his most complete professional games as Kevin Huerter snapped out of a brief slump with 15 points and three made triples. Every Hawk that came off the bench provided competitive minutes, including Bruno Fernando, who finished with nine points and nine boards.
The Hawks were especially potent in the second quarter, when they outscored Brooklyn 39-26. The space Collins and Young provided opened up the offense, and getting stops on one end of the floor created transition opportunities on the other. All five of the Hawks’ starters are skilled enough to bring the ball up the floor after grabbing defensive rebounds, which allowed Atlanta to push the tempo with its small lineups. Over 40 percent of the Hawks’ live-ball rebounds led to a transition play, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they scored over 1.5 points per transition play overall. “We have five guys on the floor that can shoot the 3,” Hunter said. “On the break that’s tough for any team to guard, so when we have that lineup in and we can run, I feel like we can create easy baskets and push the tempo.”
Young was central in controlling the tempo, and while he didn’t post major scoring numbers, he still played a central offensive role as a distributor and shooting threat. His penchant for stepping into deep 3s off the dribble clearly weighed heavily on Brooklyn’s mind as they pressured Young well beyond the 3-point line, and he used that extra defensive attention to spot 14 assists to his teammates. The Hawks finished with 32 assists as a team, which helped contribute to 19-of-39 shooting from 3-point range and a balanced offensive game. “Tonight we had a different bounce,” Pierce said. “The ball was moving, we had 32 assists. The ball creates energy when it moves like that.”
Friday might have been Young’s best individual defensive game of the season -- he stonewalled Caris LeVert in isolation on multiple occasions -- which allowed the Hawks to remain solid enough on that end for the offense to do its job. The Hawks protected the rim adequately, kept Brooklyn off the foul line and the offensive glass, and weathered 18 Nets 3-pointers. They vacillated between zone and man-to-man defense, and despite a few positioning errors and communication breakdowns, defended well in the fourth quarter to stretch a 10-point lead into a 33-point win.
“It was all about our defense,” Pierce said. “We were doing what we wanted to do and we made mistakes within that, which is alright. If you’re not doing it with effort and you’re not on the same page, that's where you have the issues. I thought we were on the same page pretty much all night and we made a couple efforts within what we were trying to do, and they made some tough shots. But our defense in the third quarter was tremendous, and that was all of our guys.”
The Nets made a competitive game of the first 36 minutes before Atlanta put its foot down in the fourth. Spencer Dinwiddie knifed into the lane for 24 points, 13 assists, and just a single turnover. Joe Harris, Garrett Temple, and Taurean Prince got loose to make 11 combined 3s as Allen and DeAndre Jordan provided 42 minutes of solid play in the middle. In the fourth period, however, Brooklyn scored just 20 points as the Hawks continued to force the issue on both ends.
“We knew we had to get stops to really get a lead and expand on the lead,” Young said. “We knew we were gonna be able to score, we just had to get stops, so that’s what happened.”
This was the type of response Atlanta needed after three previous losses to the Nets and a disappointing start to its homestand on Wednesday. Saturday night, they will try to replicate it on the tail end of a back-to-back -- a situation in which the Hawks have struggled this year. They have now shown the capacity to win without an explosive game from Young; the challenge is finding that balance more consistently and building on it as they move forward.
“Everybody contributed at a really high level from start to finish,” Pierce said. “Tonight was a good example of all our guys trending in the right direction and to put together that type of win was really encouraging to see.”