Hunter Out, Huerter In As Hawks Take On Nets

Ben Ladner

The injury-riddled Hawks will get a key piece of their rotation back on Wednesday, but lose another in the process. Kevin Huerter, who missed the team’s last 11 games with a strained left rotator cuff, will play against the Nets Wednesday night, but De’Andre Hunter will miss the game with a dislocated right index finger he suffered at the end of Atlanta’s win over the Warriors on Monday.

More notes from Wednesday afternoon:

Hunter Out, Huerter In

After not participating in practice on Tuesday, Hunter still felt soreness in his finger at Wednesday’s shootaround. He did participate in conditioning drills with John Collins after practice, but the Hawks are taking a cautious approach with their rookie.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Lloyd Pierce hadn’t settled on what his starting lineup would look like. Huerter said he expects to play 15 to 20 minutes in his first game back, though it’s yet unclear whether he’ll do that off the bench or with the starting five. The Hawks are thin on wings with Hunter and Allen Crabbe unavailable, which could put Cam Reddish or DeAndre’ Bembry back in the starting five, and Pierce may need Huerter to push the upper bound of his minutes limit. “I’ll fight for 20,” Huerter said, “but we’ll see what happens.”

The recovery process over the last three weeks was immensely frustrating for Huerter, who was limited to sprints, defensive slides, and other conditioning drills while his shoulder healed. He had just gotten into a rhythm after lingering knee troubles limited him early in the season, and was forced to watch a 10-game losing streak unfold from the bench.

“[It was] unbelievably frustrating, to be completely honest,” Huerter said. “I get back and I’m playing well, and something else happens. So it has been, the last month, especially how the rest of the team has gone, it’s definitely been a frustrating month not just for me but for everybody.”

Huerter will be a welcome addition for a team in dire need of shooting and playmaking. The Hawks have shoveled an incredible amount of offensive responsibility onto Trae Young’s plate, which has resulted in some special performances, but also risks wearing out the point guard. Huerter’s ability to space the floor and set up teammates should take some strain off of Young and make things easier for Atlanta’s other role players.

“Kevin can get Trae shots,” Pierce said. “I think that’s a skill you talk about with Kevin that’s a little underrated. He can create shots for other guys, he can take some of the pressure off of Trae’s playmaking ability, but then we can also get Kevin some shots.”

“Just being a guy who can simply make shots,” Huerter said of how he hopes to lift the team. “I think guys can shoot better than how they’re shooting, but I think it’s a lot easier for [Trae] if defenses are worried about other guys making shots and spacing the floor and allowing him to get in the lane and make plays. He doesn’t need too much help, but if I can another guy who can make shots it’ll be a little bit easier for him.”

The desired results may not come right away. Huerter will need time to regain his rhythm and conditioning against NBA competition. The same knee soreness that held him back earlier in the year hasn’t full gone away, and he still doesn’t quite have an ideal range of motion or comfort level in his shoulder. But simply having a reliable passer, shooter, and ball-handler back in the lineup should provide a meaningful lift to Atlanta’s 29-ranked offense, and it puts the Hawks a step closer to full strength.

“It’s not all the way back to what it was, but we’ll still work towards that,” he said. “But it’s at a point where it’s not that I’m at a huge risk to injure it again, and that was the biggest thing for me coming back.”

Previewing the Nets

Though Brooklyn made two enormous free-agent acquisitions over the summer, the squad coming into Atlanta on Wednesday will be fairly familiar to the Hawks. Both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are out with injuries, and it will instead be Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and company leading the Nets’ attack.

“I know they got Kyrie and KD in free agency, but this is the same Brooklyn team that we’ve seen in the past because neither of those guys have been playing.”

The Hawks, then, should have a good idea of what to expect from their opponent both offensively and defensively. Pierce highlighted Dinwiddie’s ability to carve defenses up in the pick-and-roll with shooters like Harris and Taurean Prince around him and Jarrett Allen rolling downhill toward the rim. The Nets run the fifth-most pick-and-rolls in the league, and while Dinwiddie isn’t the threat Irving is, he’s still capable of keeping a defense on its heels.

“He’s not James Harden, but he’s pretty effective and pretty efficient attacking the body, getting to the free-throw line, and making it really hard to contain,” Pierce said. “You’ve got to get your hands back and get your hands out.”

On defense, the Nets play a perhaps the most drastic iteration of drop pick-and-roll coverage in the NBA. Allen seldom strays from the paint, even to challenge stretchy centers. Against the likes of Damian Jones and Alex Len, he’ll likely camp in the paint all game to take away lobs and layups. For Young, that makes Wednesday what Pierce called a “bait game.”

“They play deep centerfield with their bigs and they want you to come off and shoot floaters all game,” Pierce said. “You can shoot them all game, but is that the one you want or is that the one they want? So you can’t fall for the bait. We’re going to take them, but we also have to get the ones we want. So sometimes it’s just taking it down a little further, now that big has a different decision to make: ‘He’s at the rim, I have to step up.’ That’s when you drop it off to Bruno [Fernando] or Jabari [Parker] or whoever behind the defense.”

Young is shooting a healthy 54 percent on floaters this season, per NBA.com, which could make Allen and the Nets more wary of conceding that shot. Still, Pierce wants to move Brooklyn’s defense as much as possible in order to create better shots and empower players like Huerter, Jones, and Len. “You can’t fall for the bait just because it’s a shot,” he said. “Even if you make two or three, you’ve probably got everything opening up now.” 

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