Collins & Young Stand Out In Loss to Cavs

Ben Ladner

Despite strong efforts from each of their four best players and a furious comeback attempt down the stretch, the Hawks fell just short to the Cavaliers Monday night, 121-118. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and John Collins each scored at least 19 points on solid efficiency, but Atlanta’s inability to contain the energetic Cavs on defense cost it the game. Cleveland posted an effective field goal percentage of 57.8 and rebounded 25.5 percent of their own misses. Both figures declined as the game wore on, but a poor start to the game on defense was too much for the resurgent Hawks to overcome.

Here’s what stood out from the loss:

Collins unlocks new options for the Hawks

In his first game back from a 25-game suspension, Collins didn’t take long to rediscover the offensive verve he showed in five games at the start of the year. He finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks without a turnover. The Hawks seemed to be making a point of involving Collins early, tossing him lobs and funneling him the ball at the top of the key, and he repaid them with a 12-of-20 shooting line.

What stood out most about his performance was how much easier Collins makes the game for his teammates. He didn’t have an assist, but the threat of him scoring at the rim or from the perimeter bent Cleveland’s defense so that other Hawks could attack the weak points. There’s a versatility to Collins’ game that no other Hawk has, which allows the team to deploy him in myriad capacities and contexts.

He looked equally comfortable at power forward and center, and played the latter position for much of the second half after Alex Len and Bruno Fernando left the game with injuries. He also served a host of functions within the offense that allowed players like Hunter and Jabari Parker to play more comfortable roles. It was encouraging to see Collins make a pair of 3-pointers, but the fact that he took five might be an even more positive sign. He’s the lone Hawk who can credibly space the floor and pressure the rim, and the range of options that gave Lloyd Pierce gave Atlanta’s offense a different feel.

When Len or Damian Jones rolled toward the rim, Collins afforded Young another option when Cleveland’s defense sunk down to prevent the lob:

He’s even more capable finishing at the rim:

Once the Hawks established Collins as a scoring threat, the mere act of rolling hard to the basket created open shots for others:

On two consecutive possessions in the first quarter, Atlanta ran a nifty action that included all four of Young, Huerter, Hunter, and Collins, which yielded an open corner 3 for Hunter and a routine pull-up for Young:

Consider all the different options the defense must consider on that play. Young’s man navigates two ball screens while the men guarding Huerter and Collins decide how much to commit to one of the NBA’s preeminent pull-up shooters. Bottle up Young, and he’ll toss a lob to Collins. Sink in to tag Collins, and Young slings a pass to Huerter. Meanwhile, Hunter loops through to the right corner to keep the help-side defense occupied.

That quartet has now played nine minutes together this season and looked good offensively on Monday. Young is the head of Atlanta’s attack, but it’s Collins who unlocks its full spectrum of possibilities. The Hawks will learn just how wide it spans as that group spends more time together.

Trae Young’s defense remains a problem

With five minutes and 45 seconds to play, Pierce inserted DeAndre’ Bembry into the game for Young and kept his star point guard on the bench for the next three minutes. When asked about the decision after the game, Pierce said that the Hawks needed to get stops. Bembry clearly gives them a better chance of doing that.

The decision to keep a catalyst like Young on the bench can be debated. Would the offensive gain of having him on the floor outweigh the defensive cost? Should Young have rested earlier in the quarter rather than during a crucial, late stretch? Perhaps. But Pierce’s veiled assessment of his star’s defense was absolutely correct. Young had one of his worst defensive games of the season on Monday, which was both causal in and representative of Atlanta’s performance as a team.

The Hawks allowed 1.4 points per possession in the first quarter, and while the Cavs finished the game scoring under 1.1 points per trip, that was due almost as much to their own self-destruction as any defensive breakthrough Atlanta achieved. Young was the most glaring weak link on the floor as he struggled to stay in front of Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, and most any Cavalier that went at him. He made little effort to slide his feet or get over screens, nor did he show much fight the few times he found himself switched onto larger players down low. Young is one of the least physical defenders in the NBA, and it shows on easy blow-bys like this one:

That is not a competitive attempt at preventing the opponent from scoring. Both Young and Pierce have stressed the importance of the point guard committing more on the defensive end this season, but the last few weeks have brought a noticeable decline in effort and engagement for Young. Even when he moves his feet and stays in front of his man, he offers so little resistance with his chest or forearms that ball-handlers can simply go through him.

To his credit, Young had a game-high four steals and moments of heightened activity that helped cover for some of his weaknesses. But he didn’t mask nearly enough of them in this game. Young will never be a great defender, and may even stop short of average. Playing hard, communicating, and being active away from the ball can mitigate some of his deficiencies. The Hawks can live with that so long as Young isn’t one of the dozen worst defensive players in the NBA. But right now he sits below that threshold, and no matter the offensive lift he provides, Atlanta won’t make meaningful progress without more defensive investment from its best player.