The greatest sign of respect a young team can earn from its opponent is being taken seriously. In a league where so many teams lack the talent or discipline to give elite teams a real fight, simply forcing them to mind the details of the game and sustain their focus for the full 48 minutes can be a victory in itself – regardless of the actual outcome of the game. That dynamic was at play in the Hawks’ 105-103 loss to the 76ers Monday night as the Hawks pushed Philadelphia to the brink. Atlanta played with a maturity beyond its years, and while only so much stock can be put into one regular-season game, the Hawks’ offensive resolve and execution was fairly convincing.
When a team invests so much in the development of young players, it should expect growth to play out slowly. Atlanta is ahead of schedule because of how well-equipped its young players are, offensively, to carry out duties typically reserved for more seasoned ones. Trae Young is more suited to be an offensive focal point than anyone his age has a right to be, and has a cast of teammates tailored to complement him. His first two games forced a recalibration of what should be expected of Young this season; that he posted 25 points and nine assists on what felt like a pedestrian night is evidence of that. “Trying to figure out Trae is always difficult,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “He started the game so well, we needed to find the answer. … We tried to make his life sort of a war of attrition.”
He may have struggled to finish over the length of Joel Embiid or step into open shots with Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons covering him, but Young orchestrated with the confidence and precision of someone who has been there before. He demanded that his defenders fight over the top of ball screens, and when they did, Young often punished them with shrewd (if slightly obnoxious) foul-baiting tactics typical of veteran guards.
“He’s such a crafty player,” said Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle, who spent much of his night chasing Young. “There’s not much you can do. You try to do the best you can and live with the results.” For Thybulle, the results were four personal fouls in 20 minutes while Richardson and Simmons were whistled for four and five, respectively. As a result, Young attempted 10 free throws – an area in which he could take a major step forward this season.
He used over 40 percent of Atlanta’s possessions with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul and assisted on 47 percent of the team’s baskets when he was on the floor. When the Sixers denied him the ball or forced it out of his hands, Young’s teammates stepped up without missing a beat, evenly distributing ancillary scoring to anyone who was able to provide it. “We have multiple guys that we can play through, especially when they’re denying Trae, and this is what’s going to happen,” Lloyd Pierce said.
Among those supportive pieces is De’Andre Hunter, who finished with 14 points on 11 shooting possessions on Monday and may exemplify Atlanta’s surprising steadiness better than anyone. All rookies face a learning curve of some kind, but his seems to be gentler than most. No matter what situation the Hawks put him in, Hunter appears comfortable. He confidently attacked the 76er big men at the rim, buried open 3s, and found Bruno Fernando on a perfectly-timed pocket pass behind Embiid – all while playing stalwart defense on Simmons and Tobias Harris. Hunter may lack the upside of a typical fourth-overall pick – or even his teammate Cam Reddish, who was taken 10 this year – but there’s value in being the sort of player who can solidify a team right away. Fernando, who might already be Atlanta’s best defensive center, fits a similar mold, and while Reddish has struggled on offense, he clearly has the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates.
The Hawks still have much to clean up – mostly on defense. The Sixers shot just 28 percent from the 3-point line Monday night, but much of that can be attributed to simply missing open shots. The Hawks allowed Philly to shoot over 65 percent at the rim and had no real answer for Embiid; had he not been in foul trouble, the center likely would have inflicted even more damage than the 36 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists he had. Offensively, the Hawks’ offense declined precipitously over the final three quarters as Embiid and the Sixers more effectively imposed their size on the game. After scoring 40 points in the opening quarter, the Hawks netted just 63 over the final 36 minutes. They failed to spread Philadelphia out the way they did in the first half, and the ball reversals that yielded open 3s and layups gave way to more stagnant actions that allowed the 76ers to influence Atlanta’s shot quality.
The challenge for the Hawks, then, will be more consistently playing their style, no matter the opponent. Atlanta’s identity is rooted in its ability to play fast and find easy scoring chances early in possessions, and the more often they dictate the conditions of the game the better off they will be. At this point in the team’s evolution, every outing is as much a learning experience as it is a competition, and the Hawks’ progress won’t be measured entirely by their record. “Every game we want to compete, every game we want to play together, every game we want to show that we’re capable of growing,” Pierce said. “And each game we’ve done that, even in this loss. There’s a lot of stuff we should be really proud of, and I think those guys are. The fact that they’re hurt that they lost this game is a testament to what they think of themselves.”
The Hawks have earned the right to believe they can hang with a potential NBA Finalist simply by having done it – and in doing so, they’ve outlined a possible trajectory toward exceeding expectations. This team isn’t yet in Philadelphia’s class, but Atlanta demanded the Sixers’ attention, and in the process may have earned some from the rest of the NBA.