For a few moments, it was possible to forget that these teams were in the lottery in June and figure to be again next year. The Hawks and the Mavericks, who together lost 116 games last season, were playing a fairly fascinating game, and the home, working for the first time in its refurbished/renamed arena, was giving an actual crowd actual reason to cheer.
Down 26 points after a first 15 minutes that ranked with the worst 15 minutes any Hawks team ever has endured (which is saying something), the occupants of State Farm Arena steadied by halftime, drew near in the third quarter and pulled away at the end. And one moment – Trae Young’s tricky dribble and duck-into-the-lane basket to put the Hawks ahead 101-100 – will feature heavily in this season’s highlight film.
It was only the rookie’s third – and last – basket of a night that began horribly for him. He would finish with 17 fewer points and six fewer assists than he managed in Cleveland on Sunday, but he stuck with it. He stopped committing offensive fouls and throwing the ball away, and he made bigger plays at the end than Luka Doncic, the Dallas newbie for whom Young had been traded on draft night.
Of Young’s 17 points, 12 came in the fourth quarter. Of Doncic’s 21, four did. The latter was impressive early, and he figures to be very good for a very long time. So does Young. We’ll be debating who’s better for … oh, maybe the next decade. But it’s at least a Talking Point for the rebuilding Hawks, about whom nobody has had much to say since they were swept by LeBron in the Eastern Conference finals in May 2015.
Said Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce: “It was a great opportunity to talk about State Farm Arena and what everybody in here was able to experience tonight.”
It was a good night, yes. There mightn’t be – sorry to rain on anyone’s parade – many more good nights over these next 78 games. These Hawks weren’t built to win now, or even next season. There mightn’t be many more nights when Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince combine for 56 points, or DeAndre Bembry, a backup guard, takes 16 rebounds. But hey, it happened this once.
“Growth and development are the words you’re going to hear from me,” Pierce said, and this was a kind of growth. They played before an announced sellout, though the place wasn’t quite full, and they spotted another NBA team 26 points and won 111-104.
Said Young: “I really wanted tonight to win for me, this team and this city.”
Said Pierce: “Good night to open the arena with a little drama and suspense. What a night that was.”
Will there be much carryover? Well, the Hawks are starting Vince Carter, who entered the NBA in 1998, which was, you know, last century. Apart from Bazemore, there’s really nobody on this roster in his prime. There are young guys – this is Prince’s third season – and retreads. You don’t tank by signing a team of All-Stars.
Drafting Young, however, was the first step in climbing out of the tank. It’s simplistic to say that the Hawks envision him as their Stephen Curry, but they absolutely do. But they’ll need at least two more drafts to bring them near .500, and there will be many nights over the next few seasons that make us forget the time they yielded 51 points to Dallas in the first 15 minutes and 53 over the next 33.
What changed Wednesday? “Just personal pride on the defensive end,” Pierce said. “They knew Dallas was getting whatever it wanted.”
In the end, Hawks fans got, for the first time in a while, what they wanted. Their team won. Their new star came through when it mattered. Their new building felt like a real home court. These Hawks might well lose 60 games before they’re through, but Wednesday’s won’t be among them.
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