Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter finding a groove in return to lineup

Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) shoots one from the field on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 during a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Jason Allen for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jason Allen

Credit: Jason Allen

Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) shoots one from the field on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 during a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. (Jason Allen for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The Hawks made no secret that they missed De’Andre Hunter during his 19-game absence last month. So, having him back in three of the past four games has given them a boost.

In his third game back, Hunter attacked the rim, knocked shots down from deep and went toe-to-toe with six-time All-Star Kawhi Leonard.

Hunter played only 19 minutes in Monday night’s game because the Hawks’ training staff still has him under a minutes restriction, but he gave the team plenty. He scored 27 points, 25 of which came in 15 minutes of play. He made all but two of his 12 overall attempts from the floor. He knocked down three 3-point shots.

“This probably was the most tired I was, this game,” Hunter said after the Hawks’ 149-144 loss to the Clippers on Monday. “But my shot was feeling good. My teammates were finding me in good positions, and I just made the shots.”

He checked in off the bench early in the first quarter and immediately added size to the team on the floor. On top of that, he provided consistent communication, helping to organize things and pointing to gaps in some of the team’s defensive possessions.

With Hunter back in the fold, that allowed the Hawks to employ zone defense, which allowed him and guard Dejounte Murray to play a little more freely. The Hawks have high confidence in their ability to handle switches, and the move allowed the Hawks to get the Clippers off-balance and cut into what was a 12-point Clippers lead early in the game.

On top of that, Hunter attacked his one-on-one possessions against Leonard, pushing him further out from his sweet spot, 10-14 feet away from the basket.

His continued awareness also paid off for the Hawks, as Clippers guard James Harden probed the Hawks defense in an attempt to poke holes.

With 4:47 to play, Harden called for a screen on Hawks forward Saddiq Bey, who picked him up at half-court. It pulled Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu from the rim, but Hunter, Murray and Bogdan Bogdanovic kept it covered as Okongwu went to help Bey.

As Onkongwu dropped back, with Clippers center Mason Plumlee looking to roll, Bey remained on Harden’s heels. Eventually, Harden pulled up, luring Bey into isolation, but Hunter remained close by, ready to help.

Harden kept probing, but Bey did not give up anything, and the Clippers guard called Plumlee for a second screen. It pulled Okongwu away from the rim, yet again and allowed Plumlee enough time to recover to the basket to tap Harden’s missed 3 to the top of the key.

In that time, Leonard swung to the weak side, and it opened the possibility for Harden to flip a pass either to him in the corner or to Plumlee for a quick layup.

Hunter quickly realized that Leonard was wide open and tried to communicate that to his teammates while attacking the closeout. He put on the brakes to avoid fouling Leonard as the Clippers forward released the shot. It hit the front of the rim, Hunter grabbed the long rebound before Leonard tripped him as he moved to get out in transition.

“(I) just try to play hard. Like I said I have to guard All-Stars and superstars and guys like that, but just trying to make it as tough for them as possible,” Hunter said. “Just trying to be that spark for the team on the defensive end when we need it.”

Hawks coach Quin Snyder often has praised Hunter for his defensive skill set, habits, as well as his instincts and how impactful they are for the team.

But Snyder had plenty of praise for Hunter on the offensive end.

He looked strong and comfortable as he provided the Hawks with an energy spark off the bench. His first shot of the night came on a corner 3 after Bogdanovic swung the ball to him. He let it rip with little hesitation.

But he didn’t provide the Hawks with only jumpers. He pulled down seven rebounds, two of which came off of offensive rebounds. With 1:40 to play, he sprinted in from the wing and grabbed an offensive rebound as Leonard and Clippers center Daniel Theis boxed out Hawks big man Bruno Fernando.

Hunter scored the putback layup for his eighth points of the night.

“It’s good to have him,” Snyder said Monday. “Even if it’s not as much as we’d like, right now. The most important thing is he’s back playing. As I’ve said before the game, we can ease him back, if that’s the right word. He didn’t look like he was easing in anything tonight, which is really important.

“He’s not saving himself, and I just think when he’s aggressive offensively early, shooting the ball, it opens a lot of other things up for him, and he’s able to attack the rim. He can a few really important mid-range jump shots as well which he can do.”

When Hunter initially returned to the lineup Jan. 30 against the Lakers, the team would cap his minutes in the high teens. The team has not said what the subsequent caps will be, but his teammates are glad to have him back.

“Dre was really good,” Hawks guard Trae Young said Monday. “He was aggressive. ... It was good to see him get some shots to go down and be aggressive. And I know as we continue to play, minutes will go up, and that’ll help us with the guys out there because he’s one of, if not our best defender on our team. So not having him these past 18 or something games, it was tough. But now having him back, he can help us.”