Despite a couple of bright spots early in the first quarter, the Hawks did not set the tone they were looking to defensively. They allowed the Rockets to shoot 6-for-11 from the floor and get out to a 14-8 lead with 6:32 remaining.
Out of the timeout though, the Hawks found a bit more rhythm, when Dejounte Murray picked off Kevin Porter. It led to a jumper from De’Andre Hunter to help send the Hawks on a 14-4 run that would force the Rockets to take a timeout.
The Hawks’ spotty defense allowed them to build a 14-point lead early in the third quarter. But the Rockets, who are a very young and very hungry team, pushed back, outscoring the Hawks 30-25 by the end of the period.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan often said leading into Wednesday’s game that the Hawks wanted to establish a defensive identity early. He mentioned that the Rockets were a good test because of threats from Porter, Jalen Green and several other forces that would be aggressive and attack the rim.
There were plenty of flashes through as the team ended the night with 12 steals and were able to score 28 points off of 16 forced turnovers. Murray had five of the Hawks’ takeaways. McMillan said that the Hawks will typically look to Murray to help the team establish its defense.
But McMillan credited several players for putting pressure on the ball to allow each other to get into the passing lanes, especially those in the second unit.
McMillan, though, put the onus on the starters to get the team off on the right foot.
“But it starts with our first unit, establishing that defense,” McMillan said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of finishing those defensive possessions with rebounding.”
2. Hawks cold from long range
The Hawks ended last season as one of the top two 3-point shooting teams in the league. On Wednesday, things opened a little frosty as the Hawks missed their first eight attempts from long range.
The team proved to be a little too eager to take shots from deep with a couple of its attempts sailing right past the basket. But as they settled into the game, the Hawks began to find the right looks but struggled to sink them.
They finally hit their first shot from long range with 6:15 remaining in the first half.
The Hawks ended the night 7-of-25 (28%) from 3-point distance. The team has had plenty of nights in the past where it shot poorly from 3-point range. But with one game into the season, the Hawks understand that with time they’ll find the right rhythm.
Despite the inefficiency from long range, the Hawks moved the ball as they continued finding ways to exploit the Rockets’ defense. The Hawks had 30 assists, with Murray and Trae Young responsible for a total of 24.
So, McMillan is happy with the way the Hawks allowed the game to come to them when shots from a distance did not work.
“We’ll take two, if that is available,” McMillan said. “If the defense is collapsing, and giving us that two-point ball, we’ll take that. We’re not that so-called analytical team that won’t take a two, search for 50 threes. If that is open in our offensive sets, we certainly would like for our guys to take them. We think we have guys that are capable of taking them but we want to attack the basket first. And I thought our guys really did a really solid job of moving the ball, 30 assists, and taking care of the ball, only nine turnovers.”
3. John Collins provides the right boost
With the addition of Murray to the Hawks lineup, there were a few questions of how John Collins’ skills would factor into things. But with the Rockets looking to double Murray and Young, the team focused on finding the hot hand, which was Collins.
The 25-year-old scored 10 points in the first seven minutes of the second quarter to set the Hawks off on a run that helped them take the lead and build a 14-point cushion. By the end of the action, he led the Hawks in scoring with 24 points and eight rebounds.
4. Murray-Young tandem starts a little shaky but finds a groove
The Hawks have a lot riding on their two guards finding the right synergy. While Wednesday night was far from perfect, it showed some of the potential that the Hawks’ new tandem has.
Murray and Young both scored at least 20 points and had more than 10 assists. Murray scored 20 points, had five rebounds, 11 assists and five steals. While Young added in another 23 points and 13 assists.
While a little cold from three, Young and Murray commanded plenty of respect to open opportunities for Collins, Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu.
Six minutes into the second quarter, Young pushed the ball ahead to Murray, who was way ahead of two Rockets defenders for an easy running layup.
Seconds into the third quarter, Murray drove into the paint and collapsed the Rockets’ defense. With four defenders honed in on Murray, the 26-year-old guard kicked the ball to the corner where Collins was wide open.
Then it was Young, who chucked a pass cross court to Hunter, who quickly set his feet and made the basket from midrange.
While there are still some kinks for the team to workout, Young and Murray helped the Hawks move the ball pretty seamlessly. So, with time the two will be able to play even more freely off of each other.
“Experience playing with each other, practicing with each other, watching film together,” Murray said. “We’re smart players. So I feel like like I said, it’s the first game out of 82, we got a long season. You want to continue to grow, get better, and do it together and I believe we will.”
5. Jabari Smith Jr. makes NBA debut in front of a home crowd
The No. 3 overall pick from Fayetteville got a chance to return home to make his NBA debut. While it may not have been the result he hoped for, Smith ended the night with 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the floor and 3-of-11 shooting from long range.
Fact to know
The Hawks picked up their fourth straight opening-night win.
“I feel like it varies game to game but I want to have a level that I don’t go under or a progression and I’m just trying to figure out the balance of it right now. But I’d rather be a little bit more aggressive.” – John Collins
The Hawks host the Magic on Friday night at State Farm Arena.