Hawks’ internal development paid off in furious comeback victory Monday

Atlanta Hawks guard Vit Krejci (27) dunks during the second half against the Boston Celtics at State Farm Arena, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 120-118. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta Hawks guard Vit Krejci (27) dunks during the second half against the Boston Celtics at State Farm Arena, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 120-118. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

When the Hawks began this season, they placed internal development near the top of their list of priorities. Over the team’s past two games, some of their young reserves received some positive reinforcement for their hard work.

And here’s what positive reinforcement looks like – helping to spark the largest comeback win in the NBA in the past 26 years, and the largest margin of victory for the team this season.

On Monday, the Hawks became the first team since the 1997-98 season to overcome a 30-point deficit in their 120-118 stunning home victory over the Celtics. And that came two nights after their 41-point (132-91) victory over the Hornets.

What’s even more notable about those wins? Vit Krejci and Bruno Fernando have played huge roles for the team and are two examples of how internal development has paid off in a big way.

Krejci and Fernando have emerged as the team has dealt with one of its worst stretches of injuries this season. Key rotational players in Trae Young (left fifth-finger torn ligament), Jalen Johnson (right ankle sprain), Onyeka Okongwu (left big toe sprain) and Saddiq Bey (left knee torn ACL) all are out.

On top of that, the Hawks have dealt with injuries to some of their recent top picks in Kobe Bufkin (left big toe sprain), AJ Griffin (right ankle sprain) and Mouhamed Gueye (right UCL sprain).

They had only 10 players available in both matchups and leaned on six players who were not expected to have extended minutes when the season began.

“I mean, it’s a next-man mentality,” Hawks wing Vit Krejci said after Monday’s win over the Celtics. “We got a couple guys out. But we still believe that with the roster we have, right now, we can compete with anybody. And I feel like that’s where the confidence comes from.”

But that confidence also comes as he continues to improve with his increase in minutes in the team’s rotation this season.

Krejci didn’t start this season with the Hawks after they did not guarantee his contract after Summer League last July, but re-signed him in December. He injured his shoulder shortly after and missed a chance for playing time with the College Park Skyhawks, the Hawks’ G League affiliate.

But when he recovered, he played 13 games with the Skyhawks before the Hawks recalled him March 6. He started in the Hawks’ next game March 8.

Since then, he has averaged 28 minutes per game, while gaining more confidence with each outing and he flashed in the team’s win over the Celtics on Monday. He tied his career-high in points, scoring 16 points. Thirteen of them came in the third quarter as the Hawks chipped away at what was once a 30-point deficit.

With 9:35 to play, Krejci grabbed an offensive board tapped to him by Bogdan Bogdanovic and drove into the lane for a two-handed dunk. Just over a minute later he called for the ball from Bogdanovic and made a 3-pointer from the wing while sticking the landing.

“When things are going well, we started knocking down shots, and I felt more comfortable,” Krejci said. “And, I got to give credit to my teammates. They find me open, and I was able to knock down some shots, and that just snowballed, and we were able to just keep going.”

He then poked the ball away from Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis before slamming down a two-handed running dunk. He followed it up with a pull-up 3 before shrugging at the bench as his jumper brought the Hawks within a possession for the first time since 9:16 remained in the first quarter.

While Krejci had an offensive explosion in the second half, his defense earned him minutes on the court. That’s what has helped him stay on the court over his nine-game tenure as a starter.

“I think for one thing, he’s made it important,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said Monday. “I think the time that he spent in College Park, frankly, and the work that they do down there, it’s been a huge point of emphasis for our group, for Kyle (Korver) and Ryan (Schmidt), those two guys in particular. We want that to be kind of a defensive incubator.”

But Krejci is only one of many players who has flashed some positive signs of how the Hawks’ internal development is going.

In the Hawks’ 132-91 win Saturday against the Hornets, Bruno Fernando scored a career-high 25 points on 11-14 shooting from the field.

“He played great,” Snyder said. “He’s been big for us with (Okongwu) out and earlier with Clint (Capela) out. And it’s good to see someone that’s rewarded for all the work that he’s put in. And, he did it.”

In that same game, Garrison Mathews scored a season-high 20 points, shooting 4-of-6 on 3-point shots.

While this most recent stretch of games has highlighted how some of the Hawks’ end-of-bench players have grown this season, the team as a whole has taken steps forward.

On the season the team ranks 27th in the league in defensive efficiency (118.7), but over the past 10 games they had a defensive rating of 115.8, with the 15th-best net rating.

The Hawks still are in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and have all but locked themselves into that spot with only 10 games left in the regular season. But they want to build on Monday’s win.

“We just got to build on this,” Krejci said. “It’s a big win for us. But we still got a couple more games at home. We got Boston again, and we know that they’re going to come out, ready to play. So we got to take care of the Portland game and take care of the Boston game again. So I feel like can give us a good momentum.”