Hawks’ two center lineup offers plenty of future flexibility

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks battles Hawks centers Clint Capela (left) and Onyeka Okongwu (right) for a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 132-121. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Credit: Morry Gash

Credit: Morry Gash

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks battles Hawks centers Clint Capela (left) and Onyeka Okongwu (right) for a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 132-121. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The Hawks have adapted their rotation plenty over the course of the season. With the absence of Jalen Johnson, they’ve needed to make even more changes.

The team’s lineup flexibility became all the more apparent over their last two games. Minus the 6-foot-9 Johnson, the team paired centers Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu for extended minutes for the first time this season.

The team needed extra size against a Spurs lineup with all but one player standing over 6-4. Then against the Bucks they needed to match the size of Giannis Antetokounmpo and his front court partners in Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis.

Against the Bucks, Capela and Okongwu played together for the first four minutes of the second quarter before turning to it again for another approximately five minutes in the fourth.

“Defensively playing Damian Lillard and pick and roll forces you to be up on the floor,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said on Saturday. And so our backline is bigger. Usually it’s one of them (Capela or Okongwu), it’s up and pick and roll defense and you know, it allows even if Lopez has space, we can invert and we have more protection at the rim with with more size.

“When our backline is smaller than that it’s more difficult. It’s finding minutes for those guys to play together. There’s certain times in the game where that allows itself and there’s certain matchups where I think it pays dividends defensively. Tonight was one of those nights.”

With the two on the floor together, they provided the Hawks with one of their stoutest defensive units. It helped to stop an 11-2 Bucks run that saw Portis go 6-of-7 from the floor and 1-of-2 from 3. It also allowed the Hawks to briefly pull the game back within one possession before the Bucks adjusted.

Over the last two games, the Capela-Okongwu two-man game has held opponents to 6.1 made fields goals and 1.5 made 3-pointers. The two have averaged 5.5 rebounds, two assists, one steal, one block and have three drawn fouls.

Plus Capela and Okongwu have more opportunities to work on their playmaking and can find each other in the lane for quick looks at the rim. In the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game in Milwaukee, Capela found Okongwu on a cut to the rim with a quick bounce pass that gave the Hawks a brief 100-99 lead over the Bucks.

“Maybe it was like the second time,” Capela said. “At first we have to like talk about it, space wise. I think I was able to find him one time. So I mean, it’s still worked out. And I think he gets open. I think he had an open three. So I think we’re still gonna find open shots offensively. I’m not really worried about the offense. We’re gonna we’re gonna make it work. But defensively, this is where our length and our strength in the paint is needed.”

“I remember that play,” Okongwu said. “Clint had the ball and I just cut behind him. I should have dunk the (ball). But it was a good play. Clint can pass the basketball, for real. That was a good pass he threw to me, right on time on target. And I look forward to hopefully playing with him more in the future.”

The pairing is still a work in progress, particularly for Okongwu, who has to play out of position, while adding a few more things to his plate.

“I think it’s less about changing because it is about addition,” Snyder said. “A lot of that comes down to a comfort level. There are certain things that are difficult to change during the season, you don’t see many people like trying to change their shot in December.

“In Onyeka’s case, whether he’s defending the perimeter more, that’s something that there’s a familiarity that goes with that. Spacing with what we’re doing offensively, I think he’s more challenged, the kind of multiple positions. All those things can create uncertainty. The only way that gets addressed really is just over time and experience.”

But as competitor, Okongwu has committed to making the necessary adjustments to make things work.

“Whatever it takes for me to be on the court longer, I’ll do it,” Okongwu said. “Playing the four, it’s obviously is an adjustment but nothing I can’t do.”

If anything, the amount of fun Okongwu had playing on the floor with Capela makes it easier to commit to making a partnership successful.

“Stuff like I’m in transition I can get (Antetokounmpo) or he can get him,” he said. “We don’t have to hold a certain match up as far as who we’re guarding and me and him can pick up Giannis or Brook or whoever is closest. It’s definitely better in our favor.”