Healthy Hunter, Reddish makes for ‘scary’ Hawks defense

October 21, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) reacts after scoring during the second half of the home opener in a NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Atlanta Hawks won 113 - 87 over Dallas Mavericks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

October 21, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) reacts after scoring during the second half of the home opener in a NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Atlanta Hawks won 113 - 87 over Dallas Mavericks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

John Collins made a prediction of what the Hawks’ defense would look like if it finally featured a healthy De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish.

Two “full-court defenders, long, strong guys that can do it all,” Collins said during training camp.

“It’s scary,” Collins said. “That’s something that I feel like we’ve all wanted to see more consistently is to have all of us on the court at the same time, for a longer period of time. … I definitely feel like our defensive intensity and energy and length is going to be very effective. I just want us all to be on the court together, that’s just what it needs to be, and once that happens I definitely feel like our defense can take a big jump.”

Yes, it’s just one game, but after the Hawks’ 113-87 smothering of the Mavericks in their season opener Thursday, Collins’ prediction looks to be right on the money.

Hunter shut down Luka Doncic and then some, with Doncic shooting 1-for-9 and the Mavericks shooting 1-for-13 overall when Hunter was the primary defender, per ESPN stats. Hunter, Collins and Capela wreaked havoc, and Reddish came off the bench to spearhead the defense for the second unit, also leading the Hawks in scoring with 20 points.

The season opener was an example of what the Hawks can do on defense when fully healthy, something that evaded them for nearly all of last season when Hunter and Reddish missed extensive time because of injury. Hunter finished with two blocks and a steal in addition to his 11 points. Reddish added a steal and was disruptive in passing lanes.

“It was fun,” Hunter said. “Last year we didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to get the full group out there, but I feel like when we’re at full strength and everyone’s playing, we’re a tough team to score against, and I feel like we can score with anyone. It’s just great playing with other guys who can play defense at a high level.”

Last season, the Hawks had the No. 23 defensive rating in the NBA (112.9) from the start until the end of February, and under then-interim coach Nate McMillan had the No. 12 defensive rating (111.3) from March 1 onward. If both Hunter and Reddish continue to thrive, it enables the Hawks’ defense to take a necessary leap forward, Capela thinks, building on that improvement.

“It’s really good to start like that, especially with a good defensive game, because this is going to be part of our major, our big step, defensively,” Capela said. “This is where we’re going to make the biggest step that we can make. … We all know we know we can score. We’ve got guys that can shoot from the half court. … This is where we’re going to make our biggest jump.”

Anchoring the Hawks in the paint, the addition of Capela already has beefed up what had been a major weakness the past few years, particularly when paired with Collins, who can slide back to his natural position at power forward and himself has shown steady improvement on that end. But Capela felt the absence of a fully-healthy Hunter and Reddish for much of last season, particularly in the Eastern Conference finals vs. the Bucks.

Milwaukee has both Giannis Antetokounmpo (6-foot-11) and Brook Lopez (7-feet) who pose matchup problems, in addition to all their other threats. Hunter, hampered by a knee injury, didn’t play after the Hawks’ first-round win vs. the Knicks, and Reddish, who missed significant time with right Achilles soreness, saw his first action in four months in Game 2.

“They’re both definitely, their length, their mobility, their tendency of being able to steal the ball from guards, their tendency to be able to shot block, they can do everything on the court,” Capela said of Hunter and Reddish.

“It will definitely help me and (Collins). I definitely feel that against the Bucks, we were missing a little bit of that. A lot of that. For real, having that, being able to have them around me will definitely help me, our defense, our whole team. Their length, their athleticism, it will definitely help because I’m just the guy in the paint, with mostly bigs and rebounds, but they’ll be out there with guards and at the same time in the paint, doing more than what I do. So it’ll be a tremendous help for sure.”

Borrowing the phrase from a few miles up the road in Athens, the Hawks can tell Hunter “Sic ‘em” and feel confident he’ll do just that to anyone he’s up against, Collins said after Hunter’s lockdown performance on Doncic.

“I love Dre’s defense, I love his mind-set when he goes and defends those guys like Luka, like whoever. … He’s up for the challenge, running over screens, getting hit, doing whatever he needs to do to be a great defender,” Collins said. “Love having Dre back out on the court and healthy.”

Reddish is the go-to guy who establishes the defense for the second unit, McMillan pointed out after Thursday’s win, helping to ensure there’s no drop-off.

“I definitely take pride in that,” Reddish said.

The cohesion on defense in the win vs. Dallas is something the Hawks can build on this season, McMillan said.

“We talk a lot about connection, and I though we showed connection out on the floor, on both ends of the floor, the defense was really good,” McMillan said. “Those guys were helping each other out. I thought we were solid finishing the plays on the defensive end of the floor which led to transition. Offensively, I thought we were connected. I thought all the units that played, played that way. You didn’t really see a difference in our play when we started to substitute. Those are the things that we’ve been talking all training camp that we need to do.”

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