From the beginning of the season to Jan. 16, the Hawks ranked No. 28 in the league in defensive rating (113.8). They gave up 130-plus points seven times in 15 games, from Dec. 5 to Jan. 7.
From Jan. 17 to Tuesday, with wins against four good teams in the Bucks, Timberwolves, Heat and Hornets, the Hawks are No. 15 in defensive rating at 109.8. That’s a tiny snippet of a long season, and they’re still No. 27 in defensive rating (113.4) for the whole season, but the defense is trending in the right direction as of late.
“I felt like the only thing that was keeping us from where we want to be was really the defensive end,” Capela said. “We’re able to score 130, 140, but other teams against us are doing the same thing, which doesn’t always give us a great chance to win. I feel like we kind of just throw the dice or throw the penny and by doing this now, by improving defensively, we’re giving ourselves a better chance to win. When you keep a team under 100 points, especially for a team as good offensively as us, it’s huge. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
There’s a few factors in the Hawks’ defensive turnaround, namely getting De’Andre Hunter, a long, physical and disruptive wing on a roll after coming back from wrist surgery Jan. 12.
“Awful lot,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said of how Hunter can help the Hawks’ defense. “He’s a guy, he has size, his ability to guard the 1, 2, 3 and the 4 position, and tonight we started him on (LaMelo) Ball to try and just stay in front. I thought he did a really good job of containing him and trying to stay in front, but he certainly helps us because he can help establish the type of defense that we want to play. I think Kevin (Huerter) and Trae (Young) are doing a better job of stepping up and guarding their man, so really the whole unit has really changed their mindset as far as playing on the defensive end of the floor. They’re playing with a lot more urgency. We’re more connected on the defensive end of the floor. And this is something they have to continue to build off of.”
They also have Capela, who has battled heel pain throughout the season but cleans up ample messes for them at the rim, back after missing six games with a left ankle sprain.
And second-year center Onyeka Okongwu, who played exceptionally well as a starter in Capela’s absence, beefs up the defense on the bench unit. The Hawks have gotten great production from that second unit on this streak, including from Delon Wright and Danilo Gallinari.
The Hawks also have, as Capela in early January clamored for them to do on defense, “put more heart on it.”
The urgency they’ve played with the past four games is palpable. They’ve stayed in “emergency mode,” as Capela calls it, communicating more, closing out better on shooters (as evidenced by Charlotte shooting 11.1% from 3-point range, or 4-of-36, in the Hawks’ 113-91 win Sunday), and simply showing more fight.
“I feel like we came out with a lot of energy, and that’s the main thing we’ve been talking about, just coming out with energy, guys having the will to fight on the defensive end,” Hunter said after that win. “... We were never down. We were never out. Like I said before, we’re just going to keep playing, keep fighting. We’re going to lose some games, but like I said, we were going to start winning and we have. Need to keep the streak going.”
The Hawks also have been drilling defense more in practice, per Capela, re-creating defensive actions and talking through them to help build better habits on that end of the floor.
Often, NBA teams want to start playing their best basketball in January, keeping a closer eye on the standings in the regular season’s second half. Hit hard by COVID-19 and injuries, with roster chaos beginning in mid-December as more players and coaches entered health and safety protocols, the Hawks finally have a mostly healthy team (Bogdan Bogdanovic is still out with right knee soreness, but practiced a bit Tuesday).
And it seems like they’re finally making some necessary progress on defense.
“We still have injuries and trying to get guys back, but we’re playing basketball that gives us a chance to win games now,” McMillan said. “... That’s what we’ve brought to the floor, urgency on the defensive end of the floor. I think we’re doing a better job of controlling the basketball and keeping the ball in front of us. Weakside has been connected. So all the things you need, but it starts with urgency, being a multiple-effort team and helping each other out. That has been a thing we’ve done.”