Shorthanded Hawks must ‘play big’ to overcome size limitations

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) makes a pass over Atlanta Hawks guard Wesley Matthews (32) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) makes a pass over Atlanta Hawks guard Wesley Matthews (32) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

TORONTO — The Hawks know that they have limitations and a small margin of error this season when it comes to how they approach certain matchups.

They’re far from the biggest team in the NBA, with an average height and weight of 6-foot-5, 212.8 pounds, while the league average stands around 6-7, 215 this season. On top of that, the Hawks have faced plenty of teams that boast plenty of length, which has forced them to readjust how they take shots at the basket.

On the defensive end, the Hawks have to navigate teams sending bodies to shut down the production of their centers on the glass. Hawks’ opponents sometimes deploy, three to four players in the paint to try and limit centers Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu from attacking the boards.

This season, the Hawks rank 26th in the league in defensive rebounding, averaging 31 rebounds per game. Their troubles on the glass have been exacerbated by the absence of Jalen Johnson, who stands at 6-8 and averaged 7.2 rebounds before a left distal radius fracture sidelined him for several weeks. Since Nov. 25, the Hawks have averaged 29.9 defensive rebounds, and they collectively have looked to try to fill that absence.

So, the Hawks know that they have to play bigger than what they are.

Ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Raptors, Hawks coach Quin Snyder talked about the team’s deployment of their two centers to try to address that size issue. They also know that they have to remain aware of the team’s substitution pattern of Capela and Okongwu because they don’t want to end up in a situation where they can’t play without one of them.

“We’re not a big team across the front line, and that’s where it is, and we’ve got to address that collectively,” Snyder said. “To get a little more granular on it for you, the way that substitution patterns go, it’s often challenging to play both those guys together at certain times and not have one of them come out of the game and not have any center in the game because of the way their minutes are staggered.”

With the Raptors deploying a big lineup that included a mix of Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poetl, the Hawks needed all of the size they could muster to compete against them. The Hawks ended up playing Okongwu and Capela together for approximately a season-high 17 minutes.

Throughout the first half, you could see the Hawks expending plenty of energy to play bigger, as they beat the Raptors to position to draw a couple of charges early. They also picked the right spots, with Trae Young making quick decisive reads to get his teammates in advantageous positions to pick up 20 points and 10 assists by the end of the first half.

But the Raptors adjusted in the second half, and they used their length and size to their advantage, putting their bodies into the Hawks and forcing them to shoot off their marks.

So, the Hawks will have to keep “playing big” at the forefront until they add some size to their frontline.

“(The Raptors) are gonna make some shots over us when we’re, you know, 6-1‚ 6-4, 6-5,” Snyder said. “And, like I said, I want to give our guys credit for just for being, for competing. And to the extent that we’ve given up some physicality, I thought our guys played through a lot of that. And yeah, you help each other more. And that’s one of the reasons that (the Raptors) were getting some 3′s.

“And, again, though, I thought we contested at a high level, and you’re gonna give something up. And you’d like to take away everything, and try to take away their rim first against this team because they’re so good. All their guys attack the rim or even Dennis (Shroeder). So when you collapse in the paint, and shut that down, you gotta get back out, and you’re not always going to block a shot. The best you can do is just have a great contest. And, again, I thought we battled on the boards, too. So always something you can do a little better. But I thought our guys were solid and focused.”