The Hawks faced the Rockets Saturday with just nine available players on the second night of back-to-back games. Down two of their centers, the shorthanded group pulled together creative lineups and rotations to defeat the Rockets 122-113 at State Farm Arena.

Here are five observations:

1. Minus two centers (Clint Capela - left adductor strain and Bruno Fernando - illness}, the Hawks were forced to roll out some creative lineups - using starting power forward Jalen Johnson at center.

While coach Quin Snyder knew Johnson would need some time to acclimatize to the role, he expressed full confidence in the 22-year-old’s ability to give the team quality minutes at center. Pregame, Snyder highlighted Johnson’s ability to guard multiple positions, including the times he’s defended centers before.

Johnson put up some strong minutes when the Hawks used him as a four or a five, scoring 21 points and pulling down five rebounds. He blocked two shots and had three steals.

“It’s just different from a fact of just a lot of times I’m used to screening and rolling,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I just need to space. So it’s kind of like still figuring it out. And then a lot of times I’m used to being in the trail spot, following into action, but a lot of times I gotta be the person that catches the ball, and you know, survey my options.”

2. Though Johnson, as well as Onyeka Okongwu, gave the Hawks plenty of defense in the front court, the team struggled on the glass.

The Rockets exploited the Hawks’ lack of size inside the paint, boxing out the big men with two or three guys.

They did that on the offensive glass too and they scored 18 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds, with all but two players from the Rockets grabbing an offensive board.

But the Hawks still had plenty of rebounds from their guards with Trae Young grabbing four - along with 18 points and eight assists.

3. Despite the Rockets smothering them on the boards throughout the night, the Hawks made sure their defense counted when they needed it most. As the Rockets made a push down the stretch, the Hawks stepped up their defense.

With 2:17 to play, Okongwu got into the lane to contest a layup from Jabari Smith. Officials initially called Okongwu for his sixth foul but the Hawks challenged the call and won, keeping the center in the game.

When play resumed, Smith grabbed an offensive rebound of a missed 3 from Jalen Green. But Okongwu was ready to block Smith’s putback attempt. His block allowed the Hawks to get out in transition, where Dejounte Murray found Saddiq Bey for a wide open dagger 3 from the corner.

“It was a big play,” Snyder said. “I think the thing that he’s really effective with is just going vertical and not necessarily trying to come down because he’s strong. And, he’s really doing a good job moving his feet and putting himself in position. And it shows his discipline and he’s focused and he’s playing to his strengths. He can get in front of you. I wouldn’t want to run into him. It’s good defense is what it is.”

4. The Hawks took advantage of having Murray back in the lineup and he bounced back from his back injury. He scored 34 points, had six defensive rebounds and seven assists in his 40 minutes of play. He also had four 3s, for the 10th time this season. These 10 games are tied for the most four-plus 3-pointers-made games in a single season in his career.

“The win is the most important,” Murray said. “I’m just glad we won.”

5. With just nine players available to play, the Hawks leaned on rookie guard Kobe Bufkin for significant minutes. In his 16 minutes, Bufkin played strong defense, keeping guys like Dillon Brooks in front of him and forcing tough shots.

On top of that, Bufkin knocked down a 3 with little hesitation and also grabbed three rebounds.

Stat to know

20 - The Hawks outscored the Rockets by 20 points in the second quarter (38-18). It’s the first time since Nov. 2, 2022 the Hawks have outscored their opponent by at least 20 points in a quarter.

Quotable

“I mean, yeah, and it just shows me too that I need to stay my (butt) in the weight room.” -- Jalen Johnson on if the minutes at center will help him develop his skills for guarding bigger centers.

Up next

The Hawks host the Bulls on Monday in the penultimate game before the All-Star break.

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