Photo: AJC 
Photo: AJC 

The Top 10 Hawks moments of the season (so far)

The Hawks’ tumultuous season has perhaps reached a tumultuous end. With the NBA season suspended due to the coronavirus, it’s not known if or when regular-season games will resume, as the country tries to limit the virus’ spread. 

Since we don’t know if their remaining 15 games will be played or not, let’s go ahead and take a look back at the best moments from the existing 2019-20 season.  At 20-47, the Hawks weren’t a good team, but they had plenty of highlights and great moments, so it was impossible to fit them all in this list. Thanks to fans on social media for their suggestions.

The list in no particular order: 

1. Trae Young’s 50-burger: Already the face of the franchise after a promising rookie season, Young improved in nearly every statistical category in his second year, including scoring a career-high 50 points in a win vs. Miami Feb. 20. He had scored 49 points twice. Sometimes, you can tell from the get-go Young is about to go off, sometimes it takes him a little longer to really start raining 3’s and scoring like you know he can. In this case, it seemed like he was having an above-his-own-average night with 19 points in the first half, but 31 in the second half was really something else. He tied his career-high in 3’s made with eight. This one likely carried a little extra weight for him, since Jimmy Butler had called out Young for saying “It’s over” when the Hawks were leading by six in Miami Dec. 10, only for the Heat to tie it and run the Hawks out of the arena in overtime. High-scoring performances by Young were nothing out of the ordinary (at 29.6 points per game, he was tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo for the third-highest scorer at the time of the league’s suspension), so much so that he even gave his gave jersey to Quavo after the game, because, he said, “(t)hat's not the last time I'm gonna score 50, so.”

2. Brandon Goodwin’s shining moment: This was the most popular suggestion from readers, and that’s totally justified. With Young’s high usage and how central he is to the Hawks’ offense, it was hard to imagine how the team would fare without him in Orlando Dec. 30 (this was before they acquired backup Jeff Teague). Goodwin, who played at Norcross High and was on a two-way contract at the time, came off the bench and dominated with 22 points, leading the Hawks to a 101-93 comeback win, which snapped a 10-game losing streak. He was a plus-22 and excelled on defense, as well. Who doesn’t love a hometown hero? Goodwin had a similar burst against the Clippers Jan. 22, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to help the Young-less Hawks to a win. Honorable mention: Kevin Huerter surging in the fourth quarter of that Orlando game, scoring nine points in about two minutes after getting an earful from Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. Huerter had been arguing about what he thought was a missed call and failed to get back on defense on the prior play, prompting Pierce’s outburst. I was sitting just a few yards away from the bench and can confirm, it was loud.

3. A (kind of) historic win against the Spurs: The Hawks got a win in San Antonio for the first time since Feb. 15 1997, which is before any member of their starting rotation that game was born (Young, Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins). That’s quite the dry spell, and the way they won made it all the more memorable. After a rough third quarter, the Hawks surged in the fourth (something they made a habit of this season) and came back to win on a clutch 3-pointer by Huerter, which Reddish celebrated before the shot even fell. But the best part came on the Spurs’ final possession, when they denied DeMar DeRozan at the buzzer and managed to finish out a close game (something they struggled to do this season). No, this wasn’t the best Spurs (27-36) team, but this was a tough, well-earned road win for a young team, and it finally broke that losing streak. 

4. Vince Carter’s potential last shot: Throughout the Hawks’ loss to the Knicks March 11, players began finding out that the NBA season had been suspended, after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. But games were permitted to continue. All the sudden, a subplot to that difficult and odd night emerged. Carter, in his send-off, NBA-record 22nd season with the Hawks, might be playing his last game (Carter has said he is definitely not coming back next season). Many fans had left by this time, but it seemed most who remained in State Farm Arena had heard the news by the time overtime started to wind down and started chanting “We want Carter,” essentially demanding Pierce put Carter in and give him a chance for another shot, another ovation, another anything to commemorate the moment on extremely short notice. Carter subbed in with less than 20 seconds to play, jogged up the court, caught a pass from Young and defenders backed away as he made a 3-pointer, with Young hugging him afterward. Making his last shot (if it is indeed his last) was something Carter will always remember, he said after the game, but the lack of pageantry or fanfare, since no one knew it was coming, truly didn’t bother him. One of my first stories for the AJC was on Carter entering his last season, and I immediately picked up on Carter’s aversion to limelight and special treatment. He genuinely didn’t want to make this year about him and thought the focus should be on the team’s younger players, spending ample time helping them navigate the NBA. 

5. John Collins, a walking 20-and-10: I’m cheating a little, because this is a pattern instead of a single moment. But work with me. Collins’ 25-game suspension hurt the Hawks monumentally, though it certainly wasn’t their only problem, with the majority of the team’s veterans (pre-trade deadline) not contributing, rookies adjusting to the league and Huerter missing 11 games with a shoulder injury. His time away can’t be overlooked, but neither can his contributions once he got back. In his third year with the Hawks (or a good portion of it, TBD), Collins averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, diversifying his game by shooting 40.1% from 3-point range. He picked things up on defense too, though at 6-foot-9, 235, it’s a tough ask for him to guard the league’s best centers, and he played a fair bit at the 5 in the Hawks’ small-ball lineup. With as much as Collins can produce on offense, though, and with how much he improved their rebounding, it makes you wonder how much better the Hawks would have been had Collins not missed those 25 games. 

6. Young’s All-Star weekend adventures: From attracting free agents to boosting the Hawks’ overall brand and reputation, having Young start for Team Giannis in the All-Star game was huge for the franchise. It was huge for Young, too, and a major accomplishment at age 21. I got to go to Chicago (awesome city, until you start to go numb from the wind chill), and two moments stood out to me. The first was in the Rising Stars game and involved Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who was a starter on Team LeBron. At this point, you probably don’t need me to explain that the Hawks drafted Doncic in 2018 before trading him to the Mavericks in exchange for Young and a pick that became Reddish, and Doncic’s immediate success as a rookie compared to Young’s slower burn became quite the narrative. But the two are actually friends. They root for each other, and they occasionally mess with each other, like when Doncic was dribbling the ball as the first half was about to expire, and Young dared him to heave up a halfcourt shot, which Doncic did. Of course, it was right on target. Both cracked up and Young basically collapsed into Doncic in exasperation in a wholesome moment. In the All-Star game, Young made a half-court shot of his own at the halftime buzzer, with teammates Pascal Siakam falling down under the basket in celebration and Joel Embiid practically trying to tackle Young. Despite not playing in the fourth quarter (Doncic didn’t, either, with the two youngest starters sitting out), Young had a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists. 

7. Reddish’s sneaky steal and dunk: In Pierce’s words, this kind of display by Reddish is what the Hawks have been missing. Let’s rewind to that win against Miami. After rookie Hunter made a 3-pointer to tie things at 124-124, the Hawks needed a stop, and that’s what Reddish gave them, and then some. Reddish poked the ball out from Goran Dragic’s hands and chased it down fast enough to finish with a go-ahead slam, which helped the Hawks close out a win against Heat team that ranked fourth in the Eastern Conference (41-24) at the time of the season’s suspension. Defense was never the problem for Reddish, who caught on quickly on that side of things in his rookie season. But he didn’t find much success on offense until January, when the game started to slow down for him and he took off. Reddish went from making one 3 through his first five games and shooting 32% from the field in November to shooting 40.3% from 3 in January and 47.8% from the field over his last 13 games. His development was one of the major storylines for the Hawks this season, going from someone many called a bust into a potential X-factor for the Hawks through their rebuild.

8. Honoring Kobe and Gianna Bryant: The death of Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, who along with seven others died in a helicopter crash Jan. 26, rocked the basketball world. There was talk of canceling games altogether that Sunday, as players, coaches and fans around the league struggled with the news, but the Hawks indeed had to push through and face the Wizards that night. The news hit close to home for Young, who had gotten to know Bryant more over the past year and was one of Gianna’s favorite players (the pair sat courtside for two Hawks games, the loss in Los Angeles Nov. 17 and the loss in Brooklyn Dec. 21). Teams found different ways to honor Bryant, with Young wearing No. 8 and taking an eight-second backcourt violation to start that win vs. the Wizards, and the Wizards responding with a 24-second violation (Bryant wore No. 8 for the first half of his Lakers career and No. 24 for the second half). Young’s 45 points that game came on 24 shots, and he shot 81% from the free-throw line (against the Raptors in 2006, Bryant famously scored 81 points). He also hit a 42-footer at the halftime buzzer, blowing a kiss, patting his chest and pointing toward the sky after the shot fell. “Kobe was with me tonight,” Young said after the win. 

9. Acquiring Clint Capela: Including this as a Top 10 moment may seem a little anticlimactic, since Capela has yet to play a game in a Hawks uniform. The physical center has struggled with a nagging right heel injury since December, when he was still with the Rockets, and likely would have either not played at all or played sparingly if the season continued as scheduled. But a healthy Capela is exactly what the Hawks need. Landing a starting-caliber center with oodles of playoff experience, someone who can help bring the team’s young core players along, was a huge get. Capela brings defense and rebounding, two categories in which the Hawks underperform, and he was scoring 13.9 points per game in Houston. We won’t know exactly how he fits in with the team’s scheme (and how he fits next to Collins) until we see it in action, but his presence gives the Hawks much more upside.

10. The final stretch of the season: Another pattern as opposed to a single moment, but this one is significant. Over the Hawks’ last 27 games, they went 12-15 (.444 win percentage). It’s a far cry from good, sure, and they were 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference at the time of the season’s suspension. But let’s compare that to their 8-32 start in their first 40 games (.200 win percentage). Once Collins came back from suspension, Huerter was healthy and rookies Reddish and Hunter had more experience under their belt, the Hawks got better. All those players are members of what Pierce refers to as the team’s Core Five (in addition to Young) and all will return next season, which Pierce has said will be a playoff season. At first glance, looking at the Hawks’ 20 wins, that’s hard to picture, but then you factor in Capela and look at the Orlando Magic’s record (30-35) at No. 8 and the Brooklyn Nets’s record (30-34) at No. 7. In the Eastern Conference, there’s upward mobility. After a disappointing season that may or may not be over, we’ll have to wait and see if the Hawks seize that potential.

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