Hornets dare Trae Young’s Hawks teammates to beat them, so they did

Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) reacts after scoring during the second half. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) reacts after scoring during the second half. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Trae Young forces Hawks opponents to make a choice from among bad options. Facing an elimination game, the Hornets decided they would rather take their chances with Young’s teammates scoring than allow Young to go off. Get the ball out of Young’s hands and make the other Hawks beat them.

So, that’s what the Hawks did. Young had a bad scoring game by his standards and his team still blew out the Hornets at State Farm Arena. The Hawks are headed to Cleveland for another play-in elimination game on Friday. Winner gets the Eastern Conference’s eight seed in the playoffs and a best-of-seven series against the Heat.

The Cavaliers should take note of how the Hawks handled the Hornets with players other than Young taking lead roles.

“If teams are going to face-guard me or trap me, it’s my job to make the right play and my teammates’ job to finish,” Young said.

All the Hawks did their jobs well against the Hornets.

Young controlled the tempo and organized the offense. His teammates moved the ball and made shots. The Hawks protected the ball so the Hornets couldn’t collect steals and run. The final score was Hawks 132, Hornets 103, but this game was essentially over in the third quarter.

This was a 2021 postseason vintage performance by the Hawks. They were sharp and spirited. They got the Hornets down early and kept them there. The standing-room only home crowd partied from beginning to end. Stars in attendance included hip-hop legend Jay-Z.

“It’s fun putting on a show and coming out with a win is the most important thing,” Young said.

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) goes up for a shot during the second half in the NBA play-in tournament at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Young had to be patient to make it happen. At halftime, he had as many turnovers (three) as made field goals. Charlotte turned away Young’s drives to the basket and he was 0-for-3 on 3-point tries. The Hawks still led 60-52 at halftime because Young made the Hornets pay for sending extra defenders at him.

Young needed 24 shots to score 24 points but had 11 assists against just three turnovers. Four of Young’s teammates scored 13 points or more.

“Teams are going to be able to defend your first and second option,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “What we wanted to do was get to our third, fourth, fifth option and make them defend.”

In the first half, the scoring burden was carried by Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela. They combined for 36 points on 14 of 21 shooting. Young assisted on six of those baskets. Five of them were passes to teammates right at the basket.

Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter (3) celebrates after scoring a 3-point basket. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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In the second half, it was De’Andre Hunter’s turn to be take the lead scoring role. After scoring three points in the first half, he had 16 in the third quarter while making 7 of 8 shots. Two of those baskets were dunks, two were layups and another was a running bank shot.

Said Capela: “We knew they were going to throw stuff at us like zone (defense) and trapping Trae. We had to be ready to step up.”

The Hornets were overwhelmed. The expected shootout never materialized because they couldn’t shoot. The Hornets were 34 of 90 on 2-point shots (38%) and 13 of 41 on 3-pointers (32%). The Hawks made it hard on Charlotte’s big three of LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier.

The Hornets ran often after defensive rebounds. That’s their style. The problem was converting those transition chances. The Hornets had just five fast-break points. They got to the rim plenty but couldn’t finish. The Hornets were 20 of 45 on shots in the paint.

The easier chances weren’t easy for the Hornets with Capela protecting the rim. The fast-break chances weren’t plentiful with the Hawks collecting 42 of Charlotte’s 56 missed shots. Capela had 13 of those defensive rebounds.

“We made them play half court,” Capela said. “This is not what they want.”

Ball, Charlotte’s fine young point guard, had the worst of it. The Hawks smothered him on pick-and-roll plays. Ball didn’t have many scoring options other than trying awkward runners and floaters. He was 7 of 25 from the field, 4-for-14 on 3-pointers.

The Hornets never had a lead after the first six minutes. The never got their deficit below eight points over the final 22 minutes. The Hawks buried Charlotte with a 23-5 run in the third quarter for a 93-67 lead. Hunter scored 13 points during that stretch.

“I liked our composure,” Hunter said. “No matter what kind of run they made, we stayed calm and composed and stuck to the game plan.”

The Cavaliers figure to be a tougher out than the Hornets. Cleveland is a much better defensive team. The Cavs have a lot more size, though All-Star center Jared Allen (finger) is questionable to play. The Hawks won three of four games against the Cavs this season, with one win in Cleveland. Now they’ll go there needing a victory to make the playoffs a year after going to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Cavaliers will face the same tough choice as Charlotte. Young and the Hawks showed that there are no good answers when they are focused.