Tests for Hawks: First Lakers, now Luka

Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) and Hawks guard Trae Young.
Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) and Hawks guard Trae Young.

Credit: Daniel Carde

Credit: Daniel Carde

The Hawks might have beaten the Lakers on Monday night if they had all their Big Four. De’Andre Hunter has been so good in his second season that he belongs in that group with Trae Young, John Collins and Clint Capela. The Hawks could have used Hunter’s scoring punch against L.A., the NBA’s best defensive team.

The Hawks still had a chance to beat the Lakers without Hunter (knee) or injured rotation players Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kris Dunn. They trailed by one point with 1:40 to go. Then LeBron James did his thing: made a 3-pointer, stripped the ball from Capela near the basket, outran the Hawks for a transition layup. Watching a 36-year-old take over late during the last of seven consecutive games on the road was another reminder that James is a one-of-a-kind player.

A careless Young turnover and Lakers offensive rebound sealed the 107-99 victory for the visitors. Young had 25 points (15 shots) and 16 assists against seven turnovers. Collins and Capela combined for 38 points and 20 rebounds. The Hawks didn’t get enough scoring from others and couldn’t handle Lakers big men Anthony Davis and Montrezl Harrell (they could use a beefier big man for this type of matchup because rookie Onyeka Okongwu is a smallish center, and Bruno Fernando just ain’t it).

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The good effort from the Hawks was undone by some sloppy execution at the end and a too-long fourth-quarter stint without Young, Collins or Capela on the floor. Still, pushing the defending champions to the end while missing the No. 2 scorer must count for something.

“I know a lot of people look at that a lot,” Young said. “I don’t know. Me, as a competitor, you lose, you lose. Obviously, I know who we were going up against, and I felt like we had a chance to win that game.

“We understand they are a really great team, so for us, they are a good measuring stick. We’ve got to clean up some things. We’ll be better.”

The Hawks (10-10) will be better once they are healthier. They already are pretty good. They’ve won five of their past eight and after losing to the Lakers, stood sixth in the Eastern Conference and two games behind second-place Milwaukee.

Young is on his way to fulfilling his preseason pledge of proving that the Hawks can win with him as lead dog. Just in time, too, because Luka Doncic will be at State Farm Arena on Wednesday.

The player the Hawks traded for Young on draft night was first-team All-NBA last season to Young’s All-Star. Doncic starred for the Mavs in the playoffs while Young’s Hawks weren’t good enough to even be invited to the Disney World bubble. But that storyline has started to shift in Young’s favor this season.

Doncic’s Mavericks lost their sixth consecutive game Monday to drop to 8-13. Doncic has been very good, but his team is not, even with Kristaps Porzingis back in the lineup for the past 10 games. Attrition has hurt the Mavs, but that’s the case for nearly every NBA team. Doncic is playing very well for a team that just doesn’t seem to be constructed to take advantage of his talents.

In other words, Doncic is experiencing what Young did over the past two seasons, just on a smaller scale, though, because the Mavs this season are better than the past two Hawks teams. The rebuilding Hawks were too green to win in Young’s rookie season. Last season Young couldn’t lift a too-thin team to a respectable level. All-time greats can do that, but it’s too much to expect from a second-year point guard.

Hawks guard Trae Young and Lakers forward LeBron James share words during free throws Monday, Feb.1, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.   (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks guard Trae Young and Lakers forward LeBron James share words during free throws Monday, Feb.1, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Now Young is the best player on a Hawks team with a deeper roster. That’s why they are above water despite some injuries to key players. Dunn and Bogdanovic are important pieces who’ve played a total of nine games. Either Danilo Gallinari still is laboring with the ankle injury that kept him out for two weeks, or he’s in rapid decline (I’m going with the injury).

Young’s spirit seemed to flag for a bit, but he’s back to looking like himself. He’s rediscovered his efficient scoring touch over the past two weeks. His 3-point accuracy for the season now is 36.4%, about his career norm, after it was 29.2% less than two weeks ago. Young’s floater is falling more often.

Opponents are desperate to prevent Young from attacking on pick-and-rolls because he’s so dangerous in space. Now Young is drawing fouls against overeager screen defenders with feints and pump fakes. I think one reason the Nets have complained so loudly about the calls Young gets is they rightly sense that the Hawks wouldn’t be pushovers should they see them in the playoffs.

The encouraging thing for the Hawks is they have a .500 record without a full roster or much time to integrate their many new players. The Hawks were 4-16 after 20 games in each of the past three seasons. They started 10-10 in 2016-17, before the rebuild began, and went on to finish fifth in the East. The current Hawks have much more offensive talent than that team.

Said Young: “For us, we are still trying to find that identity.”

I’d say the Hawks already have established that they play solid defense. It wasn’t a certainty that they could do that with Young as the lead guard. His size always will be a limiting factor at that end, but he’s been more engaged. After 20 games, the Hawks rank ninth in defensive efficiency, with Young playing 68 percent of the minutes. There’s evidence that the Hawks can defend well enough with Hunter and Cam Reddish beside him and Capela and Collins behind him.

Surrounding world-class offensive player Young with good defenders was Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk’s plan when he took Young and an extra draft pick (later used on Reddish) for Doncic. The counterpoint to that was everything Young (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) can do, Doncic (6-7, 230) can do bigger while not being such a defensive liability.

And yet the Mavericks rank 22nd in defensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). They are 17th in offensive efficiency compared with 10th for the Hawks. Doncic and Young’s offensive production has been about the same. Young has scored much more efficiently, and his team has been better all around.

The Hawks offered proof of that against the Lakers. The Lakers blew out the Mavs on Christmas Day with Porzingis sidelined, and it hasn’t been much better for Dallas with him back. The Mavs split two games vs. the Hawks when Doncic and Young were rookies, and Doncic didn’t play in either game against them last season. Wednesday’s game is the first scheduled between the teams this season.

I expect the Mavs to take another loss if Hunter plays. The Hawks still might win if Hunter sits again. The Mavs, like the Lakers, will see the difference for the Hawks now that Young has a team at least as deep as Doncic’s.

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