Hawks ready to take off with tougher defense

Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and Pistons center Mason Plumlee (24) reach for the opening tip off Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and Pistons center Mason Plumlee (24) reach for the opening tip off Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

The top six or so Hawks players were good enough to make them competitive last season. There weren’t enough quality players beyond them. The Hawks are thin again this season because injuries have prevented the expected improvement in depth to materialize. Despite that, they’ve shown through the season’s first month that one important thing has changed.

Ask the Pistons. They lost to the Hawks in overtime Wednesday night after trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. The Hawks didn’t do it with spectacular shot-making by Trae Young. He didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer in the final period. Young made some slick passes at winning time, but his flash was secondary to how the Hawks dug in on defense.

That wasn’t a one-off for the Hawks. They’ve struggled on offense lately, largely because Young has been uncharacteristically inefficient. They’ve played good defense all season. After Wednesday’s games, the Hawks ranked sixth among NBA teams in defensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

ExploreClint Capela hitting his stride with Hawks

The sample size is small, but their good defense is sustainable with Clint Capela and John Collins patrolling the back line. The Hawks (7-7) were seventh in the Eastern Conference entering Thursday. They’ll be even better once their offense inevitably improves and they pair it with their new, tougher defensive identity.

“It’s that defensive energy,” Collins said. “We are locked in. We want to play defense. That was an emphasis from the start. We’ve got to play defense to win.”

The Hawks appeared headed to a dispiriting loss when the Pistons scored 40 points in the third quarter. Detroit scored a total of 23 points over the final period and OT. That late defensive effort was more to recent form for the Hawks. They’ve played four of their best defensive games over the past two weeks.

The Hawks shut down the 76ers, Timberwolves and Hornets and held the high-scoring Trail Blazers well below their norm. They lost to the Hornets and Blazers because they lacked scoring punch late. But, excluding the rematch against Charlotte and an ugly loss at Utah, they’ve kept grinding on defense.

Capela and Collins have been key. With both players on the floor, Hawks opponents have scored just 97.3 points per 100 possessions and converted only 55.6 percent of their shot attempts at the rim. Collins and Capela are quick jumpers who relentlessly challenge shots. Capela gobbles up misses. Both big men are adept at switching onto quicker opponents and making it hard for them to score.

Collins and Capela combined for 58 points, 37 rebounds and six blocks vs. Detroit. Capela became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 to produce at least 25 points, 25 rebounds and five blocks. After Capela dunked on a feed from Young to tie the score, Collins blocked Jerami Grant’s shot to force overtime.

Soon after dominating the Pistons, Capela and Collins continued their postgame routine of lifting weights.

“It’s me and him bonding,” Capela said. “It is pretty good. We want to keep it that way.”

They make a good combo. Capela and Collins allowed the Hawks to stymie Detroit while playing without their two best wing defenders, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. The Pistons are bad, though even bad NBA teams at full strength are a threat to an opponent missing four rotation players. Detroit took bad shots while blowing the lead, but that’s because the Hawks made it hard to create good ones.

“We’ve been in situations, especially the group that I’ve coached for three years, where we’ve mishandled games and you are deflated when a team comes back on you,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “This was different. For us, it’s confidence.”

Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce shouts to the team during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce shouts to the team during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Hawks have had only three truly bad defensive games. Poor offensive nights have been plentiful. The Hawks ranked 10th in offensive efficiency after Wednesday’s games, but that standing is based largely on a hot start to the season. The offense has fallen off, and it would be much worse without Capela’s work on the offensive glass and Hunter’s shooting.

Young ranks among the NBA’s best offensive players, but he had struggled for more than two weeks before going for 38 points (29 shots) against the Pistons. But there’s no way Young will keep shooting only 29.5 percent on 3′s or misfiring so often on his signature floater. It was good to see him engaged and making plays late against the Pistons. Young is at his best when he’s having fun.

The Hawks will score more once Young rediscovers his rhythm and the roster is whole. Danilo Gallinari, the best offensive player added to the roster, played only two games before getting hurt (he’s expected back soon). Bogdan Bogdanovic, a good playmaker, has missed five games and remains on the shelf. Tony Snell, a very good 3-point shooter, has played only five games.

The challenge for Pierce will be reintegrating Gallinari and Bogdanovic into the rotation without sacrificing too much defense. The coach has options when he needs more stops. And any slippage with Gallinari and Bogdanovic should be mitigated by their offense and better health among some good Hawks defenders.

The Hawks have gotten zero minutes from strong wing defender Kris Dunn (ankle surgery). Capela (heel) is just rounding into form after going nearly a year with no games. Rookie center Onyeka Okongwu, a top defensive prospect, made his debut last week. Okongwu played his second game Wedneday and had six rebounds and three blocks in 14 minutes.

The Hawks played terrible defense over the past two seasons. They ranked 27th in efficiency in 2018-19 and 28th last season. They also weren’t very good on offense. They added players to help with that. But the Hawks weren’t going to score enough to be a playoff team without offering more defensive resistance.

They’ve done that so far. I say the Hawks will keep doing it while their offense gets better. That’s why they’ll still be in playoff position once the 72-game season ends.

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