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C’s scouting report: Atlanta Hawks

With back-to-back contests against the upstart Hawks, let’s get to know them a little better.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

With two consecutive home games against the Atlanta Hawks on tap (and three in the next week), it’s time to familiarize ourselves with this upstart group. After a quick start to the year, the Hawks have fallen back in the pack a bit. Losers of their last four, they sit a game behind the eight-spot in the East. Trade rumors, injuries and internal pettiness between some of their top players have clouded what is otherwise a bright, young nucleus.

These Hawks are dangerous though. They’re a potent offensive group with one of the league’s brightest youngsters in Trae Young. While the record shows this group trending in the wrong direction, the Celtics have been spurned by overlooking opponents the last few weeks. This team isn’t one to be taken lightly.

The Personnel Files

Trae Young - 6’0” point guard

  • Elite change-of-pace player whose shooting range commands pressure beyond 3-pt. line
  • Has mastered attacking the basket lately, especially w/ hostage dribbles & unorthodox finishes
  • Takes 10.3 free throws a night, converting 88% of them. Frustratingly crafty, a big emphasis of his game this year
  • Only taken 5 shots off screens this year. Hawks use him exclusively as a threat w/ ball in his hands through PNR
  • Really gifted passer. Makes good decisions and reads on the move, trusts his teammates when he gets doubled
  • Can be picked on at the other end, but avoids fouls and entire team defense rotates to help him

John Collins - 6’10” forward

  • Posting incredibly efficient 18.1 PPG with 54-41-85 splits, 7.6 REB and a positive A:TO ratio
  • Always a threat when he plays the 5 for rim-rocking dunks. Love to slip screens
  • Also a pick-and-pop threat. Turned himself into a vibrant shooter from every spot
  • Not a great defender. A little out of position at the 4 going against smaller guys
  • Caught up in power struggle with Young for touches and role in offense
Atlanta Hawks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Clint Capela - 6’10” post

  • Double-double machine. Relentless on offensive glass, scoring 3.2 PPG on putbacks
  • All offense comes from rolling to the rim, standing in dunker’s spot or offensive glass
  • Mobile PNR defender and solid rim protector, but not elite at either
  • Sprints hard in transition, putting pressure on the rim early in the clock
  • Rarely touches the ball outside of 15 feet. One FGA outside of 17 feet all year

Kevin Huerter - 6’6” wing

  • Sweetest shooter other than Young. Shooting 39% from 3 on 5.8 attempts
  • Rapidly improving ball handler who can facilitate when Young gets taken out of it
  • Has turned into secondary PNR creator. Makes good reads, leverages his shooting well
  • One of the more efficient pull-up scorers in the league, but you’ll let him beat you that way
  • Sturdy on-ball defender. Gets picked on a lot but has held his own recently

Cam Reddish - 6’7” wing

  • Shooting is needed: he’s 35.5% from 3 in wins, 22.6% in losses
  • Despite poor shooting (26.1%) from deep, gaining a lot of confidence attacking the rim
  • Super lanky on-ball defender. Disruptor away from the basket, great at aggressive switches
  • Very good help defender. Attuned to emergency situations, always in the right spot
  • Underrated handle. Hawks use him sparingly when Young gets denied/ face-guarded

Danilo Gallinari - Trusty 6th man who is a stretch wing. Shooting the ball well lately, and getting more minutes as depth is depleted a bit. Watch out for pick-and-pops with him, as well as mismatch post-ups. Most of his offense comes as a floor spacer. Can be attacked on the other end due to lack of foot speed.

Skylar Mays - Overachieving rookie who has shot it well thus far. Getting a run thanks to injuries elsewhere. Strong-bodied combo guard/ wing who is an underrated facilitator. Averaging 10.3 points in their last 3 games, playing only 13.5 minutes per contest. He’s in there to be aggressive.

Onyeka Okongwu - Rookie big man. In more of a screen-and-roll capacity right now. Hasn’t made a jump shot in 9 games. Solid defensively with angles, but game can get a little fast for him right now. Limited minutes in relief of Capela.

Playbook Prose

Get ready for a lot of pick-and-roll.

Essentially, the Hawks have two separate types of looks: ones with Trae Young as the ball handler with as much space for him to create as possible and ones where his attention provides quality ball screen looks for others.

The Hawks like to use a lot of double ball screens so Young can force switches, freestyle and do whatever he wants in the middle of the floor:

They run a lot of 5-out principles and false action to lead into spread ball screens in the half-court, and the key to guarding it is to always find Young and to know who you’re guarding. They love to use teams denying Young to their advantage, putting him high above the 3-point line and running a ball screen on the other wing. Capela is a great screener, so they don’t need a ton of false movement to set up the action in order for it to be effective.

The Hawks start many of their actions with both corners filled and three guys in-between the top of the key and half-court: Young, Capela and Huerter. The three ping-pong the ball back and forth, screen and handoff for each other, leading into a screen. The dizzying array of options, along with the shooting touch of both guards, sees pressure rise and rise throughout the game.

Late and out of timeouts, the Hawks break pressure with backdoor actions, knowing the pressure has been mounting all game. The advantage of their 5-out offense is that it provides great spacing for back cuts.

Outside of the pick-and-roll, everything they run is shooting-based to get into their pick-and-roll and 5-out formations eventually. They run a decent amount of staggers to get Huerter on the move, some screen-the-screener looks and a couple of mistmatch post-ups for Collins when the matchup is right.

Keys to Victory

  1. Admiral Akbar: The Hawks are underrated defensively, and teams can get hung up on trying to attack them one-on-one through their weakest matchups: Young and Collins. The Celtics have been really ISO-heavy lately. Trying to go after those two in isolations, instead of taking the approach of just playing through Boston’s top threats and fairly organically is a little misleading. As Admiral Akbar would say, “it’s a trap!”
  2. Finish at the rim: It may sound simple, but the Hawks are the second-best at defending catch-and-shoot looks in the league. They’re pretty aggressive running people off the line and funneling towards Capela, averaging 2.2 blocks a game. While the C’s have been cold at the rim this year, this Hawks defense is built to encourage tough two’s. Boston has to convert on the opportunities they get at the rim, especially when Capela is out.
  3. Mix and Match: Young is a really good player despite the moods he seems to be in lately where he pre-determines whether he’ll pass or score as a subtle jab at teammates. When he has 10 or more assists, the Hawks are 3-9. When he scores 30 or more, they’re 6-2. They need to turn him into a playmaker by giving him the attention he deserves, mixing in aggressive defenses away from the hoop to force it out of his hands while not giving him a consistent look.
  4. Win the free throw battle: The Hawks lead the league by generating 21.6 points a game from the charity stripe. In their wins, they generate 24.6 from the line, and only 19.4 in losses. Conversely, the Celts have given up 36 and 30 free throw attempts in their last two losses. They need to cut down on those numbers, dig in defensively and limit the freebies in these next few games.

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