After a 30-point shellacking at the hands of the Toronto Raptors just three weeks ago, the Hawks came into last night’s game looking to turn around their fortune against the team from north of the border. Toronto came in missing a number of their key pieces – including Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. – due to injuries and illnesses, but the visitors still fought Atlanta to the bitter end.
Despite multiple nine point margins in the fourth quarter, and a couple of point blank shots for the Raptors with under five seconds to play to win the game, Atlanta somehow rescued themselves from the brink over and over again and nailed their own game winner in overtime to emerge victorious, 124-122.
It was a fairly sleepy first half from the Hawks, who struggled with turnovers and gave up not one, but two buckets right as the clock expired in each of the first and second quarters. Even without some of their primary swingmen, Toronto continued to harass the Hawks with their length and deflect a number of balls to frustrate Atlanta offensively. The Raptors logged a sky high 25 deflections in the first half alone to Atlanta’s 16.
Atlanta could only muster two made three pointers in the first 24 minutes on just eight attempts, and their reliance on mid range shots bogged down their offense to to the tune of a 100 offensive rating at the break.
Still, Atlanta was able to hang within 7 points at halftime behind some great play from their defensive anchor. Clint Capela continued his strong play this season with another workmanlike performance, with 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the first half alone. He would finish with an impressive double-double on a night when Atlanta needed to match the opponent’s length and tenacity.
This kind of fight on the offensive glass is something that Capela makes look much more routine than it actually is.
Even a switch onto guard Fred VanVleet didn’t phase the Swiss international, as he recorded one of his four blocks on the night out behind the three point line.
“I thought Clint [Capela] did a really good job of covering for our guys,” head coach Nate McMillan effused about his center after the game. “We had breakdowns on the perimeter.”
Late in the fourth quarter was when the excitement really began to ratchet up. With Atlanta facing a 109-101 deficit with 2:36 left, the Hawks would have to buckle in and execute almost every possession going forward to have a chance.
First, Trae Young pushes the ball after a free throw make, uses the Capela screen to get Anunoby on his back, fakes a behind-the-back pass, then finds De’Andre Hunter after pulling his defender Thaddeus Young into the paint for a big three to begin the comeback.
Then, Trae Young uses a very high screen from Capela to put one in from Johns Creek, Georgia.
Some late free throws from both sides knotted the game with one possession left. And then the chaos began. After a rebounded Christian Koloko miss, Fred VanVleet feeds Scottie Barnes for what looked like a sure dunk or at least lay-in. And yet, not quite.
In overtime, the Hawks never trailed, but there were still some very nervous moments. Atlanta had lost John Collins earlier in the game to disqualification for accumulating six fouls, and already hadn’t gotten much from their bench. The Hawks employed a tiny 8-man rotation for the final 29 minutes of this game, and needed a spark from someone to help push through in the overtime period.
In stepped the rookie from Duke.
AJ Griffin, in particular, saved his best for last in the extra five minutes. He showcased his handle in tight space here, and his floater continues to be money to start his NBA career.
This is such impressive recognition below. From where he was positioned in the corner, Griffin had to see the ball come off Dejounte Murray’s hand and range all the way to the opposite side of the rim for the rebound.
AJ Griffin works hard off the ball in this next clip, and he creates a passing window for Trae Young when Toronto brings two men to trap.
In this next one, center Christian Koloko really doesn’t stand a chance trying to keep Trae Young in front of him on the perimeter.
“[Toronto] was doing a good job of switching their defenders,” said McMillan about the opponent. “The guys we were trying to get matched up with, they were moving those guys around. And I thought our guys did a really good job of being patient, getting to our spots, and getting to the matchups we wanted in that overtime.”
Atlanta was able to push the lead to four with just 11.8 seconds to play after Trae Young hit two free throws on an intentional foul. But they gave up this easy OG Anunoby bucket not wanting to put Toronto on the line. You can clearly see Young and Griffin pull up in help defense just to be sure.
But a pair of missed free throws from Hunter after another intentional foul gave the Raptors a chance to tie, and they took advantage of that lifeline. Clint Capela contests the driving shot from Anunoby, but is whistled for the body contact. Anunoby then calmly buries both tries to knot the game up with 3.8 seconds left to go.
By now, I imagined you’ve seen this play from every conceivable camera angle. It’s a well worked designed play by Atlanta, with Murray receiving the inbounds, and Trae using a Capela up screen to dart into the frontcourt with only one man to beat.
With such little time remaining, Anunoby made the split second decision to cut off Young’s path. But Trae recognizes this quickly and puts the pass to Griffin right on the money with a few tenths of a second to spare.
“That’s a short clock play that we work on.” explained head coach Nate McMillan. “You never know when you’re going to need it. And they executed the play perfectly tonight.”
“OG [Anunoby] was in trouble,” remarked Trae Young. “He had a tough spot. Stepping up to take me. I was going to keep attacking to the basket and make him choose eventually. But he chose early and I just threw it over his head. AJ [Griffin] went and made a play so I was happy for him.”
“I had a feeling that they were going to pressure up,” said Griffin after his heroic last play. “I saw [Anunoby] go early so I was like ‘let me sneak up behind him’, and that’s exactly what happened.”
About the feed from his teammate, Griffin continued, “[Trae Young] does this thing where he looks like he’s going to shoot it and then he passes it at the last second. I saw that look in his eye. Once I saw that, I knew it was game.”
Trae Young finished with a solid outing of 33 points on just 21 shots to go along with 12 assists and serving the game winning shot up on a platter. AJ Griffin finished with eight of his 17 points in the overtime period. Notably, Griffin was only in the crunch time lineup due to John Collins fouling out with 4:40 left in the fourth quarter. That showed a ton of trust in the rookie from coach McMillan to go his direction over the other more veteran bench options available.
“Throughout the whole game, I thought [Griffin] came in and gave us a lift,” McMillan had to say about the young player. “He was able to knock down some shots. Make some timely baskets. Throughout the game, the ball found him. In the second half and in that overtime, he was able to finish. Plays with a lot of poise. Doesn’t panic out there. Made some big shots for us tonight.”
“I thought Trae [Young] did a good job for us,” he continued. “But Trae gave [offensive player of the game] to the young fella, [AJ Griffin]. He gave him two assists in the last 10 or 15 minutes.”
AJ is the son of former NBA player Adrian Griffin, who is currently an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors and had a front row seat to his son’s heroics. This wrinkle in the family reunion added a bit of spice to the already contentious game on Saturday night. “I’m always happy when AJ has success,” Young told of his perspective. “It may mean a little more to him because it’s against his dad.”
It took every second of 53 minutes to truly resolve this contest, but Atlanta has to be thrilled with the resolve they showed down the stretch and their ability to execute in key moments. The win gives Atlanta their tenth of the season, and keeps them towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
The 10-6 Atlanta Hawks now head to Cleveland in a showdown of teams with star guard additions in the offseason. They will meet the 9-6 Cavaliers on Monday night who will be on the second night of a back-to-back for what may be another drama-filled showdown in the East.