The Atlanta Hawks came into Cleveland with a set goal in mind.
They began the season with a three-city road trip, each visit of which was a home opener for their respective opponents. It’s not an easy way to start things off for a team building from the ground up.
It turned out that the third time was the charm for this young group, though, as they silenced a sold-out Quicken Loans Arena crowd and defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers to earn their first victory of the year.
“A lot of fun out there tonight,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the 133-111 final. “It was good, happy for my guys. Come on the road, finish the trip with a win, get the first win of the season.
“But really, the accomplishment is that we did it together. A lot of guys stepped up today. A lot of guys performed in their roles and that was the most important part of it.”
Falling into a double-digit hole early, Pierce said it was a result of not playing disciplined enough and making mistakes within the game plan. That changed when 21-year veteran Vince Carter spoke up and told his teammates to do their job and be more responsible—and they took it to heart.
Atlanta responded in the forthcoming 36 minutes with a vengeance, outscoring the Cavaliers by 32 points. That included two 40-point performances in the second and fourth quarter.
Attempting 47 threes and hitting nearly half of them, the floor was wide open on penetrate-and-kicks, especially with corner looks in transition. This is going to be a characteristic of the new-look Hawks, as they rank third in perimeter attempts (113) and 10th in three-point percentage (40.7) amongst the rest of the league.
Rookie sensation Trae Young clearly stole the show, joining Stephen Curry and Jason Kidd as the only rookies in NBA history to drop 35 points, knock down at least six threes and dish out 10 or more assists in a game.
The word “command” was used four times by Pierce to describe Young’s stellar night. Longtime Hawks forward and NBA mainstay Kent Bazemore chose “fearless” as his adjective prefacing a rave review of the Oklahoma superstar alum.
“Even in practices over the summer, he came in and established himself right away,” Bazemore said of Young. “That’s what you’ve got to respect as a veteran now. I’ve been around for a little bit, a young guy that comes in and is not bashful, not shy and a guy that caliber of talent—you live with the ups and downs.
“We’ve got a good group in here that’s kind of keeping him under our wing and kind of showing him the ropes and a great coaching staff that helps him elevate himself. I’m proud of him as a teammate, but it’s only the third game of 82. Now we know what he is capable of and we will be expecting a little bit more of him.”
FIRST-ROUND PICKS SHINE
Young demanded the spotlight with his play, yet he had a couple of fellow rookies that did some great things as well.
Omari Spellman probably couldn’t have asked for a better homecoming. With this particular game on the schedule circled and family in the stands watching, the North Royalton, Ohio native scored 17 points with four triples and a number of highlight-reel, pick-and-roll dunks.
Mid-first round draft pick Kevin Huerter did a little bit of everything for Atlanta off the bench, playing so well that he eclipsed the 25-minute mark and finished the game. He tacked on nine points on three treys and had four dimes. Perhaps more importantly, the former Terrapin pulled down 10 rebounds, recorded two steals and a block on defense.
When asked about his goals stemming from the win, Huerter kept it simple.
“Just continue to play hard,” Huerter told Basketball Insiders. “I’m gonna earn my minutes if I play hard and do what I was doing [Sunday]. Both defensively and getting offensive rebounds, getting defensive rebounds and let everything else come after that.”
Huerter admitted that a good chunk of his boards were easy ones, but credited Pierce’s message of crashing hard and starting the offensive fast break quickly. He also praised the veterans for how much they have helped him out, specifically Bazemore’s direct communication on the floor.
Going back to Atlanta’s personal launch pad beyond the arc, Huerter couldn’t agree more with Pierce’s strategy for the team to put them up.
“We have a lot of guys that can make shots,” Huerter told Basketball Insiders. “We want to play fast. We want to get up and down and—you get up and down, you get layups and threes. And so, if we’re making ‘em, we’re gonna keep shooting ‘em.”
The rookie trio of Young, Spellman and Huerter accounted for 13 of those 22 three-ball makes.
“It felt good,” Huerter told Basketball Insiders. “I think Omari being home brought us some luck, hopefully.
“Everyone was hitting though. We weren’t the only ones. We had long periods or stretches when everybody was hitting threes. And so, like I said, we think that’s a strength of ours going forward, so keep it up.”
Young knocked down a team-high six from deep. However, while much of the focus is on his range, Huerter saw him thrive in the other areas of his game.
“I was saying it looked like college Trae,” Huerter told Basketball Insiders. “He was back. It’s nice to see him compete.
“He’s multi-faceted. Obviously, everyone knows how deep he can shoot…He gets everybody involved. He’s constantly putting pressure on the defense. They’ve got to guard him basically when he steps over half court. And his unselfishness. He gets going like that, he’s tough to stop.”
From a team standpoint, Huerter told Basketball Insiders the Hawks were thrilled to get Pierce his first win as a head coach in the league—pointedly because Cleveland was the first place the 42-year-old started his NBA coaching career as a player development coordinator in 2007.
What Huerter took away the most from Sunday night was the defense. He knows the offense can get going in the snap of a finger, but if they hold up on the other end of the floor, it makes a world of difference.
“I just think guys are getting more confident—playing better with each other, starting to figure out [one another],” Huerter told Basketball Insiders.
“Defensively, we got a lot better as the game went on. Offensively, when we move the ball, everybody touches the ball, we’re pretty hard to stop. So I think we’re getting more comfortable with each other.”
Through three games, the Hawks are 1-2. They’re set to host the Dallas Mavericks in their home opener at the freshly branded State Farm Arena.
Luka Doncic on one side, Trae Young on the other—a couple of top rookies who were flipped on draft night. Both are coming off impressive games going into Wednesday night.
Count this writer in to be watching closely.
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