The Atlanta Hawks are one step closer to securing a spot in the 2022 NBA Playoffs after dominating the Charlotte Hornets Wednesday night at State Farm Arena with a score of 132-103. The Hawks were essentially ahead all evening before seriously opening the game up in the third quarter, creating a deficit that the Hornets just couldn’t come close to overcoming.
While Trae Young led the offense in the offensive end for the Hawks with 24 points and 11 assists, Atlanta received contributions from up and down their roster as six players in total scored double-digit in the win. LaMelo Ball finished with a team-high 24 points for the Hornets, but in a rather ineffective way, it took him 25 shot attempts to get there.
Now we’ll see which team can get to the top on Friday night when the Hawks and Cavaliers meet for the right to face the Miami Heat. Here are the three biggest takeaways from tonight’s match.
1. Trae Young is safe
Trae Young shot 3-of-13 from the field in the first half. It was the kind of performance that could not be understood through a box score. Although Young’s shots continued to be lacking, the Hawks continued to score. They had 60 in the first half, precisely because of all the extra attention Charlotte gave Young. They picked him up at half-time and caught him off the screens, but because Young is such a dynamic pass player and can shoot so far behind the line, all those tactics did was open things up to his teammates. They delivered with a star half.
So the Hornets eased a bit in the second and switched several screens. Young shook the poor big ones, Charlotte laid on the floor for him to chase from there, this time hitting them as much as a goal scorer as he did as a pass. The Hawks scored 132 points in the game and won Youngs minutes by 27 points.
This is the level Young has risen to in big games. The Knicks, Bucks and Sixers saw it in last year’s playoffs. There is no defense you can use against him that will not consistently lead to a good offensive for the Hawks. Drop and he hits you with float after float. Go under and he will go up for logo 3s. Play too aggressively and he will collect penalty throws. Even Philadelphia, with Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle throwing at him in more conventional defenses, could not stop him directly.
This is the highest level of playoff offenses, the one reserved only for the best shooters in basketball. At any given time, there are usually only three or four players in basketball who are defensive in this way. LeBron James and James Harden were there for years. Stephen Curry may still be. Luka Doncic and Trae Young have reached that point now and should be there for a while. If the Hawks can give Young the right teammates, there is no reason why they should not be able to score this way in the years to come.
2. LaMelo LaBusts
A year ago, LaMelo shot Ball 4-of-14 in a recording loss to the Pacers. Tonight, he shot 7-of-25 in a blowout play-in loss to the Hawks. Now, this is a trial of two games. It’s not very meaningful in the big picture, and as the Hornets evolve and find out the guard around him, he will have many more big fights to prove himself in. It’s far too early to speculate on his fit in high gear situations.
But what we can say much more definitively is that Ball lacks Young’s indisputability. He is not the kind of player who can look at any defense an opponent throws after him and immediately get a counter. This is an All-Star who has scored single digits 16 times in his two NBA seasons. He’s obviously not close to his best age, but he’s not the kind of unique creator that most teams tend to prefer among their star-point guards. He’s more of a flow player, a killer in the transition who can function within an offensive but who has yet to figure out how to own it the way Young does.
There’s no reason to believe he can not. After all, he’s only in his second season, and while he’s not the smooth pick-and-roll operator that Young is, he shares Young’s incredible passing vision and shooting range. The pieces are there, but like his brother, he is an inconsistent finisher and midfielder who prefers to keep the ball moving. It’s fine in the regular season. It’s something he’ll have to work on in the off-season if he’s to be the kind of player who can lead his team on a deep run.
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3. Will the Hornets please find a center?
At this point, we should all just feel sorry for James Borrego. This man has been Rube Goldberg on his way into a semi-decent defense for years with nothing but 6-7 centers and disinterested guards, and finally that approach has apparently run its course. Mason Plumlee and Montrezl Harrell were the subversive centers this year, but throughout Borrego’s tenure, the Hornets have failed to provide him with a single suitable rim protector.
It killed them in this match, as it has done for most of the season. The Hawks got easy dribbling through most of the first half and they used it to kick the ball out to the shooters. When the Hornets stayed at home on these shooters in the second half, the Hawks got all the layups and dunks they wanted. This can be prevented with the right big man. It’s time for the Hornets to go out and find one.