After a rough stretch of basketball that even included a supposed “emotional outburst” from the team following a loss, the Hawks have been playing their best of late and are beginning to get healthy for the first time all season. That continued on Tuesday night against a Heat team that is one of the best in the Eastern Conference and was 10-0 at home coming into yesterday.
Led by Jimmy Butler and a young core of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro, Miami jumped out to a 23-5 lead over Atlanta. It would have been reasonable for a young Hawks team to put their head down with an attitude of “here we go again,” but they kept fighting and went into the locker room trailing by just two at halftime.
Trae Young pitched in his typical 21 points and nine assists, but it was rookie De’Andre Hunter stealing the spotlight for the first time all season as a scorer. The rangy small forward dropped 28 points on 11-17 from the field and 5-10 from three-point range to go along with his four rebounds, three assists, and zero turnovers. Quite a stat line, and just another reason to believe Hunter’s ceiling could be much higher than many scouts ever imagined.
The former National Champion at Virginia is the latest Hawks rookie to shows signs of stardom. His three-point shot is excelling at a much faster rate than most first-year players, as he’s already shooting 36.5% from behind the arc after a slow start. We already know about his defense, but it is his ability to create his own shot that should have Hawks fans giddy about his future. Hunter is proving to be one of the next building blocks Atlanta can lean on – only 24 games into his rookie year – and this won’t be the last time we see this type of scoring outburst from him.
His performance led to the Hawks pulling away with a six-point lead in the final minute of regulation following a dunk by Alex Len. After which, Atlanta’s star point guard looked to the crowd and said, “It’s over.” That’s when things got gloomy for the Hawks, starting with a questionable decision by their head coach, Lloyd Pierce.
Like most intelligent coaches would have, Pierce subbed out Trae Young during a timeout to put in a better defender. However, the key to that is calling a timeout after the possession to put your best offensive player back in the game when you have the ball. Miami cut the lead in half with a three, and Pierce decided not to call one of his two remaining timeouts to sub Young back into the game. The result was an abysmal possession that ended with DeAndre’ Bembry being stuffed at the rim. Jimmy Butler would answer with another three to tie the game, and the Hawks were heading to OT, where things spiraled out of control.
Trae Young said after the game, “Our energy was dead as soon as overtime started,” which led to a 15-0 Miami run to begin the period, squashing the Hawks hopes of handing the Heat their first loss at home.
While the game ended in disappointment, highlighted by a poor coaching decision that Lloyd Pierce owned up to during his postgame press conference, it was still a positive sign for the Hawks moving forward. After a nightmare start that included a handful of significant injuries and a 25-game PED suspension to their second-best player, Atlanta looks like they can compete with the cream of the crop again.
Miami is a fantastic young basketball team with a superstar to lead them. Taking the Heat to the wire in their building, while it might not feel the same as a win, should not be looked down upon. The Hawks travel to Chicago to face the Bulls tonight, and I have a feeling – even on the second night of a road back-to-back – this group is going to show up ready to leave with a win.