Look Back On 2021 Hawks
Kamil Krzaczynski/NBAE via Getty Images)
By: KL Chouinard
As the Hawks head into the calendar year of 2022, it makes sense to take stock of what they accomplished over the 12 months of 2021.
The answer: They accomplished a lot.
Whether you prefer Trae Young's victorious bow in Madison Square Garden, Kevin Huerter's closeout Game 7 in Philadelphia, or John Collins' repeated onslaught on NBA rims, all those ingredients combined into a season where the Hawks went deeper into the playoffs than they had since the franchise moved to Atlanta: winning two games of the Conference Finals against the eventual NBA champs.
If the Hawks' current 16-19 win-loss record is not what the team had hoped for the second half of 2021, it compares to where the team sat after 35 games last season when they held a 15-20 record.
For the past two weeks, absences to the health and safety protocol have shredded the roster to just bits and pieces of the personnel the team had to start the season. Despite the absences, the Hawks have a pair of recent wins, good wins over Eastern Conference rivals who had healthier rosters than them. And in each of those wins, a player shined in such a way as to inspire a healthy dose of optimism for 2022.
In Friday's 131-128 win over Cleveland, Trae Young put together a doozy: 35 points, 11 assists, 4 rebounds. He made 5 of 12 threes. But the box-score numbers only tell part of the story.
Against the Cavaliers, the opposing defense made stopping Trae the top priority, as they always do. On the other hand, the task of thriving in the face of such attention got exponentially more difficult when 15 players, including most of the usual rotation players, were out with illness or injury.
The Hawks set a team record by recording just two turnovers, halving the previous record. Trae himself seemed surprised by the achievement.
"I don't know," he laughed. "We just kept the ball in certain guys' hands and made the right reads. We didn't shoot the best percentages tonight, but we got a lot of shots up and it ultimately led us to a win."
For the most part, the Hawks kept things simple out of necessity. They had Trae running point, Clint Capela doing the hefty lifting as Trae's pick-and-roll partner, and Chaundee Brown, Skylar Mays and Wes Iwundu doing some three-point shot hunting (a mandatory ingredient when teams really try to load up on Trae and Capela).
Head coach Nate McMillan noted the pressure that the Cavs threw at Trae, including a number of plays like this one, where both pick-and-roll defenders extended out to take the ball out of Trae's hands.
"With all the pressure that he was seeing tonight, I thought he did a beautiful job of just managing the game and changing his tempo in the fourth quarter," McMillan said.
In scoring 35 points, Trae reached the 25-point threshold for a 15th consecutive game, the longest in the NBA this season. That kind of scoring prowess has buoyed the Hawks through some injury turbulence. In fact, in averaging 27.5 points per game (4th in the NBA through games played Sunday) and 9.4 assists (3rd in the NBA), Trae easily merits a spot in the All-Star Game and then some. He has also played well enough to merit strong consideration for an All-NBA Team for the first time in his career. He deserves it.
Like Trae, center Onyeka Okongwu played brilliantly in a recent win. In just his third game back with the Hawks after recovering from right shoulder surgery, Okongwu started opposite All-Star Joel Embiid and finished with 13 points and 8 rebounds in a Hawks win.
"Hell of a game from him," Bogdan Bogdanovic said of Okongwu afterward.
Again, the boxscore numbers only tell part of the story; in Okongwu's case, he made a number of plays like this one for which no box score entry gets recorded. With a healthy assist from John Collins on a number of double teams, Okongwu did just about as good a job limiting Embiid as any NBA center can do.
"He's a dog. He brings that juice, that energy," Collins said. "I love playing with Onyeka. He's obviously very active on the defensive end."
Okongwu has a rare combination of size, quickness and heads-up savvy that merited his selection as the sixth overall pick of the 2020 Draft. The Hawks obviously will rely on starter Clint Capela, just as they did in winning last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals against Embiid and the Sixers, but Okongwu should bolster the overall center depth and give them an agile option against smaller lineups that they have not had during his recovery.
The sheer variety of Okongwu's three breathtaking 4th-quarter blocks tell you that he can be something special. Combine that sort of rim protection with his offensive touch – he has shot 65.1 percent from the field in his short NBA career, including a healthy 52.0 percent on shots between 3 and 10 feet – and it is difficult not to get excited about his potential.
2022 holds the answers of how high the Hawks – and Trae and Onyeka – can rise. It should be a treat to see.