By KL Chouinard
The Hawks are getting lots of solid two-way play from their shot-blockers.
In fact, the Hawks are the only team with three players ranked in the NBA's top-25 leaderboard for blocks per game (through games played Monday). Onyeka Okongwu ranks 14th with 1.29 blocks, Clint Capela sits 16th with 1.25, and John Collins ranks 23rd with 1.08.
"Really?" Collins said with some surprise when informed of the rankings. "That’s big time. That means we’ve got some really good paint defenders on this squad.”
Collins is absolutely right about that fact. Rim protectors have a vital role in adding an extra layer to the defense. The Hawks are fortunate to have two in the starting lineup and another coming off the bench. But perhaps what is just as notable is that the trio is contributing in lots of other ways as well. Both Capela (65.2 percent) and Okongwu (64.1 percent) currently sit ahead of the franchise best mark for field goal percentage held by Dwight Howard's 63.3 percent mark set in the 2016-17 season.
Additionally, both have looked more comfortable working around the rim in Head Coach Quin Snyder's offense. In their past eight games, Capela and Okongwu have combined to make 87 of 110 field-goal attempts – an astounding 79.1 percent clip.
While those two work inside, John Collins, the best outside shooter of the trio, is often tasked with spacing the floor. Over the same span of eight games, his three-point shooting has ticked up to fall more in line with his career average (10 for 28, 35.1 percent) as he has worked with Assistant General Manager Kyle Korver on getting to the best version of his jump shot.
"I call him the zen master for a reason," Collins said of Korver. "I've just enjoyed working with him. We were really just talking about my hand placement on the ball, and a lot of mental tips and just things that I can go to mentally to lock in so that I'm ready to shoot."
One of the delicate dances that the Hawks are trying to figure out under Snyder is how to best approach their transition defense. Fast breaks are perhaps as important as they've ever been in the NBA, with pace up and the new rule to eliminate take fouls in effect. Some aspects of transition defense, such as avoiding live-ball turnovers, are fairly obvious, or at the very least, easy to state.
But others, like how to crash the offensive glass while also having enough defenders getting back in transition, are more subtle. For the Hawks, having two rim protectors in the starting lineup is a luxury. Capela ranks 2nd in the NBA with 4.2 offensive rebounds per game through a well-honed combination of leaping and leverage – and a clever knack of tipping the ball to himself.
Capela also has the benefit of sharing the floor with Collins, who can protect the rim for the team's transition defense while he himself looks for opportunities for offensive rebounds on the other end of the floor.
"I feel like every time I'm on the glass, when I go back on defense, JC is already back," Capela said. "He's always got my back. It works out pretty well."
Snyder doesn't have hard-and-fast rules on when and how Capela and Collins should crash the offensive glass save for one: avoid "purgatory" at all costs. To put it another way, he wants his players to either crash the glass hard or get back to defend with haste – just don't get stuck in the middle where one can't do much of either.
Collins also noted that a key opportunity for him to get offensive rebounds comes when opponents play switching defenses that often end up with smaller defenders guarding him. When those switches happen, he seizes the opportunity to exploit the size matchup.
As the Hawks approach their final seven regular-season games, the overall strong interior play should help them in their chase of play-in and playoff berths. If they are successful, such play will be even more important when the pace of postseason games slows down and the overall level of physicality goes up.