Kevin Huerter Had a Good Day
The Hawks are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals.
To get there, to win a Game 7 on the road for the first time in franchise history, they needed another heroic performance from a rotating cast of heroes. On this night, Kevin Huerter answered the summons, scoring a team-high 27 points to lift the Hawks' to a 103-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
"We call him 'K'Von' in Atlanta," John Collins said in a jubilant postgame interview. "K-apostrophe-V-O-N. He was great tonight. Amazing. We couldn't ask for much more from Kev."
The list of possible heroes shortened significantly over the course of the series. With De'Andre Hunter out due to a meniscus tear and Bogdan Bogdanovic fighting his way through knee soreness, the Hawks needed a counterpunch. The Sixers present an overwhelming defense, featuring three of the ten players on this season's All-Defense teams: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. Smartly, the Sixers made limiting Trae Young their top priority. Trae is too good not to do that. They guarded Trae with Simmons, and when Trae got into pick-and-roll actions with Clint Capela, it placed one long All-Defense player in front of his path to the rim (Embiid) while another chased him from behind (Simmons). Trae fought to generate offense in spite of it, but oftentimes that meant running the action to pass instead of to score.
The Hawks needed a scoring boost.
"With guys going out, we're definitely telling him that we need him to be more aggressive and score the ball a little bit more – and just play free," Trae said. "Relax, have fun, score when you've got it, and make the right play."
When teams put big defenders on Trae, it leaves smaller defenders elsewhere, and the Hawks advanced to Conference Finals on the strength of Huerter's efforts to exploit the situation.
"Trae continued to look for me," Huerter said. "He was getting doubled all series. I got to the ball, and I was just trying to get to that midrange and get to my shots."
Huerter has something of a unique offensive playstyle. He has both a shooting range that extends well beyond the three-point line and the ability to make things happen off the dribble. Great playoff defenses, like the one posed by the Sixers in this series, can close out on shooters and dissuade three-point attempts. Some players counter by attacking those closeouts with drives to the rim. Others drive and kick to open teammates.
For Huerter, he manipulates the closeouts by driving to the free-throw line, where he attacks the defense like an old-school post player with an assortment of spin moves and fallaways that take advantage of his 6-foot-7 frame.
"From watching film and from learning from stuff this whole year," Huerter said, "my better games have been where I've gotten my midrange game going and I was aggressive trying to get to 15 feet, that 10-foot mark – and especially with a smaller defender guarding me tonight and just trying to get to my spots (to) elevate and make shots."
Huerter extended that midrange prowess to another level in Game 7, hitting 10 of his 18 shots, and specifically, making six of his seven attempts from inside the free throw circle
"He plays the right way," Collins said. "He has fun. He stays in his game. That's the best part about Kevin: He gets to his spots. He knows where his spots are. I feel like he's just confident once he gets there. It just helps him with his game tremendously because we all know what he can do with the basketball."
So in the postgame euphoria following the Game 7 upset, Collins broke out Huerter's 'K'Von' nickname one more time. He has used it before. When 'Red Velvet' started to catch on, Collins reminded the media that K'Von was the prominent moniker within the locker room.
And the first time that Collins used that nickname publicly came after the Hawks' open scrimmage back in Oct. 2018. On that day, each of the Hawks rookies carried a karaoke tune in front of teammates and fans. In a Halloween costume, no less. Huerter, dressed like a pirate, performed Ice Cube's It Was a Good Day.
A long three seasons later, Huerter finished with 27 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in a Game 7 win. He didn't mess around and get a triple-double, and it didn't matter. Sunday was a good day.