Tonight he Memphis Grizzlies are in the ATL to take on the Atlanta Hawks. When these teams last met, Ja Morant went down in the first quarter and the Hawks crushed the Grizz 132-100. After the loss in late November Memphis dropped to 9-10 and Atlanta improved to 11-9, but since then a lot has changed. Ja’s injury allowed the rest of the roster to showcase their depth, and the team has been in a groove ever since. Meanwhile, Atlanta has hovered around .500 all season and allows the tenth most points per game in the entire NBA.
Trae Young has averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds in 7 games against the Grizzlies. Jaren Jackson Jr., who was selected a pick before Young in the 2018 NBA draft, has only played two games against the Hawks in his career but has averaged 19 points, 6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
To preview this game, I spoke with Wes Morton, a staff writer for Peachtree Hoops — SB Nation’s Atlanta Hawks blog — to discuss tonight’s matchup of two of the league’s best point guards.
1) After Atlanta’s incredible run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, has this season been a disappointment for Hawks fans?
Yes, it has been a modest disappointment. The Hawks were packed with young talent and it seemed like they had arrived as a perennial force in the Eastern Conference after switching coaches midseason. Instead, they have been fighting to stay .500 all season and don’t look nearly as dangerous entering the postseason.
2) What, particularly, has caused the Hawks to not meet expectations this season?
A couple of things. For one, they rank in the bottom five in defensive efficiency. They only have one or two rotation players capable of facing off against star players at the point of attack (De’Andre Hunter and maybe Delon Wright) and the secondary perimeter help defense is unsightly. Some of that is due to the short offseason after the playoff run and nagging injuries to rotation players, but much of it is just a lack of execution.
Second, the schemes installed from former interim and now head coach Nate McMillan in the offseason are largely vanilla. The offense has thrived despite it, but they can’t seem to work together as a defensive unit and continue to make basic coverage mistakes.
3) Trae broke out as an All-Star Game starter a year ago. This season, it was Ja’s turn. In this battle of two of the league’s best point guards, what are you looking forward to seeing?
Both guys have been a joy to watch in their early careers. I particularly like seeing how each team has built around each players’ respective strengths which allows them the freedom to take over a game when necessary. Whether it’s 30-foot bombs from Trae or jaw-dropping dunks from Ja, each guy is only a split-second from a highlight-reel play.
4) The Grizz and the Hawks are two of the deepest teams in the league. Who is a role player that Grizz fans need to watch out for tonight?
It’s not often that a backup center is highlighted, but Onyeka Okongwu has been a spark of energy off the bench so far this season. He has great defensive activity, versatility and fearlessness, plus he can be a force near the rim on lobs and rolls offensively. He’ll be needed against the strong Memphis Grizzlies frontcourt.
5) Atlanta currently sits at 9th in the Eastern Conference, a game back from the Brooklyn Nets and a game up on the Charlotte Hornets. Can the Hawks make any noise in the play-in tournament?
Possibly, but even so, a long playoff run like last year probably isn’t in the cards. The Hawks would likely be battling a feisty Charlotte, Brooklyn after the return of Kevin Durant, and a Toronto team that has had Atlanta’s number this season. The Hawks just haven’t been consistent enough against good teams this year to inspire much confidence.