ATLANTA — Luka Doncic and Trae Young will spend the entirety of their NBA careers connected to one another, and in Thursday night’s season debut, they connected, violently.
Doncic, listed at 230 pounds, barreled into the lane midway through the second quarter, frustration at a difficult night already evident on his face. There waiting for him stood Young, 50 pounds lighter. The collision crumpled Young, and even before he hit the ground, he was looking for a call that wouldn’t come.
The collision was one of the few times in the game Doncic bested Young. The Hawks, feeling themselves in the first game after the deepest postseason run in Atlanta history, ran the Mavericks out of the gym, winning 113-87 in a game that slipped out of Dallas’ control early.
It’s one game of 82. But it was enough to fuel both the Hawks’ growing confidence and spur the Mavericks’ concerns.
“It is one game, but I think the important thing about tonight’s game is that it was a home game,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We talked [as a team] about the importance of winning here at home because the road is so tough. We came out and established ourselves right from the start, and beat a very good team.”
For Dallas, Doncic finished in the range of a triple-double, with 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. But he was only 6 of 17 from the field, and he had little help; only Tim Hardaway Jr., Kristaps Porzingis and an off-the-bench Jalen Brunson broke double figures. As a whole, the team shot just 33% from the field on the night.
“Good players like Luka, you’re not going to stop those guys,” McMillan said. “But if you can make it hard for them, make it difficult to score, not allow them to get clean looks or break you down or get opportunities for others, you’re doing a good job.”
Reserve Cam Reddish paced the Hawks with 20 points, and Young, after a slow start, added 19, including a few cinematic 3-pointers that kept the State Farm Arena crowd in a state of unfamiliar delirium.
“I started out slow, trying to get everyone involved,” Young said after the game, sporting an “Atlanta Georgia Changed My Life” T-shirt. “I had a lot of boneheaded plays. If I could go back and do it over again, I would be more aggressive and look for my shot. … After I made a couple shots go down, they started opening up for everybody else.”
Both the Hawks and Mavericks ran out starting lineups that were essentially the same ones as the end of last season. Given that both these teams made last season’s playoffs but neither reached the Finals, standing pat requires either the confidence that the lineup has markedly improved, or the hope that an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach will work. For Atlanta, the gamble paid off; for Dallas, it’s still a question mark.
After 13 years of Rick Carlisle, Dallas has a brand-new head coach in Jason Kidd, but Kidd was effectively handed a playoff-ready roster headlined by one of the NBA’s top players. A coach doesn’t really get any kind of honeymoon when sitting down to a table with so many chips already in front of him, and Kidd is under immediate pressure to deliver.
A 4-0 preseason in which Kidd turned loose his stars raised hopes that he could help the team level up. His emphasis on a swarming defense paid early returns, as the Mavericks leaped out to an early 10-2 lead and held Young scoreless for the first 20 minutes of game time.
But slowly, inexorably, it all fell apart, and Dallas never held the lead after the first quarter. Freed to create their own shots, the Mavericks created nothing but a sloppy mess. Their emphasis on defense evaporated in the face of a Hawks offense that spread scoring around among 10 players, six with double figures. The Hawks’ rabid cheering section kicked up “start the bus!” chants with seven minutes left in the game.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is seeing the results of a multiyear down-to-the-studs teardown and rebuild. McMillan has enough depth that he can run out essentially two complete units — he calls them “fists,” holding up his own to illustrate — with the expectation that both units can swarm the boards and fill the bucket with short-term intensity that another team can’t match.
“When you have depth, the strength is in your numbers,” McMillan said. “There’s no need to pace yourself when you have a bench that can come in and should be able to play and keep the pressure on an opponent, both defensively as well as offensively.”
Thursday marked a good night for the Hawks. The NBA finally acknowledged the breadth of franchise legend Dominique Wilkins’ career by naming him to its Top 75 list, and the Hawks themselves looked, for a night at least, like a team fully capable of burning a path right back to the postseason. (The hometown crowd reveled in an early Freddie Freeman homer in Game 5 of the NCLS — the Hawks even showed it on State Farm Arena’s mammoth screen — but the Braves let the game get away from them, and no more Braves highlights aired.)
Thursday could eventually also mark a good night for the Mavericks, if only as a reminder that having one of the league’s best players alone isn’t enough without surrounding him with complementary shooters and defensive pests.
“No need to overreact,” Porzingis said. “We’ve just got to organize a little bit and bounce back and just catch that rhythm offensively.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]