ATLANTA — Two thirds of the Hawks’ newly minted $70 million trio — Dwight Howard (11 points, 19 rebounds), Dennis Schroder (14 points) and Kent Bazemore (7 points, one for seven shooting) — played admirably on Thursday night, but it was the play of two bench players — quintessential Hawks basketball — that triggered a 24-4 run in the fourth quarter that sealed, then sent, the proverbial letter to give Atlanta a 114-99 opening night victory over the Washington Wizards.
The game was close throughout — neither side held a lead larger than eight — until the fourth quarter. The aforementioned bench players, Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points, eight for 13 shooting) and Thabo Sefolosha (13 points, six for eight shooting), wreaked havoc on defense along the perimeter, relentlessly pressuring the Wizards into a series of bad passes and poor shot selections in a fourth quarter that the Hawks entered with a mere one point lead.
“Even I could figure out [Sefolosha and Hardaway Jr.] were playing pretty decent,” Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “There would have been like 18 hands and arms pulling me back if I tried to take them out.”
Dwight Howard’s regular season homecoming debut was a fruitful showing. Besides grabbing his customary double-digit rebounds, he navigated the post with some nimble back-to-the-basket moves — but it was his presence on defense that manifested to be his greatest contribution. Howard’s defensive presence in the paint was palpable, contesting shots to a tune of only three fouls in 30 minutes of play, proving to be every bit the interior threat that the Hawks wanted him to be when they signed him to a three-year, $70.5 million deal in the offseason.
But, evidently it was the amount of rebounds Howard notched that impressed him the most.
“I got boards in Atlanta,” exclaimed Howard to no one in particular, in the tune of Desiigner’s “Panda,” as he readied for a shower post-game.
The steady hand of Paul Millsap proved, as he always does, why he may be the most underrated player in the NBA. Millsap aptly exploited the poor defense of Markieff Morris to the tune of an easy 28 points to go along with seven rebounds on 55 percent shooting. Morris was no match for Millsap’s potpourri of spin and hesitation moves, which were often started on the perimeter, where Millsap was able to bait Morris too close with pump fakes from three, giving Millsap ample time to drive past and directly towards the hoop.
Ultimately, there were a few signs of the early-season rust that can be easily rinsed away — if all goes right — as the season progresses.
“This was our first game [but] our spacing wasn’t great tonight on the break,” Korver said. “I think we executed pretty well, but we’ve seen practices where outlets are getting further out there — they’re getting up the floor faster.”
If Thursday’s night triumph served as any indication, there isn’t much rust for the Hawks to scrub off as they adjust to the beginning of another arduous season. But, even a small amount of rust on a metal pipe requires the time, the tools and the persistence to remove it completely.
The Hawks play next at Philadelphia on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 12:00 p.m.