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Coach Budenholzer hasn’t lost more than five straight games since his first season in Atlanta — until Friday’s 104-88 loss to the Detroit Pistons. The Hawks returned home Friday night in search of not only a win, but to find their mojo they had when they started the season 9-2.  One of — if not the biggest — keys to that run was the bench. A bench that ranked 4th in scoring and averaged 45 points a game in October has now slipped to 32 points per game over the last five games. Both units are struggling in a number of areas, but the offensive possessions are the most glaring.  

“I think we are all just in a bit of a rut right now,” Kyle Korver said post-game Friday night. “It’s the first unit, it’s the second unit. We need to get the ball moving again and get everybody involved.”

“I would say a lot of possessions are not good enough,” said a visibly frustrated Mike Budenhozer. “We are not getting the looks that we need to get and then when you do get a good look it puts a lot of pressure to make those good ones. The game gets hard that way; you want to be free flowing. I don’t think we are getting a lot of good possessions to make those good looks feel right.”

During the winning streak, whenever the starters were in a close contest the bench was there to save them. Whenever the starters had a substantial lead, Muscala, Sefolosha and Hardaway stretched it even further. The road trip called for the bench to step up more than ever, as the Hawks played five games in eight days. Those eight days consisted of a starting unit averaging just 25 points a game and shooting 37 percent from the field.  Once again, the starters struggled, shooting just 34 percent from the field tonight and once again contributing 45 points. The reserves simply weren’t enough to gloss over the troubles hindering the 1st unit.

“Some things we have to get better with, our pick and roll actions,” Kyle Korver said. “Dennis and Dwight are still new to each other in a lot of ways and they’re still figuring it out. We have to do whatever we can to help them, give them better spacing, but I think it’s a lot of parts of the offense that’s a problem, not just the pick and roll.”

The losing streak hurts, yes, but even worse is an absence of fear in opponents when they have to try and stifle this offense. An offense that was once able to wear defenses down until a white flag was waved or break out on a 12-2 run in a blink of an eye to shrink a deficit currently looks like a distant relative.

Defenses are making a stronger effort to close the paint off pick and rolls and, by doing so, throwing off an offense that works best when the inside presence is established first. Before the five game winning streak ended, Atlanta was ranked fourth in points in the paint — averaging 47 points a game — however, over the last three games, they’ve been held to just 38 points a game.

“Teams are sending three or four bodies at me as I’m rolling to the basket to make sure I don’t get any easy baskets,” Dwight Howard said. “They are forcing our guards to make plays, so it’s just a little adjustment that we are going to fix.”

The Hawks don’t  have many off days to rest and watch film to recuperate,m as they face the 2nd seed Toronto Raptors on Saturday night on the back end of a back-to-back, and return home Monday where Russell Westbrook awaits them.

After losing two straight over the weekend to the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks due to lack of energy, the Hawks returned home Tuesday night duplicating the same effort in a 112-94 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. The worst loss of their season entailed trailing by 35 at one point, Anthony Davis scoring just 13 points, lack of ball movement and plenty of head hanging. This game out of the three felt different, especially on a night rapper Gucci Mane brought so much energy and enthusiasm to Philips Arena with his highly anticipated halftime performance; the Hawks looked lifeless.

Their top-ranked defense looked out of sorts and uninspired, which attributed to the Pelicans shooting their second-highest field goal percentage of the season.

“They were too comfortable, they were too free, they had a lot of open looks,” said Coach Budenholzer postgame. “We couldn’t get to their shooters or contain the ball. 112 points total, 34, 32, 39 [first three quarter Pelican point total] that’s just way too many points, that’s not good enough defense.”

In the Budenholzer-era, this team has consistently been one of the best defenses the league has to offer; Hawks opponents are fully aware they will have to earn their points the hard way. The hardest part of the night for the New Orleans players looked like tying their shoes and putting on the jerseys.

Not only did they take it to the Hawks, but also guys like Tim Frazier and E’twaun Moore penetrated through Atlanta’s defense without a second thought. One of the founding principles of this defense is to make nothing easy in the paint, contest everything. The Hawks didn’t do that on Tuesday night and the Pelicans’ ball movement — 319 passes made — gave the Hawks a bit of their own medicine.

“They just played great basketball from the beginning to the end,” said Dwight Howard. “The moved the ball, the ball didn’t stick at all. They did a good job of finding the open man and attacking the gaps.”

Now after the most embarrassing loss of the season, this team looks ahead to a tough five game road trip starting with the Indiana Pacers and ending with the new look Golden State Warriors. This type of loss might of came at the right time, early enough to send a message and refocus, not too late enough to panic. That focus will be tested on their first lengthy road trip of the season, especially since they are shooting worse (45.2-percent) and accumulating less assists (22.5 per game) away from home in six games this season.

In an 82 game season, losing streaks say more about a team than the contrary, particularly for a squad with title aspirations like the Hawks. How they respond in Indiana Wednesday night will more than likely set the tone for the remainder of the trip, but also give insight into how mentally tough they are at this point.

“I think this will be good for us,” said Howard. “We need this early test because it will make us stronger. I think we will come out of all of this, a really good situation. We have to take it one game at a time; it’s going to be a tough trip.”

The second night of a back-to-back game usually requires much more production from a bench. The Hawks bench, currently ranked fifth in bench scoring, has been one of the league’s best thus far. In their sixth straight victory they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 107-100 without the services of Dwight Howard (quad) and Thabo Sefolosha (knee). The starters appeared sluggish and out of sync in the first quarter, shooting just 35 percent from the field, prompting Coach Budenholzer to quickly turn to his backups.

The Hawks began the second quarter trailing 26-21 until a SportsCenter top-10 dunk along the baseline by rookie Taurean Prince jumpstarted a 19-0 run.

“I thought Tauren was great,” Budenholzer said postgame. “Just the physicality he plays with, the aggressiveness he plays with, really gave us a big boost on both ends of the court.”

“That was really nice,” said Mike Muscala of Prince’s dunk. “I was pretty surprised, I did not see that coming. He’s going to be a really good player.”

Picked 12th in this year’s draft, many may have been expecting more appearances this season from Prince. However, with a veteran like Sefolosha that Bud can trust and the sharp shooting Tim Hardaway Jr has displayed, Prince has been forced to remain patient, but ready. He was just that on Wednesday night, logging eight points, five rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes of action.

“In my opinion the best teacher is experience,” Prince said. ” For me to get out there with the guys. We put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes that people don’t see. I am ready for the opportunity, whatever opportunity I can continue to get, I will continue to take advantage of it.”

The opportunities will be fed to Prince gradually as the season progresses under a Budenholzer that has a tendency to keep young wings on a short leash. Tim Hardaway Jr and Kent Bazemore both are examples of what happens when a organization takes time in laying out a program that makes a concerted effort to truly deduce — to a science — a player’s strengths and weaknesses, along with what steps need to be taken in order for him to maximize his talent.

“Just another testament of the Atlanta Hawks player development system,” said Bazemore on Prince’s play on Wednesday night. “A guy works hard every day and when he gets his name called he’s ready. That’s one of his [Taurean] greatest attributes is he’s fearless, he’s out there chirping, hitting people, finishing above the rim and that’s his game. It’s good when you can get a young fella this early in his career and be that confident.”

Confidence is what got him to the league — it’s part of what drew the Hawks to him and it’s also how he will gain minutes going further. The untapped potential he possesses, along with his high tenacity level, is a coach’s dream, especially to a true teacher of the game like Budenholzer. Prince, like any other rookie, is still grasping schemes, counters and what making the right play at this level entails, but if Wednesday night is any indication, his ascension has only just hit its genesis.

His dunk is a must see, a show stopper and one of the most exciting plays the Hawks have executed this year. But that alone won’t keep him on the floor — playing the Hawks’ brand of basketball will.

“Anybody that comes into our team you kind of have to learn how we play, said Korver. Its not about just having talent and attacking the basket, there’s a method to the madness. He’s got a lot of natural ability and talent. For him, I told him at half time his best play was when he drove to the basket and whipped it to Tim for the shot. I told him that was your best play, not the big awesome dunk that you had, which was incredible. He’s just got to keep feeling how we play and I think that is a great play to go back and review.”

 

Kent Bazemore hasn’t gotten off to the start he would like to so far this season offensively, but knocked off the rust just in time for one of his biggest free agency suitors this summer — the Houston Rockets. Bazemore finished the game with 20 points, shooting 7-12 from the field and 75 percent from beyond the arc. Last season he showed improvement all around, but especially from downtown, shooting 50 percent in the first six games as opposed to just 15 percent this season. It’s far too early to begin to panic, but after agreeing to a 4-year, $70 million contract in the offseason, more eyes are observing Bazemore than ever before.

“I don’t think it’s about the contract,” Bazemore said. “It’s about me having another year in the NBA, this is my fifth year. I have very high expectations for myself. I’m trying to exceed them for myself and I may be pressing a little, but that’s human nature, you want to be great.

Bazemore has mostly been known as a defender in this league, so his offensive production has rarely been his sole focus. He has always guarded the opposing team’s best wing player — like a James Harden or Lebron James — but now he’s also being asked to handle the ball a little bit more this season with the departure of Jeff Teague and insertion of a young Dennis Schroder, which may take some time to adjust. However, more responsibility offers a chance to reach his own offensive goals and aspirations. Guys like Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler can serve as an inspiration for someone like Bazemore — both dominant defensive wings who were able to work their way into being dominant two-way players.

“Being a two way player is what I want to be known for,” Bazemore said. “Defense is what got me here and is probably 10 percent physical attributes and the rest is mental. But I want to continue to expand my game as a player and don’t want to be a guy teams don’t have to guard because I’ve been that guy so much in my life.”

 

However, for Bazemore, his optimism stems from his play last year that resulted in career highs in several categories. Houston took notice of Kent’s improvement and aimed much of their offseason energy in his direction, hoping to add more versatility alongside Harden and Ariza. In a league obsessed with the long ball more than ever before, his services were in high demand. Bazemore’s. The decision between the two organizations was far from easy as his relationship with Coach Mike D’Antoni was strong enough to pique his interest.

 

Listen to Bazemore below as to what ultimately kept him in Atlanta.

 

 

At the moment he’s happy and secure in Atlanta under a Budenholzer system that puts him in the best positions to make an impact on the offensive end. The biggest task for him this season is finding a comfort zone off the dribble in midrange territory. Good defenses will force him off the three-point line and into circumstances when a pull up jumper is necessary. Coming into tonight’s game he was just 6-28 from 16 feet to the three point line

His bank account may have changed but the gleeful kid from Kelford, NC remains positive and grounded in what got him this far.

 

“It’s all about timing and putting in the rhythm. Still putting in the work,still showing up, still lifting weights and still playing defense. The shot will come, there is no need to panic”, said Bazemore.

 

Watch Bazemore’s first 20 point game of the season below!