The Atlanta Hawks came through in the clutch to pick up a huge victory against the OKC Thunder — in OKC — 110-108 on Monday night. The Thunder will be disappointed, falling short despite 46 points from Russell Westbrook. For the Hawks, they bounce back following their home loss to OKC on December 5th and, more recently, their home loss against the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday evening.
More lineup changes and a Paul Millsap clinic
Dwight Howard was a late scratch from this game with a sore back and Bud went with a different lineup in his absence this time around. When Dwight sat out against the Bucks on November 16th with a calf injury, Coach Bud inserted Mike Muscala into the starting lineup alongside Paul Millsap. This time Bud went with a different lineup: he went with Paul Millsap at center and surrounded him with wing players. Even before the Dwight news broke, we knew that Kent Bazemore was returning to the starting lineup. So, Baze started alongside Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver with Paul Millsap starting at center.
I was surprised to see Bud head in this direction (to go super small), but it was an inspired decision and the right decision. We also got to see a little bit of the Hawks from last season in the process. While Dwight brings a much different package compared to what Al Horford brings and what Millsap was bringing to the game at center reminded me of Al Horford. Defenses respected Al’s three-point shot, you couldn’t sag off of him too much otherwise he could either step in to a mid-range shot (where he’s money) or just take the three. With this respect brought the opposing center a little bit outside of his comfort zone, out of the paint, and this opened driving lanes and other areas where the Hawks could take advantage. With Dwight, you can sag off as much as you like, and driving lanes are a little harder to find when Dwight’s man can just hover near the rim, not having to worry about an outside shot from Dwight. Now, this isn’t a Al vs. Dwight argument, but Paul Millsap showed what the Hawks miss (again, Dwight brings something different, which does not mean bad) by not having a center that can space the floor.
Look at this possession, for example. Steven Adams doesn’t want to have to guard Paul Millsap on the perimeter, but Paul’s ability to make this shot from the center position creates a problem:
Because Paul can make this shot on a regular basis, Adams has to make a decision that he’s going to have to be a little closer to Millsap. And that opens up other opportunities…
Not long after that last possession, Adams decides he does have to wander from the paint to cover the three-point threat of Millsap. This opened up a beautiful driving lane for Dennis Schröder to attack.
And in action:
Plays like this aren’t possible without the spacing that Millsap provides and this something that the Hawks have been missing slightly when Dwight is in the lineup.
Millsap had a huge game, scoring a season high 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting and 3-of-5 from behind the arc, including the game winner.
Let’s go over that game winner, shall we?
Let’s set the scene: It’s Atlanta ball, side-out, following a timeout with the game tied at 108 apiece.
Firstly, the Hawks drain some clock before Millsap makes his move with about 11 seconds left on the shot clock. He goes to set the screen before fading to the three-point line where he receives the ball from Dennis. Baze is going to vacate his spot in between Korver and Millsap and head over to where Thabo Sefolosha is placed, and Thabo will head into the paint. Here’s an easier way to look at it:
Korver is going to receive the ball from Millsap off of the handoff and Paul will set the screen to free up Korver. Russell Westbrook covers for his teammate and switches onto Korver and is in the right place to contest any shot Korver takes. Andre Roberson decides that he’s also going to contest Korver’s shot, even though Westbrook has eliminated any possibility of a good shot being taken. Millsap, in the midst of all this, is going to slip to the block and Korver is going to find him.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, Roberson’s decision to try to get to his man (now Westbrook’s man) means that Paul Millsap is allowed to slip away and is now in a position to take an open shot once Korver delivers him the ball. By the time Millsap rises to take the shot, two of his teammates are wide open behind the arc should Millsap have decided to pass again.
Of course, an open Paul Millsap on the block is a decent shot to have available to you, and he duly sinks it to put the Hawks on the high-side 110-108, the eventual final score.
Paul Millsap, still trill. And as it turned out, also the third option of the play.
“It was a great play coach called up. Went through our first option. Went through our second option. I was able to catch the ball, put it up to the rim and it went in.” — Paul Millsap
You’d have to imagine that the handoff and screen for Kyle Korver was one of the options of this play, but the first? Surely the screen and fade for a Millsap three? It’s hard to say, but either way it was a great play drawn up by the coaching staff that proved to be the game winner.
Millsap scored 30 points, but this wasn’t even a team high. He had help…
Dennis’ big game
Dennis Schröder also played a great game last night, scoring 31 points (the third time this season he has scored 30 or more points in a game) on 10-of-16 shooting — shooting 10-of-10 from the free throw line — and dishing out eight assists.
For some reason Russell Westbrook didn’t guard Schröder an awful lot during this game but it didn’t matter a whole lot. Schröder was able to deal a lot of damage off of the dribble, no matter who was guarding him, with no one seemingly able to slow him down. Victor Oladipo would, probably, have been able to handle Schröder but was sidelined with a wrist injury.
Dennis was also helped by the spacing that Paul Millsap provided, opening up driving lanes for him to attack. From a play we’ve looked at already:
What was especially satisfying to watch was watching Dennis utilise his speed, taking on opponents off of the dribble. Dennis was able to get to the rim on a consistent basis, getting to the free throw line a season high 10 times, knocking down all 10 of his attempts.
“He is playing the best basketball of his career.” — Kyle Korver
Over his last five games, Dennis is averaging 23.8 points per game on 57% shooting while shooting 52.6% from behind the arc and 7.4 assists in 35 minutes per game.
“I just tried to do everything I can to win games. He (Coach Bud) got on me. He said do this, do that, do this. I just try to compete out there.” — Dennis Schröder
It’s weird to score 31 points, shoot as well as Dennis did last night and yet still be outplayed by your opposite number. But hey, that’s just what Russell Westbrook does. Regardless, a great night for Dennis, who is putting a very good run of games together.
Crucial four point swing
In Saturday’s loss to the Hornets, a play took place where the Hawks missed a layup — that perhaps on a different day would roll in rather than out — only for the Hornets to take the rebound and seal the game with a three-pointer.
Instead of tying the game, the Hawks found themselves down five with 27 seconds left, a hole that proved too deep to climb out of with what time remained.
Last night a swing of similar significance took place, this time in the Hawks’ favor. The Thunder are up 106-104 and are in possession of the ball with just under two minutes remaining. Steven Adams finds the cutting Andre Roberson steaming across the paint and he passes the ball to him. Roberson — surrounded by four Hawks players — fakes the layup to clear a few bodies, manoeuvres all the space he needs and misses the wide open layup. The Hawks go down the other end, move the ball around with the play eventually ending with Kent Bazemore nailing the long two-pointer to tie the game at 106 apiece.
Instead of going up by four points with a minute and a half remaining, the game is now tied and the Thunder are on the back foot, their six point fourth quarter lead wiped clean. Had they made that layup, the Thunder — while there was still enough time for the Hawks to mount a comeback — would’ve been in the drivers seat to take this game home. What goes around comes around, very quickly in this league as it turns out.
Lack of bench help leads to heavy minutes for starters
The starters had to carry a very heavy scoring load last night in order to secure victory. 96 out of the 110 points the Hawks scored coming from the starting five, meaning the bench contributed just 14 points. Part of that obviously has to do with Korver having to start this game, but the normal bench cast just couldn’t impact the game. Mike Muscala struggled, 0-for-2 in 11 minutes of play and a plus/minus rating of -13. Malcolm Delaney only played 11 minutes while Mike Scott played seven minutes.
Because of this lack of bench help, Coach Bud had to play his starters for longer than he would normally prefer. Bud doesn’t normally like playing his guys extensively over 30 minutes if he can avoid it, but last night all five of his starters played at least 33 minutes and this happened because the bench couldn’t impact the game
With the Hawks’ backup point guard playing just 11 minutes, some of the ball handling responsibilities were handed to Kent Bazemore when neither Dennis or Delaney were on the floor, and Baze did a solid job dishing out six assists. Kyle Korver also dished out six assists in addition to Baze’s six and Dennis’ eight.
The bench rotation was out of sorts with the Dwight injury but this should return to normal, Dwight is not expecting to be on the sideline for very long:
“It’s (the back injury) nowhere near anything long term. In the Toronto game, it’s been bothering me since then. It started flaring up after the last game. Instead of allowing it to keep going and playing through it, rest it and I should be ready to go Wednesday.” — Dwight Howard
Bud-Baze’s pregame handshake?
I’m not sure what kind of pregame handshake this was supposed to be between Coach Bud and Kent Bazemore, but it was amusing to watch.
The Hawks (14-14) are back in action on Wednesday at Philips Arena where they’ll take on the Minnesota Timberwolves, the first of two meetings between the two teams this week.