The Hawks came into Wednesday's game with an opportunity to tie the Heat for first in the Southeast Division at 14-6, and they did so in convincing fashion thumping the Bobcats 113-90. For the Bobcats, it was their 10th consecutive loss after starting the season a promising 7-5, and for the Hawks it was their 10th win in their last 12 games. Larry Drew said before the game that he hoped to be able to rest his starters and extend his bench minutes in the second game of a back-to-back with so many of his starters logging major minutes in the last week. He got his wish as the bench unit had their best game of the season. After the Hawks jumped out to an early 15-10 lead, Drew took out four starters, leaving Josh Smith in. That unit was able to extend the Hawks lead to 30-19 by the end of the quarter, and from there Drew was able to trust his bench to not only maintain a lead, but to also build on one.
"I was very happy [with the bench play]. After last night's game, I knew tonight's game would be a hard fought game. You don't know how games are going to turn out.," said Drew. "You don't know if you're going to get big leads or not, but somehow someway I had to find some rest time for my starters. When we did get a lead, I put the reserves in and they did a great job, actually they built the lead. So I was very pleased with that. We have to try and [get guys rest], as much as we can, because we have a grueling schedule ahead. So, hopefully we can put the reserves in and get them to maintain leads or build off of them."
The rest of the game the Hawks were able to put it in cruise control as they dominated the first three quarters offensively, scoring 30, 30, and 31 points respectively (the first time they've had 30 in 3 quarters this year). They shot the ball extremely well, finishing the game at 57.3% from the field and 48.3% from three-point range. The ball movement was crisp as the Hawks assisted on 28 of their 43 made shots. Defensively, Atlanta held the Bobcats to 43% shooting and just 28.6% from beyond the arc. On the whole, the Hawks were very solid in their rotations and challenging shooters, and the bigs denied the Bobcats easy looks in the paint.
The Hawks bench had its best game as a unit scoring 56 of the team's 113 points, and it was led by Devin Harris' 20 point performance. Lou Williams added 13 points and a career-high nine dimes, but there was one player that shined above the rest and Larry Drew was sure to give him his due after the game.
"I thought we had a lot of really good performances tonight, but I want to pay special attention to a guy who I thought responded just phenomenally. And that's Ivan Johnson. I hadn't been playing him -- he hadn't played the last two or three games -- but he cam in tonight and responded, and had an impact on the game. Immediately when he got into the game, you felt his presence. That's who he is, and that's what we look for from him."
Ivan had a season-best 16 points, eight rebounds, and two steals in 28 minutes on the floor, and was very active at both ends. Ivan, in a way only Ivan can, summed up his season-best night. (Including the time it took me to ask two questions and him to answer them, it took exactly 24 seconds. Ivan operates under shot-clock rules at all times.)
"Hmm, I had fresh legs. I ain't played in two games so I got to stretch the legs out. That's just how I play [with energy]. Coming off the bench that's how you gotta play if you want some minutes."
As for the Hawks dominating performance; it was the first time the Hawks have not allowed an opponent to cut the lead to single-digits in the fourth quarter. For weeks Drew has been telling his team (and the media) that he wanted the Hawks to begin building a "killer instinct" and keep the pressure on teams when they have them down. Tonight was a step in that direction. Part of that killer instinct is being able to have the bench maintain leads when the starters are out, as well as just building a mind-set to never let up.
"I think we were able to keep executing. I think that we didn't get complacent," said Josh Smith. "Normally when we get big leads we tend to get complacent a little bit and let our guard down, but tonight we were able to keep our foot on the gas and not let up."
Learning how to play with a big lead is a good problem to have on a regular basis, and while the Bobcats are not a great team by any measure, they have taken the Hawks to the wire earlier in the year and have been competitive in many of their games this season. Learning to beat lesser teams handily would be a big step for a Hawks team that has historically played down (and up) to competition (see: Cavaliers, Cleveland). Being able to rest starters to keep them fresh late in the year and into the postseason would be a real asset to this team. Thursday night was a step in that direction, now it's a matter of building on that and we'll just have to wait and see.