After a fantastic win over the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the week, the Atlanta Hawks stared at another big-time challenge on Saturday night in Houston without the services of Jeff Teague. However, the team responded in a significant way, leading for the great majority of the night, and in the end, the Hawks triumphed over the Rockets by a final score of 104-97.
Early in the night, the offense picked up where it left off in Cleveland. Atlanta scored 13 points in the first three and a half minutes of the game, and that included two beautiful mid-range jumpers from Al Horford and two long-distance bombs from DeMarre Carroll. That offensive binge was quelled by Houston, who put together a 9-2 run to claim the lead at 19-15, but it was encouraging to see the offense firing on all cylinders once again.
From there, the first quarter was largely a back and forth affair, but the Hawks had the last word. Keyed by the bench, Atlanta raced to a 12-3 run to close the first period, and with that, Mike Budenholzer's team claimed a 32-26 lead after one. The offense was, clearly, the impetus with 61% from the floor and 3-for-6 from long distance, but the defense was largely effective as well, including positive efforts from Mike Scott (really, I promise) and Thabo Sefolosha.
The second quarter began with a bang, as well, with the Hawks scoring the first five points to lengthen their overall spurt to 17-3 and the lead on the scoreboard to 37-26. At that point, Houston stopped the bleeding a bit by playing virtually even for a handful of minutes, but the onslaught kept coming for the Hawks. Dennis Schröder capped an 8-0 run with a beautiful step-through lay-up to give the road team a 47-31 lead with less than five minutes remaining in the half, and to that point, the Rockets had only notched five points in the period.
Houston would awaken, however, and the long ball did the trick. Rockets forward Trevor Arizona knocked down two threes as part of a 9-1 run, and in a flash, the Atlanta lead dwindled to 48-40. Fortunately, the Hawks rallied to score the final four points in the half (combined with some top-shelf defense), and even away from home, the team built a 12-point lead at the break.
As a team, it was a fantastic half of basketball. The defense held Houston to just 40 points (and 29% shooting), and with that, James Harden failed to tally a field goal, missing all seven of his attempts from the floor. Atlanta shot 51% from the floor, and despite a 2-for-9 output from three in the second quarter, 16 assists and 52 points were more than enough to secure a solid lead. For good measure, every member of the Hawks rotation (10 players) scored in the first half, and it was a family affair.
The momentum from the blazing first half would subside in a hurry, though, as the Rockets came out of the locker room in a motivated state. Houston scored the first seven points of the third quarter, prompting Budenholzer to grab a timeout, and the Rockets didn't stop there, executing for a dunk on the first possession out of the break. The Hawks (finally) awakened from their halftime slumber at that point, though, scoring six straight points to cease the barrage at 58-49.
Houston would not fade away quietly, however, and veteran Jason Terry capped an 8-0 run (and a 15-3 overall spurt) near the close of the third quarter that moved the Rockets within one point at 70-69. Thabo Sefolosha (of all people) would quell the surge a bit with a three, but the Hawks ceded control of the game, ending the third in a tie, largely due to a big quarter from James Harden.
The lead would would change hands for the first time since the opening minutes, as Houston scored on their opening possession of the fourth. This was, obviously, disappointing given the lofty advantage built in the earlier stages of the night, but the Rockets failed to take full control of the festivities.
Things spiraled out of the control from a sloppiness standpoint in the middle moments of the fourth quarter, but both teams seemingly inept offensively, especially in ball control. Harden gave Houston another lead at 87-85 with 4:47 to go, but Paul Millsap quickly answered with Atlanta's first field goal in more than four minutes to knot the score. Defensive rebounding plagued the Hawks throughout the fourth quarter, with the Rockets repeatedly getting second-chance opportunities, but Atlanta faded a lot of bullets, and the road team had the ball in a tie game with less than two minutes remaining.
Paul Millsap connected on a lay-up to give Atlanta a two-point lead after a fantastic recovery, and after a stop on the other end, Kyle Korver connected on an enormous three to lengthen the advantage to five with 1:29 remaining. After yet another empty trip (at an opportune time) from the Rockets, Dennis Schröder converted two free throws to effectively ice the game with under a minute remaining, and Houston would never again threaten on the way to the final result of 104-97.
As is usually the case with this particular Hawks team, balance was present and effective in this game. Kyle Korver (who set the franchise record for consecutive free throws made at 49) paced the scoring with 20 points, including four threes, but all ten players who appeared scored four or more points, and eight of those ten scored seven or more points. Al Horford continued his recent stellar play with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks, and Paul Millsap was also key with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals.
Despite the rebounding issues, the defensive end was largely the key here. Houston was held under 40% shooting as a team, and do that in hostile territory is no small feat. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the officiating had no part in the win (and this was a rare instance where Atlanta appeared to receive the better end of the whistle), but the effort was encouraging for 48 minutes, and that is something to take solace in on the road.
The Atlanta Hawks will aim to build on the momentum gained with this win on Monday night, as they stay in the state of Texas to face the Dallas Mavericks. Until then, reflecting on back-to-back road wins over Cleveland and Houston should be pleasurable.