For the second straight game, the Atlanta Hawks used a big second quarter to take a commanding lead into halftime. Unlike Friday's game against the Nets, the Hawks appeared to lose some of their focus in the third quarter and that was something that didn't set well with head coach Mike Budenholzer after the game.
"It was a little bit of a tough game, playing with a lead," said Budenholzer. "We have to be sharper in the third quarter, and throughout the second half. They're a good team. Atlanta led 57-36 at halftime but was outscored 30-20 in the third quarter as the Nuggets shot 54 percent in the period.
The Hawks have not had any trouble building leads of late and before Sunday had done a good job of protecting them. Denver was missing some key players from their lineup and it looked like Atlanta might have relaxed just a bit early.
"They have some talent," said Budenholzer of Denver. "Those guys stepped up and made some plays. They stepped up their aggressiveness. We need to respond with moving the ball better and taking care of the ball better." Atlanta turned the ball over just one time in the first half but coughed it up seven times in the third quarter alone.
"Defensively, overall, our activity was pretty good, except for the third quarter. We want to keep trying to find a way to do it for more of the 48 minutes."
Paul Millsap leads the way offensively
Even though the lead slipped away in the second half, the Hawks never really felt threatened and had an answer for every run that Denver made. Paul Millsap did most of the heavy lifting offensively finishing with 23 points including four made three-pointers.
"Paul was 1-6 at halftime, and I think he hit four three's," said Budenholzer. "The three's are usually not something ... occasionally there may be a play call or something for a Millsap three but it comes from our spacing and the way we play. He just had a great second half. We went to him a few times."
Fourteen of Millsap's 23 points came in the third quarter which helped Atlanta keep Denver at arms length.
"He's a unique player in that he can score and impact the game in a lot of ways on the offensive end. He can play in the post, he can play off the dribble, off the elbows and is also able to spread the floor and shoot three's. He's similar defensively. He can impact the game in a lot of ways."
Hawks still streaking and tie Wizards in Eastern Conference standings
The win improved Atlanta's record on the season to 13-6 and extended their current winning streak to a season-best six straight games. "We understand that we need to keep improving," said Al Horford about Atlanta's six-game winning streak. "We're starting to figure out how to play, and build those habits to play the same way every night."
Sunday's win also lifts the Hawks into tie for the lead in the Southeast Division with the Washington Wizards. Atlanta trails Toronto by just 1.5 games for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It's early," said Horford. "It definitely motivates us to keep working and keep taking advantage. Obviously, we take it game by game, but we want to keep ourselves in that position."
Kyle Korver echoed Horford's sentiment while acknowledging that Atlanta's schedule has been favorable to this point. "Every NBA game is tough, but we've had a favorable schedule to this point," said Korver. Atlanta came into Sunday's game dead last in opponents strength of schedule.
"We've talked a little bit about how we have to get these games," Korver said. We've had some home games - we've gotten to play some teams that aren't as high up in the standings as we're going to play later. I just keep on looking back to last year, when we got to the hard part of the schedule and we had guys banged up. We took some losses last year. Every game matters, but we try to talk a bit about not just getting wins, but really trying to play good basketball, because it's a long season."