"Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades"
I have no idea who issued the above quote or even where it originated, but it certainly applies to Atlanta's 107-103 loss on Tuesday night. Moral victories are vastly overrated at times in the results-oriented NBA, but in this case, however, the Hawks and Elton Brand are deserving of a bit of praise. See, the home team went into this particular match-up having lost 9 of 11 to Chicago (including 4 in a row), and to make matters worse, the Hawks were set to play without four of their top/only five big men with short-term injuries to Paul Millsap and Gustavo Ayon adding to longer-term issues with Al Horford and Pero Antic.
The lone "big man" representative on the court was Elton Brand.
Brand signed for 1 year and $4 million in the off-season, and in the early stages of the season, many felt as if that would be an overpayment. He received a handful of "DNP-CD's" for his time, and with more explosive options ahead of him, it was easily explainable as to why he received bench splinters. However, Tuesday night's performance (even in a loss) perfectly incapsulated Brand's effect on this team, especially in recent days.
The 34-year-old big man (who turns 35 in 2 weeks) played 41 minutes and 46 seconds in the game, finishing with 7 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in the game, but his impact was much more than just the stats. Single-game plus/minus is often one of the more misguided stats in all of basketball, but in this case, Brand's +6 in 42 minutes (or more specifically, the team's -10 in 6 minutes with him) tells a picturesque tale of the difference between Atlanta's level of play with or without him.
"EB" has now played a startling 85 (yes, eighty-five) minutes over the past two games, and even prior to that, Brand's minutes were beginning to skyrocket, posting 6 of his top 7 minute totals this season in only the past 2 weeks. There is little argument that Brand is simply playing too many minutes right now, but in this particular case, Mike Budenholzer is left with little in the way of options.
When asked about Brand's potential to follow-up Tuesday's effort in a back-to-back on Wednesday, Budenholzer said this in the post-game:
"I'll talk with Elton tomorrow morning, and we'll see how he's feeling. We'll kind of re-energize and re-juice and get ready for tomorrow... tomorrow."
Both Paul Millsap and Pero Antic have been ruled out for Wednesday's game in Boston and with Gustavo Ayon's status very much up in the air (to be kind), it appears as if Brand will be called on for a similar workload against the Celtics. Keeping up this type of burden from a minutes perspective in the long term would be an extremely bad idea for someone with 14 years of NBA experience on his tires, but in the short term, it's important that Budenholzer and Brand seem to have a strong working relationship to the point where Brand can virtually direct himself to the scorer's table at any time.
There were many members of the Hawks who put up "plus" efforts on Tuesday night, ranging from an aggression-based, 26-point performance by Jeff Teague to 17 and 16 points respectively from Shelvin Mack and Kyle Korver, but to me, the most valuable player for the Hawks on Tuesday night and from a literal definition of valuable, I'm not sure that Atlanta would have been within 20 points without him. At some point (possibly soon), Mike Budenholzer will be blessed with the return of some of his frontcourt depth, but when that happens and Brand moves back to his designed support role, let's not overlook the gritty effort that he has displayed over the past two weeks.