As a near double-digit favorite against the team with the worst record in the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks opened Thursday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks playing less than inspired basketball.
The visiting Bucks scored the first 6 points of the game before a quick timeout from head coach Mike Budenholzer, and that was an ominous sign, as Milwaukee edged forward to a 30-23 lead after 12 minutes. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the ugliness for Atlanta, as the Bucks continued their momentum deep into the second quarter, using an 18-6 run to grab a 13-point lead at 53-40 with just over 3 minutes before halftime.
Defense was the issue for the Hawks to that point, as Milwaukee was able to convert 20 of their first 35 shots, and 53 points in less than 22 minutes of action is simply unsatisfactory against a team like the Bucks. However, the home team "woke up" a bit from that point forward, sprinting to a 7-0 run to end the half on the strength of aggressiveness from Jeff Teague and an increase in defensive activity.
After the break, the defense continued that semblance of momentum, and Budenholzer was quick to note this change in the post-game:
"I think our defense in the third quarter picked us up, allowed us to get back in the game, and put us in the right frame of mind where we needed to be"..... "We keep talking about getting better defensively, and at some point, we have to carry it over to the court and do it. The third quarter was encouraging."
In the 3rd quarter, Milwaukee shot just 4 for 21 (19%) from the floor, and while the Atlanta offense didn't quite do its part in capitalizing on the woes, the tone was indeed set for the final run. A hiccup in the form of a 6-0 run by the Bucks to start the 4th quarter threatened to sidetrack the significant progress, but from that point on (the final 10+ minutes), the "good guys" outscored the Bucks by 10 points, and the majority of that work was done down the stretch with some hot shooting from Kyle Korver and a big-time effort from Jeff Teague.
Neither team could build a lead of greater than 2 points over a six-minute stretch in the middle of the final period (which is borderline incredible), but when the "push" was finally made, it was the home team who made it. Kyle Korver knocked down an enormous three to give Atlanta the lead at 90-89 with 2:15 remaining, and that triple was followed by back-to-back midrange jumpers (one on a pull-up by Teague and one on a fadeaway by Korver), setting the stage for the play of the night.
The "dagger" is often overrated in the NBA, but Jeff Teague put a punctuation mark on this particular game that would seemingly be memorable to anyone who witnessed it. With 27 seconds remaining and the Hawks leading by five points, Teague rose up out of nowhere and hammered through a dunk to lengthen the edge to 96-89, and that was, effectively, the end of the drama.
Like any game, there were peaks and valleys, but if you evaluate the action on the whole, this was about the least fulfilling 5-point victory imaginable, given the opponent and the circumstance. It was quite encouraging to see the team, namely Jeff Teague, pick things up down the stretch during "winning time", but it never should have gotten to that point, and it was a total team "effort" in order to dig the hole.
Teague himself committed 7 turnovers in the game, and while he spoke about "overpenetrating" as the reason for his woes early in the night, it was an across-the-board issue with ball security. Obviously, some of that trouble was mitigated with a game-high 22 points and 8 assists, but the "good Teague" only outweighed the "bad Teague" when the lights came on down the stretch.
Ball security was an issue across the board, as the Hawks created the early problems with 7 first-quarter giveaways, and finished with 17 in the game to just 8 for the Bucks. Against a team like Milwaukee, this is something that can be overcome, but against another (i.e. better) opponent, it will be the little things that are the difference between winning and losing.
On the far more positive side, guys like Kyle Korver (15 points on 4-6 FG, 3-5 3-PT including 12 points in the 4th quarter) and Paul Millsap (17 points, 8 rebounds including 12 points to carry the offense in the opening frame) had big nights, and that is to be expected (and needed) from the team's veterans. Dennis Schröder also stepped up in a significant way with 8 points, 5 assists, and 0 turnovers in 15 minutes, and Coach Budenholzer referred to his effort as "one of his better performances" of the season.
Still, there was no secret that the Hawks are incredibly fortunate to escape (and yes, it was an escape) with a victory, and when asked about being "settled" after back-to-back wins, Budenholzer didn't appear to take kindly to the thought.
"We have to play a lot better than this going forward, but I think the group knows that. Wins are important and we need to build on the win, and we need to build on where and when we played well. I don't think anybody feels like we're settled after two wins in a row, and we need to get ready and play a lot better on Saturday."
With the Denver Nuggets (who are a far better opponent than the Bucks despite their modest record) in town on Saturday, the Hawks will be presented with a different challenge, and one that simply won't allow them to "play down" to their competition and expect to emerge victorious. At this point in the season, there are certainly small victories (i.e. Schröder's effort) to build on, but wins and losses are of high importance, and this type of showing won't necessarily be good enough to keep things on the positive side of the ledger moving forward.