Paul Millsap has received praise from all corners of the NBA universe in recent days, and he backed up that positive thought with a monster performance on Wednesday night. Behind his stellar showing, the Atlanta Hawks cruised to their 17th consecutive win, outlasting the Brooklyn Nets by a final score of 113-102.
Slow starts have been uncharacteristic for this group in recent days, but Wednesday night certainly qualified for that provision. The Nets leapt to a 13-5 lead to start the game on the strength of 6 of 8 shooting, and Atlanta issused six turnovers in the first six minutes to underline their spotty offensive execution.
That woeful performance was short-lived, however, as the "real" Hawks arrived in virtually no time. Dennis Schröder connected on a three at the 1:25 mark of the quarter to give Atlanta its first lead since 3-2, and shortly after, Kyle Korver swished back-to-back triple to cap a 17-4 overall run. That barrage spurred the Hawks to a 30-27 lead at the end of the first quarter, which was borderline amazing considering Brooklyn's 65% shooting clip in the first 12 minutes.
Much of the quarter was marked by stabilization, as the Hawks settled in on both ends, with a special emphasis on the defense side of the court. Atlanta spurted to a 9-0 run to grab an 8-point lead at 52-44, and that particular stretch was highlighted by a crowd eruption following back-to-back offensive rebounds from Paul Millsap.
Millsap was the star of the first half, by a wide margin, with 16 points and 12 rebounds, and his play was the engine of the second quarter success. Atlanta would later close the half on a 12-4 run to set the halftime margin at 64-53, and after that 65% shooting in the first quarter, the Nets settled in with just under 49% for the half. Mike Budenholzer appeared to make "special" mention of defense during a second quarter timeout, and from that point forward, the effort and execution were in successful tandem.
Post-halftime, the third quarter was a bit of a slugfest. The Nets gamely held on to respectability with a few small runs, while Atlanta had some issues defensively in leaving open shooters. Still, the Hawks managed to keep an 8-point lead at the end of the period, and by the end of 36 minutes, every member of Atlanta's starting five was in double-figures. Perhaps most impressively, the Hawks were 23 of 24 from the free throw line to this point, and that served as the difference on the scoreboard.
Early in the fourth, it looked as if the Hawks were going to blow the game wide open in short order. Kyle Korver connected on what appeared to be a 4-point play that would have potentially given Atlanta a 12-point lead, but that basket was wiped away on official review, and the Nets quickly scored to slash the lead back to six.
Still, the good guys would lengthen the lead to 106-91 on yet another bucket from Paul Millsap with 4:37 to go, and that was effectively the end of the threat from Brooklyn. The Nets would climb within as little as eight points in the final three minutes, but the "dagger" came with a Millsap three and Atlanta would never look back on the way to the 113-102 final.
Millsap was the story of the night, and he did it with efficiency. In addition to a game-high 15 rebounds, Atlanta's All-Star hopeful forward scored 28 points on just 9 field goal attempts, instead doing his work at the line by making a career-best 15 of his 16 free throw attempts. It was a devastating performance from Millsap, and he was easily the key to the win, even on a night where every member of the starting five (highlighted by 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists from Al Horford) eclipsed double-figures in the scoring column.
The Atlanta Hawks will aim to extend their patently ridiculous winning streak to 18 games on Friday night, as they welcome an upper-echelon Western Conference team in the Portland Trail Blazers. Stay tuned.