One of the most remarkable things about Atlanta's 40-8 start to the season has been their ability to focus in night in and night out no matter the opponent or the situation. Over a regular season that stretches 82 games, that is a rare occurrence. Good teams often suffer losses in those situations but great teams find a way to push through and still get the win.
That was the situation the Hawks faced Saturday against a tanking and undermanned Philadelphia 76ers team. Atlanta was coming off of an emotional win over Portland on Friday and was down two key players in DeMarre Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha. Atlanta jumped out to a sizable halftime lead but saw the Sixers come roaring back and take the lead in the game's final moments. Atlanta recovered thanks to some clutch play from Al Horford and Dennis Schröder down the stretch.
Following the game, Mike Budenholzer wasn't ready to make excuses for his team. He instead chose to credit the Sixers who have turned into a scrappy defensive unit.
"Tonight you saw a team that's really improved from the start of the season," Budenholzer told reporters following the game. "Philadelphia is growing and improving their defense. They did a lot of things that made it difficult for us tonight. Credit to them and their players. Our group found a way. I think we went down two in the fourth quarter late, and different people made some big shots. Al has been great at the end of quarters and at the end of games. Dennis hit a big shot. We are finding different ways to win, different players stepping up each night against a very good defensive team. We have to play a lot better going forward."
The Sixers are coached by Brett Brown who like Budenholzer is a disciple of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. As a group Philadelphia's team is undermanned from a talent standpoint and a lot of that is self inflicted as they look for good positioning in the draft. However, Brown deserves credit for getting a less talented roster to play hard on most nights. Would be interesting to see what he could do with a more talented team.
Part of Atlanta's success this season has been their ability to get strong contributions from different players every night. That is going to be even more important in the coming days given their current injury situation.
"This was a rough game, said Jeff Teague who finished with 10 points and seven assists but was just 3-12 from the floor. "Guys are banged up and tired. We had to pull it off. I don't know how we did it, but we did it."
"We just found a way to win," said Elton Brand who finished with five rebounds in 11 minutes. "That's what we've been doing all season. They have some talented young players over there and they play hard. Coming into this game, we knew their record but we knew it wouldn't be easy. We lost that 15-point lead. They came back and took the lead, but we wanted to stay with it. That's what we've been doing all month and all season."
The Hawks pulled it off thanks to the steady play of Horford and a big three from Schröder in the games final moments. Horford hit a couple of big baskets and grabbed a couple of big rebounds late and finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
"Al made a lot of big plays when the game got tight," Budenholzer said. "He was, defensively, at the rim and on the boards. He and Paul both can be really efficient in the pick-and-roll situation. Him and Jeff have a good working relationship. It's great to have multiple guys that you can put in that position, and hopefully give oursevles the best chance to have success at the end of games."
Philly took their first lead of the game with about three minutes remaining. Horford quickly tied things up and Schröder delivered perhaps the biggest shot of the game knocking down a clutch three-pointer to put the Hawks back in front.
"As a staff and as a group, we know how important shooting is," Budenholzer said. "We know how important confidence is. He works hard. He works every day. I'm on him a lot to attack. I'm on him to get to the paint. I'm on him to collapse the defense. I'm on him to find his open teammates. But we believe when you're open, you can take what the game give you. He's going to grow and he's going to hit big shots for us going forward. We're very confident in him."
"Huge," said Teague. "He played well. He played with a lot of confidence. We needed that lift badly. He made a big shot."
Schröder finished with 15 points and six assists on 6-11 shooting off the bench. He and little used John Jenkins accounted for 24 of Atlanta's 26 bench points.
That bench is going to be tested going forward as the Hawks will be forced to deal with multiple injuries for the first time this season. Jenkins was up for the task on Saturday and showed that he is ready and able to contribute. Atlanta has six games remaining before the All-Star break which will provide the team and players with some much needed rest.