The "next man up" moniker has received a great deal of attention, regardless of sport, in the past few years. In short, it means that organizations (and namely coaches) expect reserve players to step "up" when pressed into duty due to unforeseen circumstances, and while the Atlanta Hawks did not make traditional use of his phrase on Saturday night, the impetus was the same.
When asked postgame about his decision to leave Al Horford in Atlanta while resting DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague and Pero Antic, Mike Budenholzer simply said this (courtesy of the Associated Press):
"Just working our way through the season, and trying to keep us in a good place health-wise."
Simplicity is often Budenholzer's strong suit, especially in answering pre- and post-game questions, but on this night, the choice was likely a plain one in his mind. Atlanta's head coach has become near-flawless in skirting specific questions about his rotation on a nightly basis, but somewhere between late Friday evening in Atlanta and early Saturday evening in Miami, he elected to "pull a Popovich" in deploying a 9-man rotation that featured on two of his normal starters.
Though some of questioned the depth of the Hawks roster (a laughable notion to the diehards), Budenholzer's choice did not doom the visitors on this night, as Atlanta snuck away with a 93-91 win. Perhaps the most unlikely reason for the team's success was the play, especially in the first half, of John Jenkins.
Jenkins finished the night with 12 points and 7 rebounds in 22 minutes, and that rebounding total represents a career best for the Vanderbilt product. It is common knowledge at this point that Jenkins is the "last" man up for Atlanta, as he has appeared in only 12 games this season, and Kyle Korver may have been referring to his backup (even if not by name) when he said this:
"We got a huge lift from guys who haven't been playing much, and they really gave us the boost that we needed."
It wasn't only Jenkins that provided a lift in non-traditional circumstances, as Kent Bazemore (who played 35 minutes) scored 15 points as a member of the starting lineup, with Elton Brand (7 points, 8 rebounds) and Mike Muscala (5 points, 4 blocks) sustaining success when thrust into duty. While we shutter at making Spurs comparisons in this space, this leap in production from the deep bench reeked of San Antonio, as players always seem to be ready to roll despite long lay-offs.
Without knowing Mike Budenholzer's full thought process in advance of Saturday's game, it is tough to make sweeping judgments about his strategy here. Budenholzer will not hesitate to play the "rest" card, but in the same breath, both DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic suffered visible injuries on Friday, with Al Horford being a recent father of a newborn that came home over the weekend.
In my view, possessing the foresight to give a handful of guys the extra day, even with two days off before hosting Houston, is a strength of this organization. The Atlanta Hawks are not in "must-win" mode at the moment, and that undoubtedly made this choice easier, but previous success with wins on nights where Budenholzer "pulls the plug" set the backdrop for what was the most impressive such occasion to this point.
Don't get me wrong, the Miami Heat contributed greatly to their own demise with sub-40% shooting and 23 turnovers, but much of that was pressured by a rejuvenated Atlanta bench unit that was simply happy to be playing extended minutes. It is incredibly nice to have a head coach who "gets it", and Mike Budenholzer proved that once again on Saturday.