Fortunately for the Atlanta Hawks, nights like Wednesday have been few and far between this season. Two things can be taken away from Wednesday's 115-102 loss to the Denver Nuggets. One, its the dog days of the NBA's regular season not only for the fans but for the players as well. Two, you can't simply overlook any NBA team on a given night and expect to come away with the victory.
Its important to credit Denver at this juncture because they put up one of their best performances of the season. The Hawks didn't start the game with a lot of focus or energy but the Nuggets had a lot to do with the way they played. A 34-17 fourth quarter by Atlanta skews the final stats but make no mistake, the Hawks were out of this game early and never really had a chance to recover.
"Give Denver a lot of credit," Mike Budenholzer told reporters after the game. "They played really well. They did a lot of things on both ends of the court that gave us a lot of problems. Just a lot of credit to Denver."
That is not to absolve the Hawks for their role in this game. Typically going small works in the Hawks' favor but they struggled to contain the Nuggets' small look for much of the night. Denver did a lot of the things that the Hawks normally do to opponents. By playing Danilo Gallinari at the power forward position, it forced guys like Paul Millsap, Mike Scott and Pero Antic to defend all the way to the three-point line. Combine that with rotations being just a step slower than normal with some hot shooting from the Nuggets and you have the recipe trouble if you are Atlanta.
The good news is, Atlanta still has a 10-game lead in the Eastern Conference and they have typically responded well to what few bad losses they have suffered this season. Playing a desperate Phoenix Suns team on Friday will present a number of challenges and the Hawks will have to bring it defensively to have a chance to pull out a win.
It is a delicate balancing act Budenholzer must play down the stretch. With a big lead, health becomes the most important factor but resting guys can lead a team to losing its edge a bit. The Hawks haven't had any trouble getting up for games against the good teams but we have seen what amounts to them growing through the motions or running out of gas against some not so great games of late.
There are five games left on this road trip with three coming against better than .500 opponents. The last two against Golden State and Oklahoma City will be played in what is likely playoff atmospheres. Will be interesting to see how this team responds and how Budenholzer handles it. They certainly aren't going to panic and their day-to-day approach has served them well throughout the season. Still, that doesn't make performances like Wednesday's any easier to watch.