For most of the season the Atlanta Hawks were a healthy bunch and surprising the rest of the NBA on their way to capturing the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They successfully dealt with some bumps and bruises along the way. Thabo Sefolosha missed a couple of months due to a calf injury but by that time, the Hawks had a big lead in the standings and his absence provided an opportunity for guys like Kent Bazemore to get more minutes.
Now with the postseason here and Sefolosha out again, a couple of more injuries are threatening to throw Atlanta's playoff run off course. The Hawks spent most of the final two months of the season protecting a big lead in the standings and trying to protect their players from injury. They passed the first test but the second turned out to be a little more difficult than even they might have imagined.
Paul Millsap suffered a shoulder injury while scrambling for a loose ball in a meaningless April game against the Brooklyn Nets. It was the only negative in what turned out to be a 131-99 win for the Hawks. He'd miss five straight games with the injury before returning regular season finale and Game 1 of the playoffs. He returned wearing a heavy protective pad and has been active defensively and on the boards but he has struggled offensively going a combined 4-20 from the field.
Millsap was asked about the shoulder following Game 1 and refused to offer up any excuses. He did mention that he probably won't be 100 percent for the remainder of the season. Millsap told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday that he was considering playing without the protective pad in Game 2 in an effort to improve his range of motion. Whether it is the pad or lingering soreness, it is clear that Millsap isn't comfortable and that is an issue for the Hawks.
Mike Budenholzer was asked about Millsap following Game 1 and replied that unless Paul was hiding something, he was fine. Just a matter of finding his rhythm and getting comfortable again.
"There is no concern about Paul and his shoulder," said Budenholzer. "He impacts the game so many different ways. I know he probably doesn't have very many games like that but it happens to everybody. I think his activity, his hands, steals, decision making, rebounding. Unless he is hiding something I think Paul is fine."
The Hawks would be in better position to let Millsap work through his issues if not for the finger injury that Al Horford suffered early in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Horford suffered a dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand while battling for a rebound with Mason Plumlee. He eventually returned to the game with the finger heavily taped but admitted afterwards that the injury bothered him down the stretch.
Following the game, Horford told reporters rather bluntly that he would play in Game 2. "I'm going to play obviously," said Horford, but he seemed to back off of that somewhat on Monday and at least left the door open to the possibility that the injury might prevent him from playing in Game 2.
If the injury were to Horford's non-shooting hand then it wouldn't be quite as big of a deal. He told the AJC on Monday that the finger was painful and that having it taped disrupts how he grabs the ball. At this point I'd be shocked if Horford actually missed Game 2 but there is no doubt in my mind that the injury will effect him negatively and could limit one of his biggest strengths which is his shooting.
Mike Budenholzer went with Pero Antic and Mike Scott as the primary backups for Horford and Millsap in Game 1. He toyed with a small lineup a bit and there were sequences where he had Horford playing alongside Antic in a bigger lineup. Scott himself is just returning from an injury and played just over 10 minutes in Game 1.
Neither Elton Brand nor Mike Muscala played but could be called into action should Budenholzer need them. Brand is a veteran and a good rebounder who could be called upon if Brook Lopez continues to cause problems on the glass for Atlanta. Muscala played a lot down the stretch of the regular season when Millsap was out and played well averaging 9.3 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 68 percent from the field over the final six games. Muscala doesn't have any meaningful playoff experience but has shown that he will play hard and isn't afraid to mix it up on the boards.
Good luck getting this team to admit that they are worried about the injuries to Horford or Millsap publicly. They long ago adopted the "next man up" philosophy and it served them well throughout the regular season. That was something that Kyle Korver talked about following Game 1.
"This is what we've done all year," Kover said. "We're not just one person on this team. We're not playing hero ball. We go out there and play as a unit. There are a lot of nights where guys don't shoot the ball well or don't play as well as they'd like to.
So the Hawks will deal with the injuries the only way they know how. They will go out and play as a unit and the bench will once again be called on to perform if the starters struggle. That has been their mantra all season. If they get through this first round series without a blip it can be a big confidence booster to the team. However, anyway you look at it, Atlanta's current injury situation with the frontcourt will be the backdrop for Game 2 and perhaps longer.