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2015 NBA Playoffs: Bench struggles put Mike Budenholzer in tough spot

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As Atlanta's bench continue's to struggle, Mike Budenholzer must lean on his starters more if the Hawks hope to survive their series with the Wizards.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The depth of the Atlanta Hawks roster has been a strength for the team throughout the regular season. However, the unit has not performed at the same level during the post season and that gives Mike Budenholzer a problem heading into Tuesday's Game 2 against the Washington Wizards.

One group that isn't struggling is Atlanta's starting unit, which outscored the Wizards by 10 points in Sunday's Game 1, with the exception of an intentional foul with six seconds remaining. The problem, as ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz points out, is that the starting combination doesn't see a lot of court time together with the Hawks' current rotations.

The starters played only 18 minutes and 36 possessions together in Game 1. During the remaining 30 minutes and 60 possessions, the Hawks' other units hemorrhaged against the Wizards, and the margin gave Washington a 104-98 win in the opener of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup.

When asked about his starters minutes, Budenholzer said that they stuck with the rotations that they had used throughout the season but seemed a bit surprised at the 18-minute number.

"It was a pretty similar rotation to what we used most of the year," said Budenholzer. "It was by design, but I don't know that 18 minutes was by design."

According to Arnovitz, the Hawks starters averaged 16 minutes of on-court time as a unit during the regular season, meaning that their time together actually increased in Sunday's Game 1 on average. Here is a closer look at their minutes from Sunday, along with their regular season averages:

Name Game 1 Regular Season average
Paul Millsap 38:50 32.7
DeMarre Carroll 38:16 31.3
Kyle Korver 37:34 32.2
Jeff Teague 33:34 30.5
Al Horford 30:18 30.5

Al Horford spent most of the second half battling foul trouble and Jeff Teague briefly left in the first half to have his ankle re-taped.

As you can see from the table, Atlanta's starters minutes are way up over their regular season averages. The challenge for Budenholzer is getting them on the court at the same time more often.

As the playoffs have progressed, Atlanta's rotations have gotten shorter. Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack saw brief action during the first half, but neither logged a minute in the second. Budenholzer has opted to stagger his rotations around reserves Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Pero Antic, filling in a pair of starters accordingly. Even with two starters on the floor, the group has been unable to hold onto leads and that came back to bite Atlanta in Game 1.

Full disclosure, I agree with Arnovitz's assessment on Sunday. However, I don't know how much court time a typical starting five spends together in an actual game. Given the Hawks' regular season number, I suspect it would be a lot lower than you'd guess.

That doesn't change Budenholzer's challenge going forward. He has to figure out a way to leverage his bench and find rest for his starters without hemorrhaging leads as they have done so far in the playoffs. The easy answer is for the bench to play better.

Antic has been solid throughout the playoffs and Dennis Schröder has rebounded of late. Bazemore has given the team another good defensive option, but his inability to make anything from the perimeter is hurting Atlanta's spacing. Scott hasn't looked right since suffering a back contusion late in the regular season, and the Hawks are suffering whenever he is on the court.

The bench situation will serve as the backdrop as the team heads into a critical Game 2. It is a must-win situation for Atlanta and, as Arnovitz points out, this is exactly why you limited the starters minutes throughout the regular season.