The best way to describe this game was to look at it in two parts. For the first three quarters, Atlanta sputtered at both ends of the floor and was unable to take control of the game. The Hawks struggled with turnovers on the offensive end and were slow to close off driving lanes defensively.
Things changed for the better in the fourth. Atlanta turned up the pressure defensively, forced some turnovers and ran Washington right out of Philips Arena.
“It’s great to have an opening night, play at home in front of our crowd,” said Mike Budenholzer who earned his first career opening night win as a head coach. “I think to be able to have a good defensive fourth quarter after a game, it was kind of tight - back-and-forth - and it felt like they were up by four, six or up a lot. And then, defensively, we were able to get some turnovers, some stops, get some separation. I think it fueled some offense, so from a team perspective, that was great.”
After three quarters, the Hawks led 81-80 and the Wizards were shooting 44 percent from the field with just 11 turnovers. Atlanta outscored them 33-19 in the fourth and held Washington to just 38 percent shooting while forcing eight turnovers. They took advantage of those extra opportunities converting them into 13 points.
“Individually, I thought the bench - Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha on the wings just were magnificent,” Budenholzer added. “The way they worked in practice. It was great to see how they contributed and then obviously, Dwight and Paul are special inside.
Special is a good way to describe Millsap who finished with a game-high 28 points to go along with seven rebounds and six assists.
Atlanta opened the fourth quarter with a lineup featuring four reserves plus Millsap. They seized control of the game with a 20-4 run to open the quarter.
Hardaway scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth knocking down 5 of 6 shots including a pair of three-point baskets. Millsap scored eight in the final period while Sefolosha turned up the heat defensively with three steals. Budenholzer showed confidence in his reserves and then road them while they had the hot hand.
“It feels good,” Hardaway told reporters after the game. “Coach giving the confidence to the bench guys to start the fourth quarter and adding Paul to the mix and we made our stretch from there, change the defense up a little bit. We raised the intensity and it helped us leak out and get some lay-ins, transition points and wide-open threes.”
Sefolosha carried a good performance from the preseason into the opener. With a healthy offseason to prepare his body, he stuffed the stat sheet finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals.
“Thabo did an excellent job of getting into the passing lanes, getting out of playing pick-and-roll defense,” Dwight Howard said of the team’s fourth quarter effort. “He has long arms and he used them very well on the defensive end. He was the big difference tonight especially on the defensive end.”
“When guys like Tim and Thabo come off the bench and play great like that for us. It just makes our team that much harder to guard,” Howard added.
Overall the Hawks will tell you that Thursday’s win was a sloppy performance. Their offensive explosion in the fourth skews the final stats enough to suggest otherwise. They overcame 21 turnovers and for three quarters, their trademark ball movement was non-existent. Still, thanks to the bench’s contribution and Millsap’s steady production, they were able to weather the storm and ride that fourth quarter to an opening night win.