The 2016-17 season continues to be one filled with peaks and valleys for the Atlanta Hawks who followed up a solid effort in a shorthanded win at Oklahoma City with another tough performance at home in a 94-82 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It is a trend that has been ongoing as Atlanta continues to tread water in the Eastern Conference. A solid road win in Toronto is negated as a late lead slips away at home against Charlotte. They survive a superhuman effort against Russell Westbrook but can’t find a way at home against struggling Minnesota.
The Hawks have lost six of seven at home and now stand at .500 at Philips Arena this season. The most puzzling thing is how the losses have manifested themselves. One night it is a struggling defense that holds them back. The next, they simply can’t put the ball in the basket.
“We competed really hard. It was kind of a beat-’em-up, ugly game,” Mike Budenholzer told the media after the game. “Neither team was really efficient offensively or shot high percentages. It was tough to get the ball to go in the basket. Our defense had a part in that, and their defense had a part in us struggling offensively. The effort was very good. If we play that hard, good things will happen.”
The Hawks began the game shorthanded and watched as another key player exited midway through the first quarter. Dwight Howard sat out his second straight game due to back tightness and Tim Hardaway Jr. left with a groin injury after just a minute of playing time. Hardaway didn’t return and Howard is considered day-to-day.
That is a problem for a team that is already battling consistency issues. Budenholzer has already juggled his lineup and his rotation several times this season. Sometimes due to performance, other times due to injury. That has appeared to have taken a toll on a team that is currently struggling to find its identity on the court.
“That’s why we’re a .500 team,” Kyle Korver said when asked about Atlanta’s inability to find consistency. “Until we can figure out to play with consistency and bring the energy and focus every night, execute every night, we’re going to be a .500 team. That’s just our reality.”
The Hawks had their chances against the Timberwolves and entered the fourth quarter with a 69-67 lead after Kent Bazemore beat the third quarter horn with a driving dunk. However, Atlanta would score just 15 more points while going 5 for 15 from the field with four turnovers.
“You have to give them credit. At times they were pressing us, they were up into us and made things difficult,” Budenholzer said when asked about his team’s offensive struggles.
“We just weren’t able to execute. When you do get a good look in that kind of situation, this kind of game, you have to convert those. Good defense and a couple of missed opportunities, we end up with 15 points.....that’s a tough fourth quarter.”
Dennis Schröder did all he could to keep Atlanta in it scoring 11 of his 21 points in the fourth. Schröder was 5 for 7 from the field in the fourth while the rest of the team combined to go 0 for 8.
“The whole game, we missed some shots that we normally make - layups, wide open three’s,” said Paul Millsap who made his second straight start at center in place of Howard and finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
“Down the stretch, we couldn’t open the basket up. That was really big for us, but I think defensively, we were good.”
After paying dividends in their win in Oklahoma City, Budenholzer elected to start a small lineup for the second straight game without Howard featuring Millsap at center and Kyle Korver at power forward. The results were not good as the team quickly fell behind 12-2 out of the gate.
“Obviously the lineup didn’t start well, but our energy coming out of the gate....it seemed like we were a step off,” Budenholzer said when asked about the decision to start the game small. “We were maybe thinking too much or slow to react. Maybe that’s because that group hasn’t played together a lot, or they were maybe doing something a little bit different. It wasn’t just the lineup. There wasn’t the urgency that you need.”
Budenholzer quickly reversed course sending Mike Muscala into the game which seemed to spark his club. Muscala turned in a solid performance with 16 points and four rebounds including three made three-pointers. But the decision to go small had other ramifications as well as Minnesota took advantage of Howard being out and beat Atlanta up to the tune of a 52-35 rebounding advantage.
“That was a key,” Millsap said when asked about the rebounding differential. “We could’ve done a better job on the glass. I felt like they were just tapping the ball everywhere. I don’t think they were being aggressive doing it, but I think a lot of loose balls we normally get, we just didn’t get for whatever reason. That was a big part of the game too.”
Atlanta will look to pick up the pieces Friday night when they head west to face the Denver Nuggets before breaking for Christmas.