It was Blockbuster Night, Part 1 at Philips Arena last night when the Hawks took the floor for their home opener against the Denver Nuggets and old friend Paul Millsap. The Hawks had their full complement of players minus creative wing DeAndre’ Bembry, who is sidelined for the foreseeable future with a wrist fracture. Dennis Schröder returned from an ankle injury and was largely as effective as he normally is, pouring in 20 points on 18 shooting possessions in 33 minutes of action. Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters before the game that Schröder might be somewhat limited and that the team was going to play him in shorter stretches. That held in the Early going, as Schröder got the quick hook and played three stints in the first half, but in the second half, it was back to business as usual as he had all the explosiveness and quickness the team is used to seeing on the floor.
Without Bembry available, the guard rotation was limited—Budenholzer threw out two point guard lineups frequently, mixing and matching Schröder, Malcolm Delaney, and Isaiah Taylor to try to find a combination that worked. Delaney had perhaps his first good game of the season, despite posting a team-worst -13 plus/minus. He was as active defensively as he usually is, his shot was falling, and he even set up teammates on his four assists. After five games in which it looked like Delaney was wearing a 36” Chain around his neck, it’s got to give him a boost to perform well in this one.
Up front, the four-man bigs rotation continues to be an issue for Atlanta. John Collins struggled throughout his debut in front of the Atlanta faithful, showing some wobbly Sea Legs in the first half. He missed multiple catches and a short baseline jumper that should be well within his repertoire. Ersan Ilyasova had a lot of trouble guarding Millsap—the former Hawks power forward used his Mean Demeanor to take Ilyasova to the rim on more than one occasion.
With All Due Respect to coach Budenholzer, Mike Muscala has been put in a poor position so far this season, as he’s spent a lot of time either at power forward or with Ilyasova. Defensively, the Muscala-Ilyasova pairing doesn’t work athletically or on the glass, though the two of them do a wonderful job of spacing the floor on the other end. If Muscala is out there with Collins or Dewayne Dedmon, then things get tricky offensively as Muscala’s spacing and passing isn’t as valuable as a power forward. Dedmon has been Muscala’s best partner so far this season, but it’s been a struggle to find the right role this season. To his credit, Muscala isn’t frustrated, saying after the game that “it’s still early… offensively we’re getting some pretty good looks.”
On the wing, Taurean Prince bounced back in a big way after spending Thursday in the Danger Room against the Chicago Bulls the night before. It was a Job Well Done for Prince, who flashed all the skills that give fans and journalists high expectations for his career. “I just had a different mindset, letting things come to me instead of forcing it. Then just had a defensive-first mindset, trying to come out and be who I am as a player, be who I want to be and be the best teammate I can,” Prince told reporters after the game.
Moves like that are on the higher end of what he can do off the dribble and he was able to knock down three of his five three-point attempts to boost his efficiency across the board. More consistent outings like this and the organization will be ready to Crown him as the best player on the next great Hawks squad.
Kent Bazemore, another Hawk who has had his early-season struggles, continued to shoot the ball poorly from the field but showed some more encouraging signs as a passer. With Bembry out of the lineup, the Hawks are completely starved for creation in pick-and-roll, but Bazemore was slinging the ball on Friday night, finding open rollers and spot-up shooters consistently, including one that led to a monster dunk from Dedmon:
He’s still a lot stronger when he can pass with his dominant left hand, but being able to pass at all puts a lot more pressure on the defense in pick-and-roll situations.
Despite the fifth loss in their first six games of the 2017-18 campaign, all is not in Jeopardy for the Hawks. Players like Prince and Collins are coming along slowly, but those guys are flashing new skills in each game. Reinserting Bembry to the rotation will be very important for the Hawks on both ends of the floor, to say nothing of what consistent minutes will do for him. Things don’t look good in the standings, but it was always going to take A Christmas (sic) Miracle for this team to be a contender this season. What’s more important is that the young players Get It and continue to develop their skills in all areas.