Oh, these seasons grow up so fast, and before you know it they're already over.
Another Atlanta Hawks season is in the books, the final chapter of this particular book saw John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards exact revenge for an Atlanta triumph in a previous book — the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks season where the Hawks eliminated the Wizards in six games second round of the playoffs to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
I sometimes refer to seasons as books and games as chapters. These seasons are quite similar to many books out there. You have your main characters, the ones you see every night/read about (the Hawks), who have a goal (to win an NBA championship) and you have the villains (the other 29 NBA teams and their respective players) who stand to get in the way of that objective.
Every game is different, each game has a different storyline and a different cast of villains each night that the heroes must beat. Each game is but a chapter that make up one long book – the Atlanta Hawks season.
Books are funny things sometimes...
I remember when I was younger I was big Harry Potter fan, always eagerly awaiting the next book installment in the series. But when I got my hands on next adventure, I didn't really appreciate it for what it truly was (don't you dare say it sucks, I don't even want to hear it!). I just wanted to get to the climax/the end of book to read what happened, to read the major event that everyone would be talking.
Sure, I would read the beginning to get my feet wet (as such) and reestablish myself with the existing characters but then I would rush through most of the middle section to get to the end as quick as I could, skimming through the pages. Naturally, I missed out on some of the really important developments/details in the middle of the book but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to get to the good part (which in my mind was the climax).
When I got to the closing stages of the book I would see a character's name I wouldn't recognize, so I would have to backtrack to see where this individual was first mentioned, find out who he was, where he came from and what his story was (if it was told). Sirius who?
For some Hawks fans out there the story is similar. We all know the about start of the book (the book that is the Atlanta Hawks season) and know the characters involved because we either read the end of the last book, someone told us the ending or we just read the last installment of the series ourselves.
So, for the beginning of this book (the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks season) we knew that Atlanta native Dwight Howard signed with the Hawks, knew that Al Horford left for Boston, knew that Jeff Teague had been traded to Indiana, knew that Dennis Schröder was receiving a promotion as a result and knew Kent Bazemore signed a big-money extension.
But once the beginning phase of the season passes and the grind of the regular season sets in, some fans phase out of (or skim through if you will) the Hawks’ season and miss out on the important developments and storylines of the season that happen between the start and the climax: The playoffs. But in doing that, they’ve missed out on all the small details and minor events in between that make the journey of an NBA season so special.
Well, gather around. What you're about to read is the season story of the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks. It's a tale filled with twists and turns, some expected some certainly unexpected...
Everyone knew coming into this season that things were going to be...different. The previous cornerstones of the franchise – Al Horford and Jeff Teague – were nowhere to seen on opening night. Horford left for Boston during free agency while Teague's trade request was granted, and he ended up in his hometown of Indiana with Paul George and the Pacers. Hometown kid Dwight Howard was brought in prior to Horford's decision to leave Atlanta, and Dennis Schröder was given the promotion he wanted and would take charge of the starting point guard reigns left by Jeff Teague.
But the main buzz of the city was, of course, Dwight Howard. Many, many fans were excited about this big new addition to their team, as were the Hawks and Howard himself.
Many fans rallied around Dwight straightaway, not only because he’s the hometown kid who came home but believed his ability to rebound the ball and the toughness (two things which many fans often criticized Al Horford of lacking) he could bring would make the Hawks a better team with a better chance to matchup in a playoff series against their Achilles heel: The Cleveland Cavaliers.
Many other fans had also been calling for Dennis to be given the keys to the point guard position even when Teague was still with the team, and with Teague's departure they finally got their wish. The role of starting point guard was now Dennis' and Dennis' alone.
It was certainly a summer where many fans got what they wished for. And if you’ve ever watched ‘Bruce Almighty’, you should know you should be careful what you wish for...
A new era of the Atlanta Hawks basketball officially tipped off on October 27th at Philips Arena against the Washington Wizards and — to the delight of the home crowd — it began with a Dwight Howard putback dunk.
The game itself was quite entertaining and chippy at times. John Wall certainly did not appreciate this undercut from Kent Bazemore...
The game was a tight one heading into the final period but behind a 33-19 fourth quarter in favor of the Hawks, Atlanta pulled away from Washington in a hurry to bring home the first home victory of the season -- 114-99.
Dwight Howard posted an 11 points, 19 rebound performance in his Hawks debut, but Paul Millsap reminded everyone that he was still the best player on the team scoring 28 points, securing seven rebounds, dishing out six assists and blocking one shot for good measure.
It was the beginning of an incredible start to the season. The Hawks jumped out to a 9-2 record, highlighted by a road win in Cleveland which ended a 11 game consecutive losing streak against the Cavaliers, led by one of Kent Bazemore's best performances of the season – 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting and 4-of-6 from three, including the dagger.
The 110-106 victory for the Hawks over the defending champs handed the last unbeaten team in the league their first loss of the season. The victory also gave Hawks fans belief, belief that the addition of Dwight (who scored seven points and secured 17 rebounds and was a big factor in this win) had given the Hawks a much better chance at competing against the Cavaliers in a possible playoff series.
The game also produced one of the better dunks of the Hawks’ season, Mike Muscala going skyward for this putback jam.
It was a play that exemplified the excellent start to the season that Muscala was enjoying. He had nailed the role as the backup big as his own and he actually led the league in FG% in the early stages of the season, shooting over 70% from the field. Normality did return and Muscala's shooting percentages eventually dipped but it was fun while it lasted.
During that that 9-2 run, the Hawks announced the purchase of a D-League team and that a new 3,500-seat arena was to be built in College Park which would facilitate the team from the 2019-20 season. Later in the season it was announced that the Hawks would assume control of the already existing D-League franchise Erie BayHawks beginning from the 2017-18 season before moving permanently to College Green in their new arena for the 2019-20 season. This would give the Hawks an earlier start to develop their younger players and coaches instead of waiting until the 2019-20 season to begin operations.
Things seemed to be going too well for the Hawks so, naturally, things had to slow down at some point. And when they did, they did so in a hurry.
After their 9-2 to the season the Hawks proceeded to go on a 1-11 run over their next 12 games, including a seven game losing streak “highlighted” by (in the absence of Paul Millsap, mind you) a 36 point home loss against the Detroit Pistons which was immediately followed by a 44 point loss against the Raptors in Toronto. Also nestled in that 1-11 stretch were losses to the L.A. Lakers (the second loss of the season against the Lakers having beaten the Hawks at home very early in the season) and the similarly low Phoenix Suns.
The Hawks stabilized somewhat when Millsap returned after a brief injury absence but the Hawks would basically end December in win-loss-win-loss-win-loss fashion. This stretch helped illustrate the Hawks' very up-down natured season and featured some of their best wins of the season as well as some of their worst losses of the season.
One of the Hawks' better wins of the season would come in this stretch (in fact at the start of it on December 9th) in Milwaukee against the Bucks. The Hawks were trailing the Bucks by 20 points at the half and seemed to be heading for a certain defeat but a career-high 33 points from Dennis Schröder – and a 70 point second half – swung the game in Atlanta's favor.
The Hawks’ very next game illustrated their yo-yo season as they suffered one of their worst losses of the season when the struggling Orlando Magic came into Philips Arena and put up 131 points on the Hawks in a 131-120 win for the Magic. A rare, great offensive game from the Hawks was wasted by conceding 131 points...
The other notable 'lowlights' of December for the Hawks also included two losses to the floundering Minnesota Timberwolves, meaning the Hawks have failed to beat the Timberwolves since February 9th 2015.
Other highlights in December included the Hawks (armed with Paul Millsap this time) getting revenge for the Raptors' 44 point win over the Hawks a few weeks prior and — shortly after that win — the Hawks posted a memorable road win in OKC without Dwight Howard, thanks to Paul Millsap's 30 points, 11 rebound performance which included the game winner.
The game-winner not only sent the Hawks to victory but also sent Taurean Prince into a dabbing frenzy...
Not long after that game, the Hawks staged a rather unique comeback in Denver. Trailing the Nuggets by eight points with 1:43 remaining, the Hawks finished the game on a 9-0 run with free throws and emerged from the Mile-High City with an unlikely victory, one that Paul Millsap was particularly pleased about, unusually so for a December game.
“It’s crazy how it happened”, Millsap remarked postgame. “You never know in this league how you can win a game.”
Just before the end of 2016, the Hawks won their first overtime game since March 18th 2014 after picking up an overtime victory at home against the New York Knicks on December 28th, before wrapping up the calendar year with a home win against the Detroit Pistons.
But despite the Hawks escaping December with a 17-16 record, there was one thing they could not escape...
The further the Hawks moved into December, the more and more the trade winds picked up and they most notably circled free agent-to-be Paul Millsap. The Hawks were rumored to be taking calls on not only Millsap but Atlanta's other pending free agents: Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha.
Nevertheless the Hawks pressed on, and started the new year with a bang. The Hawks picked up their first win against the San Antonio Spurs since March 2010, their first in their last 11 attempts against the Spurs and Mike Budenholzer's first win against the Spurs since he left the organization after 19 years to become the Hawks' head coach.
The game itself was absolutely wild. Led by his 32 points, Paul Millsap took matters into his own hands in the second half and scored 17 straight points for the Hawks as he played the entire second half and overtime period.
But despite Paul's effort, the Hawks were still down by three points with 9.3 seconds remaining and needed a three to tie the game. Out of a timeout, Tim Hardaway Jr. buried a three-pointer that sent Philips in a frenzy, as well as Coach Bud's son.
Timmy stepped up in overtime, scoring nine points — including the go-ahead free throw — to help the Hawks to their second overtime victory of the season while scoring a then career-high of 29 points.
But things were about change in a hurry...
Just before the Hawks’ January 5th's game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported that fan favorite Kyle Korver was heading to Cleveland in a deal with the Cavaliers that sent a future first round pick and Mike Dunleavy to Atlanta.
The move left most fans in utter shock and, understandably, upset. But there was still a game to be played that night. The Hawks pulled out a victory for their now former teammate (who continued to cheer on the bench throughout the game) but despite the Hawks notching their fifth straight win, it was a hollow victory. They had lost one of the veterans they clung to and relied upon. A great player, but a better person.
Trades are a part of the business of basketball but the Hawks postgame locker room was as emotional as I've seen.— Chris Vivlamore (@CVivlamoreAJC) January 6, 2017
As soon as this trade was reported, the initial feeling was that Korver was simply the first domino to fall in what was shaping up to be a Hawks rebuild. The rational behind that theory made sense. I mean, why on earth would you trade one of the best shooters in the league (and your team’s best shooter by far) to the team you're desperately trying to beat in a move that makes them better and you worse? It didn't make sense from a competitive point of view, so it seemed as though it was only a matter of time before Millsap and/or Sefolosha would be traded.
All of the signs pointed towards a Millsap trade (a pending free agent who’s in line for a massive contract that the Hawks may not want to sign him to), but things change quickly in the NBA.
On January 9th, reports surfaced that Millsap had been taken off the trade block and he would remain with the Hawks. Chris Vivlamore of the AJC reported at the time that “the new mandate may have come from Hawks ownership”. Millsap confirmed the next day after shootaround prior to a game with the Brooklyn Nets that he had been told he was not going to be traded.
"Now everybody can stop talking about it," Millsap said "I can stop thinking about it and just focus on basketball."
Based on the way Millsap was speaking, it sure sounded like he was completely sure that he was going absolutely nowhere. And that kind of assurance could only come, as Vivlamore initially reported, from the very top. From ownership. This was effectively confirmed by Tony Ressler himself in an interview with the Jeff Schultz of the AJC prior to Game 3 of the Hawks’ first round matchup against the Washington Wizards...
January 10th saw the Hawks reacquaint themselves with an old friend – coach Kenny Atkinson of the Brooklyn Nets, the former Hawks assistant coach who left Atlanta last summer to fill the Nets' head coaching vacancy. After the game (which the Hawks handily won) there was heartwarming reunion and a lot of respect shown by Hawks players and coaches alike toward their former colleague.
The victory against the Nets pushed the Hawks' winning streak to 7 games but the streak was snapped at Philips Arena on the night an old friend made his return to Atlanta: Al Horford.
Horford made his return to Philips on January 13th with the Boston Celtics. It wasn't exactly a hearty welcome for Al, who spent 9 seasons with the Hawks before seeking pastures new.
The mixed reaction surprised Horford. “They (the boos) were unexpected,” Horford said postgame. “I don’t want to say anything, but it is what it is. I know there’s a lot of fans out there that appreciated my time here, and I appreciate them.”
Thankfully, common sense prevailed for a moment as Horford was giving a standing ovation after a video tribute was shown.
The game itself highlighted a problem that the Hawks faced for a good chunk of the season before eventually making an adjustment to limit the problem. That problem was three-point defense. Behind 15 three-pointers in the first two and a half quarters, the Celtics built up a 20 point lead in the third quarter and seemed set for an easy victory.
But the Hawks didn’t quit so easily. Somewhat sparked by Mike Dunleavy’s debut performance, Atlanta fought back and Paul Millsap’s three-pointer tied the game at 101 apiece with 25 seconds remaining.
But it would all prove to be in vain. With just 2.4 seconds remaining, Isaiah Thomas hit the go-ahead basket for the Celtics and it proved to be the game-winner.
Though the loss was disappointing for the Hawks, the game did at least see the return of the 'Pete Maravich' jerseys, the blue and green scheme made by popular by Maravich when he played for the Hawks.
In what was a strange phenomenon (one which confused and angered quite a number of fans), the Hawks did not have a home game scheduled for MLK Day, traveling instead to New York for a showdown at MSG. But just because the Hawks didn't play at home on MLK Day didn't stop them from doing their traditional choir intros, doing them instead the game prior against the Bucks.
Truly, a thing of beauty...
On MLK Day itself, Dennis Schröder’s go-ahead three-pointer put the Hawks on the brink of victory in New York in front of a packed house...
In what was a nervous ending, Paul Millsap came up with the defensive stop that secured another win for the Hawks on MLK Day.
The Hawks were lucky on this occasion because Carmelo Anthony really should’ve converted the rebound...
In a month where it looked as though the Hawks had turned the corner in consistency, they returned to their 'win one, lose one' form for the rest of January, but caused an interesting turn of events when they met the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on January 25th...
The Hawks were looking down the barrel of defeat in Chicago when Dwyane Wade’s jumper gave the Bulls a 10 point lead (110-100) with just over three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Out of the resulting timeout, the Hawks played with a sense of urgency that changed the game and erased a 10 point deficit within a minute and 20 seconds.
The Hawks closed out with a 19-4 run and won the game 119-114. The Chicago meltdown prompted Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler to fire shots at their younger teammates, questioning their fire and desire to win basketball games. Rajon Rondo would then go on to defend his teammates with an Instagram post which called out Butler’s and Wade’s leadership.
An unusual situation to say the least, and one which was sparked by a Hawks comeback win.
The next day (January 26th) Millsap was named an All-Star for the fourth straight year, his fourth with the Hawks. He received quite a lot of flak from 76ers fans, who believed that Joel Embiid was more deserving of an All-Star berth...
January was a pretty wild month for the Hawks (the win against the Spurs, the Korver trade, Al Horford’s return to name a few events) and what better way to cap it off by featuring in what was possibly the wildest game in the entire NBA season. Who could've ever guessed what a Sunday afternoon home game against the New York Knicks would turn into...
That’s right, FOUR overtime periods.
The Hawks won a 4OT thriller at Philips with Paul Millsap leading to Hawks to victory – showing everyone why he was named to the team ahead of Joel Embiid – with 37 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists while playing over 60 minutes of basketball. SIXTY minutes.
It really just the wildest game, it would take forever to describe it... Thankfully, the NBA did put together this video on YouTube for everyone's viewing pleasure.
In a period of the game when everyone should be just sprawled on the floor in exhaustion (4OT), a three-point shootout ensued. It was really was just the wildest game and it certainly took its toll on everyone, including coach Bud.
Often during the season, the Hawks struggled to get Dwight Howard good looks in games but when Dwight returned to Houston on February 2nd, they made sure to get their big-man involved. In what was probably his best game of the season, Howard posted 24 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in what turned out to be a TNT thriller.
In what was a coming out season for THJ's career (the Korver trade unlocking him more minutes), Timmy scored 23 fourth quarter points and spearheaded the Hawks' fourth quarter comeback, a quarter in which they trailed the Rockets by as many as 20 points.
THJ capped his 23 point quarter (and the game, for that matter) in incredible style.
It wasn’t the first time this season the Hawks had rallied from a 20 point deficit and won, and it wouldn’t be the last time the Hawks would do it in the fourth quarter...
The Hawks’ 'win one, lose one' trend reappeared to take them into the All-Star break, but the Hawks did feature in a very entertaining fixture with the Portland Trail Blazers in the run-up to the break. Paul Millsap (there's that man again) beat the buzzer to take the game into overtime with a beautiful floater that added another 5 minutes on the clock.
Having sent the game to overtime Hawks left themselves work to do after the Blazers began the OT period with a 7-0 run, but the Hawks didn't panic and finished the game on a 12-0 run that secured a 109-104 victory. The win improved the Hawks to 4-0 in overtime for the season. Remarkable, considering the Hawks went 0-6 in overtime in 2015-16...
But to make up for this win, the Hawks did lose to the Kings the game prior, so...
The Hawks ended their first “half” of the season with a loss against the L.A. Clippers and entered the All-Star break with a 32-23 record. And that's when things got real busy...
It hasn’t been uncommon for the Hawks to stand pat at the trade deadline in the recent past. They did it (arguably to a detriment) in 2015 and again in 2016, content with their current rosters at the time. But they sure didn't in 2017 but it wasn't Paul Millsap who would be on the move, Budenholzer adamant that Paul would be heading nowhere.
Instead, the Hawks finally gave up on Tiago Splitter (who hadn't played a single game in the season up to that point anyways) and sent him to Philadelphia (along with a second round draft pick and a pick swap) in exchange for forward Ersan Ilyasova. The Hawks also freed up a roster spot by sending Mike Scott (and cash) to Phoenix for a protected second round pick. Scott had struggled to find his way back into the rotation after a non-surgical procedure to his knee sidelined him for the first few weeks of the season. Any minutes Scott did get, he was uunable get into a rhythm and struggled shooting the basketball. He just wasn't looking like the Emoji-Man we all knew and loved and that, in addition to the uncertainty (at the time at least) of his looming court case, were probably the reasons the Hawks decided to move on from Scott.
The Hawks were already an interesting topic of conversation prior to the resumption of the season after the All-Star break but found themselves in unwanted headlines when they suspended Dennis Schröder for a game after he returned late from the All-Star break. Dennis cited visa issues as the reason why he was stuck in Germany when he was supposed to be back in Atlanta.
Malcolm Delaney started the Hawks' first game after the All-Star break but shot 2-of-10 from the field as the Hawks lost at home to the Miami Heat. Despite his tough shooting night, Delaney would get another crack as the starting point guard the following game against the Orlando Magic as Dennis was punished for being late for the team bus. When he did come off the bench, Dennis didn't add a whole lot to the game as he shot 4-of-17 from the field in another defeat.
Not exactly the start to the final leg of the regular season that Dennis and the Hawks were hoping for...
Things got a little feisty on February 27th when the Hawks made their first -- and only -- visit of the season to Boston. Dwight Howard won some fans over after he pushed Al Horford after Al wrapped Dwight's arms up under the rim. The push was much to the disliking of Al Horford (who, some Hawks fans, joked never got that angry when he was in Atlanta).
That push earned Dwight a technical foul and he picked up a second not long after that for this “chin up” after a dunk.
After the game had ended, the NBA quickly came out and said that Dwight should not have been ejected but instead issued a un-sportsmanlike technical foul which wouldn't have resulted in an ejection. But the Hawks had to carry on without Dwight and they picked up a revenge win in Boston and snapping Isaiah Thomas' 43 game streak of scoring 20 or more points in a game in the process.
On March 3rd the Hawks welcomed back fan favorite Kyle Korver to Philips Arena in his first appearance in Atlanta since his January trade to the Cavaliers.
Once again, the Hawks were down big but showed resiliency and cut a 25 point lead to just one point with 1:32 remaining on the clock before Kyle Korver (of all people) buried a huge three-pointer that put the Cavs back up by four points. Korver’s three also set another Cavaliers' three-point record as it was the Cavaliers’ 25th of the game, the most three-pointers in a regular season game. THJ’s new career-high of 36 points wasn't enough on the night and the Cavs would go on to win the game 135-130.
March 3rd also saw the Hawks retire Pete Maravich's number 44, joining Lou Hudson, Bob Petit, Dominique Wilkins and Dikembe Mutumbo in the rafters.
The very next game (on March 5th) the Hawks welcomed another old friend back to Philips: Jeff Teague.
While other members of the Hawks welcomed Jeff back, coach Bud was not among them, unable to do so after be able being slapped with a one-game suspension for bumping an official in the Cleveland game. Assistant coach Darvin Ham took over for the game.
Unfortunately for Ham and the Hawks, it was a game they let slip by. After a horrible 'hero-ball' type of possession from Tim Hardaway Jr. the Pacers head the other way and Glen Robinson III hit the go-ahead three-pointer with .6 left on the clock. It ultimately proved to be the game-winner.
The Hawks’ next game against the Golden State Warriors held one of the more concerning moments from the Hawks’ season. After Dwight Howard’s outlet pass to Thabo Sefolosha sailed out of bounds, Dennis — who was set for new career-high at the time — came over and voiced his disagreement with Dwight’s decision to try pass the ball to Sefolosha instead of passing it to Dennis. While the two argued their point of view, the Warriors inbound the ball and Steph Curry was left alone alone to shoot an open three-pointer as Dwight and Dennis continued to voice their opinions to each other. Curry hit the three and Budenholzer, undoubtedly furious at what just transpired before his eyes, called an immediate timeout.
After Dennis took an ill-advised three-pointer not long after this incident, Bud yanked him from the game and he was not reinserted into the game. Afterwards, Bud labelled the decision as “a coach’s decision” before emphasising the point of being together.
“Just us staying together is the bigger point,” said Budenholzer. “We’ve got to stay together and find a way to move on to the next play. Those things are important.”
Dennis and Dwight appeared to make up (presumably at the DS17 lounge), with Schröder tweeting this:
The makeup appeared to be genuine and the Hawks would go on to win three straight games including a road win in Memphis and a home win against the Raptors which was crucial at time. With that win, the Hawks secured the tiebreaker over the Raptors and sat just a game behind Toronto in the race for home court advantage.
During this time, the Hawks welcomed a new face to Atlanta – veteran point guard José Calderón. Calderón had been released by the Golden State Warriors almost as soon as he signed after an injury to Kevin Durant forced the Warriors to cut Calderon in order to sign a small forward.
After the great work the Hawks did to win the tiebreaker against Toronto and set themselves up for a legitimate shot at the final home court advantage spot, the Hawks' season would take a turn down south.
The Hawks would lose their next two games against the Spurs and the Grizzlies, and prior to the Hawks’ next game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Paul Millsap was ruled out with left knee synovitis and would eventually be ruled out without a timetable for return. In that same game against the Blazers Kent Bazemore suffered a knee injury that would sideline him out the next five games. The Hawks would go on to lose against the Blazers (increasing their losing streak to three) game and would then proceed to lose the next four games, pushing the losing streak up to seven games for the second time in the season. To add further insult to injury (no pun intended), the Hawks would soon lose Thabo Sefolosha to a right groin strain. Thabo had previously missed the last nine games before the All-Star break with a left groin strain and would go on to miss another eight with this right groin strain.
In Thabo’s place, rookie Taurean Prince was inserted into the starting lineup and he would remain in that role even as the Hawks progressed to the playoffs with the return of Sefolosha.
After the Hawks snapped their seven game losing streak against the very shorthanded Phoenix Suns, the Hawks found members of their squad return to them after their various injury layoffs. Kent Bazemore returned the Hawks’ next game against the Sixers after missing five games with a knee injury and Paul Millsap would return two games later off of the bench in a loss against the Brooklyn Nets having missed the previous eight games, the Hawks going 2-6 in his absence this time around, 2-9 in total.
The Hawks' seven game losing streak had shoved them out of contention for homecourt advantage and forced them to look over their shoulders as the Milwaukee Bucks (6th), Indiana Pacers (7th) and Miami Heat (8th) continued to nip at Hawks' heels. But the Hawks put together a crucial run in to end of the regular season to cement their fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
A home win against the Boston Celtics was followed by two incredible victories against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a home-and-home affair highlighted a week where the Hawks 10 straight playoff appearance was confirmed.
Heading into Cleveland on April 7th, the Hawks rested their star players — Paul Millsap, Dennis Schröder, Dwight Howard and Kent Bazemore. Even at full strength, the odds would’ve been against the Hawks picking up a victory, let alone the B-Team. But the Hawks continued to go against the grain. Against the LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love Cavaliers, the Hawks' B-Team won convincingly 114-100, led by THJ's 22 points.
When the Cavaliers travelled to Atlanta for the rematch it was a very different story. The Cavs blew the Hawks apart behind LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, excellent ball movement and three-point shooting. The Cavaliers entered the fourth quarter with a 26 point lead. History was on the Cavaliers' side in this situation...
NBA teams had won their last 1,005 games when entering the fourth quarter with a lead of 25+ points before Cleveland's unraveling today #wow— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) April 10, 2017
Coach Bud decided to run with the second unit to begin the fourth quarter and, straightaway, they got stuck in and moved the ball in a manner that the starters hadn't up until that point. After the Hawks reeled quick 9-0 run, Ty Lue called for a timeout, unhappy with how the fourth quarter was going. The Hawks kept plugging away and after they cut the lead to 15 points with over 8 minutes remaining Ty Lue inserted Irving and Love back into the game (LeBron was already on the floor having started the fourth quarter), no longer believing this lead was safe.
But there was still so much for the Hawks to do to have a chance of winning this game, and even after Mike Muscala buried a clutch three-pointer that cut the lead to four points with 52 seconds left, the Hawks were still up against it — the clock was not their friend. The Hawks missed their next shot and the Cavaliers had possession of the ball with 18 seconds left and a four point lead coming out of a timeout. All they needed to do was get the ball to anyone and it was, essentially, game over. But the Cavs' already near epic collapse continued as LeBron was hit with a 5-second inbounding violation, handing possession back to Atlanta. After THJ made 1-of-2 at the line after he was fouled going to the rim, the Hawks were forced to intentionally foul (down by three points with 10 seconds remaining) and sent Kyrie Irving to the line, where he dispatched both free throws.
Now trailing by 5 points with 10 seconds left, things weren't looking great for the Hawks. But they did have the ball and with it, earned three free throws after LeBron fouled Paul Millsap on a three-point attempt.
The clutch gene runs through Paul Millsap's veins so, naturally, he sunk all three free throws, but the Hawks still trailed by two points with 8 seconds on the clock. Cue further implosions from the Cavs. Off of the resulting inbound, LeBron gets the ball to Kyrie but he's trapped by both Bazemore and Millsap and they tie him, resulting in a jump ball.
The Hawks were very fortunate to receive the call, as both Millsap and Bazemore were out of bounds when they tied Irving up...
Last second jumpball on Kyrie, both Hawks defenders are out of bounds pic.twitter.com/yvk8pCZnJA— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) April 9, 2017
From the resulting jump, chaos ensues. The ball is tipped, Muscala goes to ground to get the to ball, guides it into the path of Paul Millsap who rises and beats the buzzer and his shot finds nothing but the bottom of the net. A 26 point fourth deficit eliminated in 12 minutes as the Hawks outscored the Cavs 44-18 in the final period.
The Hawks had forced one of the most unlikely overtimes, certainly in their history but their fourth quarter momentum didn’t immediately carry over into overtime. Similar to the Portland game in late January, the Hawks struggled out of the gates as the Cavs went on a 5-0 run to begin overtime. The Hawks eventually got going and, after LeBron James controversially fouled out, took control and eventually won 126-125 in one of the most incredible games the Hawks have ever played.
The Hawks also made this comeback without Dennis Schröder or Dwight Howard playing a single second of the fourth quarter or overtime...
The Hawks would win their next game against the Charlotte Hornets and — in the process — sealed a first round playoff matchup against the Washington Wizards in the 4-5 matchup. With their seed locked, the Hawks rested their star players against the Pacers on the final night of the regular season, lost the game and finished the regular season with 43-39 record. If Paul Millsap had been healthy (the Hawks went 2-9 when Millsap was did not play) that could've easily been at least 45-37. But it wouldn't have mattered, that record would've only earned the Hawks the 5-seed...
Thabo Sefolosha did make his return to the court against Hornets game but came off the bench with Taurean Prince continuing to start at small forward. This would not change when the playoffs arrived and Prince would become the first rookie since Tony Parker to score in double digits in his first five playoff games while Sefolosha would barely see any game time in the playoffs at all (averaging 2.2 minutes per game in only 4 games), fueling speculation that he will be leaving Atlanta when the free agency period begins in July.
When it came to the Hawks’ playoff opponents, they were always going to be up against it in a playoff series against the Wizards. The Wizards had beaten the Hawks 3-1 in the season series and presented the Hawks with many issues: Transition points, pick-and-roll defense, John Wall, Bradley Beal just to name a few... For many different reasons the Wizards were the clear-cut favorites to win this series.
Behind a motivated John Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, Atlanta turnovers and transition points, the Wizards took care of Game 1 114-107. After that, Paul Millsap's comments on the Wizards' physicality in Game 1 sparked a rivalry from Markieff Morris’ side.
"Just see where he's at now," Morris said in response to Millsap’s MMA comments. “I guess if that's MMA, then what we do next might be double MMA."
The Hawks made the same mistakes in Game 2 (not Round 2 as it turned out) as they did in Game 1 (turnovers, inability to limit Wall and Beal etc.) and they lost 101-109, and now trailed the Wizard 2-0 in the series as a result. The Hawks had many issues trying to slow down John Wall and Bradley Beal not just in Game 2 but in the entire series. Wall and Beal got almost got whatever they wanted on the offensive end against Dennis Schröder and THJ respectively (especially against THJ in the pick-and-roll).
Many fans were unhappy with “Playoff-Dwight's” performances through the first two games of the series. Howard struggled to make much of an impact on both sides of the ball in the first two games. His main issue on the defensive end was he failed to step up and help on pick-and-rolls which led to many, many Bradley Beal jump-shots. Meanwhile, he was being completely outplayed by his former Orlando backup Marcin Gortat on both sides of the floor.
The series shifted to Atlanta for Game 3 but when everyone should've been talking about matters on the court, the attention – for a few hours at least – shifted off the court.
In the aforementioned interview with Jeff Schultz of the AJC, Hawks owner Tony Ressler stated that he makes the final decisions when it comes to Atlanta's major decisions. President of Basketball Operations Mike Budenholzer and General Manager Wes Wilcox have a say but Ressler — as he made it very clear — has the final word.
But the president of basketball operations is what I say it is, not what you say it is. It has the loudest voice, not the final word. There’s a dramatic difference.
I make the final decision, with all due respect. Just so you know, Bud is incredibly inclusive. Wes’ view, (senior advisor and former general manager) Rick Sund’s view, (assistant general manager) Jeff Peterson’s view. I’m in the decision-making business in my other job. It’s what I do for a living. If you think Bud makes a final decision on everything that we do, you don’t understand the way the Atlanta Hawks are run.
In the article, Schultz mentioned that when the idea of possibly trading Paul Millsap reached Ressler’s desk, he responded “NFW”...
A final kick in the nuts for many fans and writers alike was Ressler’s belief that the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks were a better team than the 2014-15 team. The team which, oh yeah, won 60 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals...
Maybe more surprising is his belief that the 2017 Hawks are a better playoff team than the one that went to the conference finals in 2015. He said this team is deeper and “more playoff ready. We just haven’t shown it yet.” He also somewhat diminished the playoff run two years ago by pointing out the Hawks’ struggles against eight-seeded Brooklyn in the first round and a Washington team in the second round that lost John Wall in Game 3.
It's a good thing the Hawks won Game 3 and distracted most of the public to the fact that the Hawks are where they are because of the decisions Ressler ultimately made rather than Budenholzer's and Wilcox's (though they’re not totally excused). The Hawks’ wire-to-wire Game 3 victory trimmed the deficit to 2-1 thanks to the performances of Paul Millsap (29 points) and Dennis Schröder (27 points).
After struggling in Games 2 and 3 (or to put it another way, after his “double MMA comments”) Markieff Morris made things personal with Millsap, labelling him a “crybaby” after Washington’s Game 3 defeat. The comment prompted great reactions from Millsap and Dennis (who shared the podium after Game 3).
Wizards' Markieff Morris called Hawks' Paul Millsap a "crybaby" after Game 3. Millsap and Dennis Schroder with the priceless reaction... pic.twitter.com/VyxUGpbO4U— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 23, 2017
Behind a group effort in Game 4 (with seven Hawks players scoring in double figures) the Hawks evened the series at 2-2 with the series now shifting back to Washington for a pivotal Game 5.
Game 4 saw Dwight Howard enjoy his best game of the playoffs by far with 16 points and 15 rebounds, while Kent Bazemore produced one of his best games of the season with 16 points and seven assists. Bazemore and Dwight connected on multiple occasions in Game 4 and the resulting dunks uplifted the crowd significantly.
Neither team had won a road game at this point of the series and that trend would continue in Game 5 as the Hawks came up short once again in D.C. Poor execution down the stretch (as well as some horrible no-calls which should have sent Millsap to the free throw line) cost the Hawks Game 5 as they narrowly lost 103-99 in D.C. Similar to the first three games of the series, Dwight was no where to be found in this game as he scored 5 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 28 minutes.
With the Hawks facing elimination in Game 6 in Atlanta, they needed to come out strong and play with a sense of urgency. They bombed big-time. The Wizards took a 20 point lead in the first half behind monster games from Wall (42 points) and Beal (31 points). The Wizards also finally got help from Markieff Morris, who was comprehensively outplayed by Paul Millsap after Game 1 and the double MMA comments, often struggling with foul trouvle. But Morris finally kept himself out of foul trouble and scored 17 points in Game 6.
The Hawks did put up a fight — as they often did this season when they were on the verge of being blown out — and cut the lead to three points with 5:32 remaining in the fourth quarter but the Wizards finished the game with a 15-2 run to end Atlanta's season in the first round of the 2017 playoffs.
As the Hawks attempted to comeback – not for the first time – they decided that they were better off leaving Dwight on the bench in order to space the floor a little more.
“When we need to score and we need to catch up, we need to play a little more of a spread offense,” Budenholzer said postgame.
In the exit interviews that followed, Dwight made his feelings about the situation be known: He did not enjoy sitting on the bench during the biggest quarter of the Hawks' season.
“I want to play. I want to be out on the floor.” said Dwight. “I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact, and I can’t do that on the bench.”
When asked if the role Dwight played was the same that was laid out to him before he signed with the Hawks, Dwight responded “I’ll let you say that. I just want to get ready for next year.”
“It hurts,” Howard also added. “I’m sure if you wrote the best stories in the world and nobody read your stories and they told you to stop writing and you saw somebody else’s story that wasn’t as good as yours, I’m pretty sure you’d be pissed, too. That’s how it is in basketball.”
This season will ultimately go down as a disappointment for almost everyone involved. The Hawks’ defense wasn't good enough to make up for their poor offense. Last season the Hawks were a great defensive team which meant they didn't have to score 100 points to win games. That team could win games with their defense and, very often, they did. This season, the defense and offense both regressed. That's a horrible combination of things to happen and it cost the Hawks big-time.
You could make a legitimate case that the Hawks were lucky to win 43 games in the regular season. How many times did they have to fight back from double digits this season? Throughout the season, Mike Conti of 92.9 The Game tracked the Hawks’ record when they trailed by double digits at any stage during a game. Here was his final count after the Hawks fell behind in Game 6:
#ATLHawks are 10-38 this season (0-3 in the playoffs) when trailing by double digits at any point— Mike Conti (@MikeConti929) April 29, 2017
A whopping 48 teams this season the Hawks trailed by double digits in a game.
Of course you’re going to have some comeback wins when you trail like this so many times. And some of those games the Hawks had no right winning (such as the Houston and Cleveland games) as individual performances or team collapses bailed the Hawks out of losses. It seemed as though — at times — the fight in this team was greater than the actual ability of the team, and that's what carried them through at times.
While he had an excellent postseason, Dennis Schröder's – at times – inconsistent play and erratic nature were proof that, perhaps, his point guard promotion came a year too early. At times he looked like the same Dennis Schröder from last season only with more stats in more minutes.
Throughout the season he made the same mistakes, played with the same recklessness, as he did when he came off the bench last season, and looked for his own offense when he should've – as the point guard – looked to get others involved. This isn’t to say that the decision to trade Jeff Teague for the pick that became Taurean Prince was wrong, but perhaps a veteran presence (like a José Calderón or a Jarret Jack) from the start would’ve helped Dennis in his first season as a starter. His defense on the other hand – which was something Hawks fans preferred him over Teague for – regressed significantly. All that said, it's not always about how you start the season but how you end it, and the way Dennis ended the season should give the Hawks and Hawks fans encouragement going forward.
What about Dwight Howard?
Dwight cannot be blamed for the Hawks' disappointing season. He came in and was himself. He is the player he is. He came in, rebounded the ball and helped protect the rim. That’s what the Hawks brought him in to do and he did those things. But upon reflection, as a package, Dwight wasn’t as helpful to the Hawks as the coaching staff first envisioned and this was reflected in Bud’s decision often sit him in crucial stretches in the fourth quarters of important games, sometimes for the entirety of the fourth quarter. He just killed the Hawks’ spacing (again, through now fault of his own that's just the player he is and the Hawks should've known that) and the Hawks almost played 4-on-5 at times, because the opposing center didn’t have to fear/respect an outside game as they had to when the Hawks had Al Horford.
The Hawks’ point guard depth/production also hurt them at times, but particularly near the end of the season and in playoffs.
Let’s be honest, the Hawks were spoiled with the point guard depth and fans became used to that for the past few seasons. Malcolm Delaney struggled to find his rhythm at times, struggled to knock down the shots that me made with ease in Europe and saw very little court time in the playoffs. Delaney has already expressed regret over how he played this season, saying he went away from what got him to the NBA.
After landing a big-money contract last summer, it was a rough campaign for Kent Bazemore, who was inconsistent for most of the season and found it difficult to string good games one after another. Even by his own admission, it was a very up-and-down year for Bazemore but you can't question his commitment and the edge he adds to this team. Not all of Bazemore’s worth shows up in the boxscore but he’ll have to be better next season...
Tim Hardaway Jr. is a player who can look back on this season and say it was a positive one in terms of his evolution. The entire league took notice of THJ’s performances this season and he’s in line for a nifty little contract when he hits the market as a restricted free agent.
To close, Dwight Howard came in and added an rebounding edge for the Hawks and Dennis Schröder was always the point guard of the future but history will say – for this season at least – that the Hawks were worse off without Al Horford and Jeff Teague and that is reflected in the season record and the postseason run.
While it's unsure whether some of the characters we currently know – and in some cases love very much – will return for next year's story (Millsap, Sefolosha, Ilyasova, THJ, Muscala, Calderón and Kris Humphries are all free agents this summer while Mike Dunleavy's contract isn't fully guaranteed), two minor characters who played minor roles in this season are waiting in the wings, set for bigger roles next season: Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry...
But that’s for another book for another year. May it have a happier ending than the 2016-17 Hawks, a team and season that fans will ultimately forget...