Mike Budenholzer could have thrown a snit fit after his Atlanta Hawks pulled a no-show on defense against the bottom-of-the-barrel New York Knickerbockers. He could have thundered, “This stuff won’t fly come the playoffs!” And he’d have been correct. But I’m guessing his men knew that already, which is why those words were left unsaid, at least to us media types.
These were the Knicks’ quarter-by-quarter field-goal percentages Monday — 50.0, 57.1, 56.1, 55.0. In no period did the 16-win visitors make fewer than half their shots, which is why they left having won a 17th game. (The Hawks are still stuck on 60, FYI.) The Hawks’ defensive rotations were non-existent. Yes, the Knicks knocked the bottom out of the ol’ basket, but still: These were open shots. Pros are supposed to make open shots.
Even pros like Langston Galloway, an undrafted rookie up from the D-League who scored a career-best 26 points against the East’s No. 1 seed. Tim Hardaway Jr. had 23, and the legendary Jason Smith had 20. It’s one thing if Carmelo Anthony lights you up, but he hasn’t played for a while now. The Knicks are playing for lottery position, and they shot so well against the Hawks as to kind of mess that up.
But enough about the Knicks. At issue are the Hawks, whose focus was, shall we say, elsewhere. This wasn’t to be unexpected. It’s not easy to go half-speed, which is essentially what the Hawks have, by design, sought to do the past month. They’re trying to gear up for the playoffs while gearing down so nobody gets hurt — they haven’t done so well on the nobody-getting-hurt part, either — and that’s a fine line to tread.
Fourteen seconds into the second half, Budenholzer called timeout after his team ran something other than the prescribed play. “We need a better focus,” he said afterward, using that word again, and from there on the Hawks gave a pretty good effort. They never really guarded the Knicks — after the Hawks, who’d trailed by 17, forged a tie with nine minutes remaining, they yielded three consecutive 3-pointers — but they played with more spirit.
Budenholzer liked that. Maybe this game actually went the way he, in his secretive heart of hearts, wanted. His team lost to a lousy opponent, which always stings, but played something close to full speed in the second half, which wasn’t a bad thing, either. “When we map it out, we think we’re just going to play our game,” he said. “To have to really work, to really blow it out (meaning play hard), that’s really good.”
No ranting. No tut-tutting. Just a smart coach who knows he has a smart team and who trusts those players to connect the dots. If they defend like this in Round 1, they won’t see Round 2. But they won’t defend like this in Round 1. They’ll defend the way they usually do because every team is desperate come the postseason.
The Hawks had a great chance to tie it inside the final 10 seconds, but the flip shot Jeff Teague has made 100 times this season didn’t fall. That probably suited Budenholzer, too. Coaches like to win, duh, but a coach with a point to make often cringes when his team slops around but pulls it out at the end. The Hawks lost 112-108 when four of their usual starters worked at least 33 minutes. That should get this team’s attention.
As Budenholzer said: “Sometimes it’s good to learn from what you don’t do.”
From myajc: Are the Hawks playoff-ready? Yes, I say.