Mike Budenholzer, who coaches the Atlanta Hawks, drew one third-place vote in the balloting for NBA coach of the year. The surprise wasn’t that he didn’t repeat as COY; the surprise was that he got a vote. Somebody must have thought, “Hey, the guy took four returning All-Stars and won 12 fewer games than last year. That's podium stuff.”
True confession: There was a time when I considered Budenholzer the NBA’s next great coach. I no longer do. ( Brad Stevens has pretty much lapped him in that race , wouldn’t you say?) At this moment, I’m wondering if Budenholzer is just a smart guy who inherited players who fit a Spurs-centric design – Danny Ferry, take a bow in absentia – and made the most of them. That produced one terrific 60-win regular season. And that, to date, is about it.
Budenholzer seemed a step slow, as it were, in every round of the 2015 postseason. Lionel Hollins, Randy Wittman and David Blatt -- three coaches who have since been fired -- seemed to be calling most of the tunes. It may never be known if Budenholzer’s Spurs-like desire to rest his players down the stretch removed the edge from a smooth-running team, or if opponents – Cleveland especially – had a postseason gear the Hawks simply lacked. Whatever the cause, this was the effect:
In Round 1, the top-seeded Hawks were tied with the sub-.500 Nets after four games. In Round 2, the Hawks trailed the fifth-seeded Wizards 2-1 even though Washington’s best player (John Wall) missed Games 2 and 3. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Hawks were swept by Cleveland, which was missing Kevin Love and, for Games 2 and 3, Kyrie Irving.
Yes, Paul Millsap was never quite himself in those playoffs. (He’d entered off an injury.) Yes, DeMarre Carroll hurt his leg in Game 1 against the Cavs. (He played in Game 2, though.) Yes, Kyle Korver was lost for the duration near the end of a blowout Game 2 in the Eastern finals. (By then, though, it was clear the Hawks, who were about to lose a second home game in three nights, were done.)
We mention this now because something similar has happened. The Celtics lost their second-best player (Avery Bradley) in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Their best reserve big man (Kelly Olynyk) missed Games 2 and 3. They scored an NBA-playoff-record-low seven points in the first quarter of Game 2. They won Games 3 and 4. Stevens changed two starters – who does that in postseason? – and forged a tie in a series that, going on available resources, should be close to over.
Then there’s the final sequence of regulation in Game 4. The Hawks had the ball, 15 seconds left. They called timeout. They gave it to Jeff Teague, who had just hit two 3-pointers. Teague stood in place and waited. The other four Hawks dispersed to the corners.
Only with five seconds to go did two of them move, Kyle Korver runningoff a Paul Millsap screen. (Korver was a designated decoy on the play.) Only with three seconds remaining did Teague begin to dribble. This monstrosity of a set ended the way it should have: Teague lost the ball as he rose for a shot that might not have beaten the buzzer.
Apparently the Hawks were so consumed by leaving the Celtics with no time that they de-emphasized the part about, you know, needing to score themselves. As my CineSport pal Noah Coslov said: “They were afraid of what Stevens might do." There’s reason for that. He’s great at sketching inbounds plays. But there was – sorry to repeat myself – a time when I marveled at the quality of shots Budenholzer’s Hawks would get off dead balls. Where did that go?
Much has been made this week about the Hawks’ awful record in overtime games – they’ve lost nine in row – and that’s no testimonial to coaching, either. But there’s a greater point to this: As we know, Budenholzer isn’t just the coach; he’s the czar of Hawks basketball. And now we reveal the number of points scored in Games 1-4 by the Hawk’s post-Ferry acquisitions: Three, all by Tim Hardaway Jr.
As Game 5 nears, there’s much on the line for the local franchise. To lose to Boston would cast further doubt on the sustainability of Bud Ball, and it would further dim the luster of that 2015 coach of the year trophy. Nobody has more to prove this week than Mike Budenholzer.