The Hawks’ bench is back.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
The reserves have played important roles in the Hawks’ impressive three-game win streak with victories over the Celtics and the Cavaliers. Most notably, Mike Muscala and Malcolm Delaney were huge parts of the back-to-back wins over the Cavaliers.
The bench was strong during the Hawks’ early-season success. Much of the struggles before the recent good run can be attributed to spotty play by the reserves.
“You look at the beginning of the season when we beat the Cavs and played tough in Golden State, our bench was playing very well,” Delaney said. “Then, we kind of put pressure on the starters because we weren’t playing that well. If they weren’t playing that well, we were just a terrible team. Now, everybody is getting involved. We have a better mindset and we are trying to stay positive.”
The Hawks have two games remaining in the regular season: at home against the Hornets on Tuesday and at the Pacers on Wednesday. One win and the Hawks lock up the No. 5 seed and open the playoffs against the No. 4 Wizards.
In the past two wins, the Hawks bench outscored the Cavaliers’ bench 44-16 and 55-21. That includes Friday’s win without five starters as the Hawks went to the end of the bench for help.
“To expect that from any bench is probably not realistic,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But I do remember how we started the season and how good the bench was coming out of the gate. Any NBA teams, when you get great production and can your bench give you a positive bump or if they are playing against starters, can they just hold and then your starters can take advantage of situations or matchups against the (opposing) bench.
“We are a team that is built (so) that we need a lot of guys playing well and together. Hopefully, that is how we are going forward.”
Muscala scored 13 and 12 points against the Cavaliers and was a combined 11-of-14 from the floor, making all three 3-point attempts. He made corner 3-pointers, one in the final minute of regulation and one in the final minute of overtime, to help the Hawks in their 126-125 overtime victory Sunday as they erased a 26-point deficit. Muscala also gathered the ball after a jump ball to assist Paul Millsap on the buzzer-beating, game-tying shot to force overtime.
Muscala was a regular part of the Hawks’ bench rotation early in the season. He has seen his playing time and role diminish after the Hawks acquired Ersan Ilyasova at the trade deadline. After not playing six consecutive games in early March, Muscala struggled with his shot, going 4-of-19 in the next 10 games. However, the forward/center is 18 of 28 in April.
“That does help,” Muscala said about a boost of confidence with some converted shots. “I’ve been trying to focus on doing the little things, crashing the offensive glass, dive. Maybe you get a dunk or a layup because we have great passers on this team.
“Once that happens, then you see it go and you get more confidence. But I think more importantly, just spacing the floor even if you aren’t shooting. Spacing the floor helps our team. It helps guards penetrate. It helps cutters with open lanes.”
Delaney has been in a similar position. The point guard played the first 63 games of the season as the backup to Dennis Schroder. When the Hawks acquired Jose Calderon, he, too, saw his playing time diminish. He has not played in nine of the past 17 games, missing two games because of back spasms that are still an issue.
In the past two games, Delaney has played 26 and 13 minutes and has scored 14 points. It was Delaney that ran the point for much of the fourth quarter and overtime as the Hawks rallied to beat the Cavaliers on Sunday.
“It’s been tough,” Delaney said. “I’ve been coming in and working hard every day, trying to control what I can control. You never know what is going to happen. I’ve been trying to stay ready and stay positive and doing whatever I can to help the team.
“That is all I care about anyway. When Coach first told me (he would be out of the rotation), I told him as long as we are winning I don’t care. Whatever they want to do with the backup (point guard) I’m fine with it as long as we are winning.”
Budenholzer and several players said the Hawks bench has provided such a spark of late because they have excelled at ball movement, the staple of the Hawks’ offense. The unselfish, pass-oriented system has worked to big results.
“I think we’ve had the mindset of sharing the ball a lot and working our system,” Delaney said. “I think our system is what makes us go. When we go away from it, as everyone can see, we are not a good team at all. Just moving the ball. Make sure everybody touches it. Everybody is confident when we play like that. It translates to defense.”