For anybody who is wondering how the Hawks have gone from playoff flat-lined to tied 2-2 in their series with the Washington Wizards, here are the three most pertinent metrics:
Turnovers: They committed 39 in the first two games, but only 24 in the next two (points-off-turnovers differential: 15).
Three-point shooting: They made only 11 in the first two games, but 21 in the next two (point differential: 30).
Scratch-off lottery tickets: Jose Calderon. Did this really happen? The 35-year-old March waiver pickup spelled a foul-plagued Dennis Schroder and contributed 10 points, five assists and a plus-29 rating in 20 minutes.
“We need to send a little thank-you note to the Warriors (for releasing him),” Mike Budenholzer said.
But all that aside, this series has reaffirmed what most already knew, even amid all of the season-long, second-guessing of the Hawks’ personnel maneuverings: Budenholzer can coach. That never should have been in doubt.
He is outcoaching Washington’s Scott Brooks (not a great surprise). He made adjustments in the two home games to help neutralize Wizards center Marcin Gortat, the turbo-lipped Markieff Morris and even guard John Wall (whose path to the hoop Wednesday was suddenly obstructed by Dwight Howard, who had been left back there to protect the rim).
Budenholzer continues to do a great job developing young players such as rookie starter Taurean Prince (who has scored in double figures in his first four playoff games, the first Hawk to do that since Pete Maravich), Tim Hardaway Jr. and Malcolm Delaney.
With the Hawks down 2-0, Budenholzer held together a team when they often fracture. Players responded with improved focus, intensity and consistency in Games 3 and 4. Howard, unhappy about his diminished minutes, nonetheless responded with one of his best games of the season (16 and 15 with strong defense and zero turnovers).
That’s a direct reflection of the head coach.
It doesn’t guarantee anything the rest of the series. Carrying that effort back to Washington won’t be easy in a series where the home team is 4-0. The Hawks have to win a road game at some point. But there is doubt about the series outcome now. That wasn’t the case before.
“We’re just trying to keep it going,” Howard said. “None of us wanted to end our season early.”
Hawks owner Tony Ressler made an impassioned defense of Budenholzer, his coach and president of basketball operations, late last week when he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he didn’t expect any changes in the front office after the season.
“Bud is a fantastic coach, a fantastic basketball mind and has a perspective that we cherish and respect and consider critically important,” Ressler said.
(The Hawks are 2-0 since the interview. Maybe Ressler should begin holding weekly news conferences.)
The Hawks’ slide in wins the past two seasons has been taken by many as a reflection on personnel decisions driven by Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox, even if ultimately decided by Ressler. The pick-and-roll, ball-movement offense didn’t function well with Howard for most of the season. Kent Bazemore, who signed a big contract, struggled offensively and lost his starting job.
To Budenholzer’s credit, he recognized this. Howard’s minutes went down. Bazemore went to the bench, where he seems more comfortable. The coach has been tinkering with his rotations all season and, most recently, even decided to sit a now-healthy Thabo Sefolosha in this series. It was a strange decision, but Budenholzer is committed to his younger unit.
Seven Hawks scored in double figures. That’s a Budenholzer symphony.
Brooks, meanwhile, hasn’t figured out any counter-moves. Gortat wrecked the Hawks in the first two games, but scored a total of four points in Atlanta. The Hawks outscored Washington 104-64 in the paint in the two home games.
Morris, who went for 21 points in the series opener, has imploded since. The Hawks are going at him, getting him in foul trouble. (“He Called Paul Millsap A Crybaby,” might be on this guy’s tombstone one day.)
Brooks’ decision to keep guards Wall and Bradley Beal on the bench for an extended period early in the fourth quarter also allowed the Hawks to increase their a lead to eight points and gain some confidence after an 18-point third quarter. They scored 34 in the fourth. Oops.
Ressler bought the Hawks at the outset of the 2015 playoffs. That team reached the Eastern Conference finals, but the owner knew a transition was forthcoming. DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford all were nearing the end of contracts. A decision had to be made: Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroder?
“We felt we needed to get younger and faster, and focus on (both) the current and the future,” he said.
“We have some great stuff and some stuff we have to make better.”
That they do. Personnel issues remain. But the coach can coach.