Five observations from the Hawks’ 123-116 win over the Celtics Thursday.
1. Welcome back Paul Millsap. The Hawks All-Star power forward played his second game after missing eight straight with a left knee injury. He still came off the bench. He still had an impact.
Millsap finished with a team-high 26 points and 12 rebounds. He shot 8 of 15 from the field. It was a far cry from the 4 of 14 game against the Nets Sunday in his first game back and also off the bench.
“I think it was good that coach was able to play me in Brooklyn and knock a little rust off,” Millsap said. “Then we had two good days of practice. I was able to get in a rhythm.”
Millsap admitted it was still strange to come off the bench. It was only the third time in his time with the Hawks that he did not start.
“When they called the starters out there, I was still on the bench,” Millsap said. “It was a habit. I’m used to being out there. The first few possessions, it took me awhile to get in the groove.”
2. Millsap will not play in Friday’s game at the Cavaliers in the second of back-to-backs. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t think about talking his way back on the floor.
“It’s part of the plan,” Millsap said. “I was going to talk to coach but he’s pretty disciplined with it. I think we are all pretty disciplined with it and we have to follow the plan. I want to be out there, for sure, but follow the plan.”
Millsap played 29 minutes, a number coach Mike Budenholzer said was in range of the intended target. He played just 12 minutes in the first half which enabled him to play almost 11 minutes of the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
“A lot of it was to have Paul available,” Budenholzer said of not starting Millsap. “We want to build him up as we play these last four or five games. I think we want to stay disciplined about it. Keeping Paul healthy is our number one priority. If you are going to keep his minutes in a reasonable area, if you start them, lots of times they end up sitting on the bench for a long time or you may not have them at the end of the game if you are going to stick to your plan.”
3. The Hawks are getting more and more out of Taurean Prince. The rookie set career highs with 20 points and 41 minutes.
“Taurean as a young player is learning and growing before our eyes,” Budenholzer said.
Prince was 7 of 13 from the field, including two 3-pointers, and had seven rebounds and four assists. He surpassed his previous career high of 17 points in the first half alone. He has continue to grow into the role of a wing in the Hawks offense by being able to stretch the floor.
“I’ve been stretching the floor since my junior year of college,” Prince said. “I shot high percentages my last few years. It’s all about spacing and giving the guys who are inside and the point guard opportunities to get in the lane. If it comes your way, knock down the shot.”
4. The Celtics backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley have given the Hawks fits. Thomas still scored a game-high 35 points but much of it came as the Celtics were trying to dig out of a 20-point hole.
The Hawks played backup point guard Jose Calderon just five minutes. The rest of the game was starter Dennis Schroder, even as he battle foul trouble, and a combination of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kent Bazemore.
Budenholzer said he went with a gut feeling. He also wanted to give Bazemore a chance to guard Thomas. Bazemore did end up fouling out but he presented a long, athletic challenge to the Celtics point guard.
“The advantage is a little more length on the defensive end,” Hardaway said. “Bigger bodies on Bradley and Thomas and give them different bodies.”
5. The Hawks face critical games in the final week of the season as they fight for a playoff spot and position. It was a big first step in defeating the seconds, second in the Eastern Conference. They now have back-to-back games against the Cavaliers, first in the conference.
“We’ve got to keep getting better,” Dennis Schroder said. “It’s just one game. We have four games left.”
The Hawks regained the fifth spot in the conference with the win. They are a half-game ahead of the Bucks and 1-1/2 games ahead of the Bulls and Pacers for the final three spots.
“It was a really good win for us twofold,” Millsap said. “One in the standings and how we need to play. I think that’s the most important part.”