Kent Bazemore sees rage.
Paul Millsap sees love.
The two Hawks players see it in the eyes of coach Mike Budenholzer as the team prepares for five difficult games to end the regular season while fighting for a playoff spot and position.
The Hawks held a film session before practice Tuesday as they come off losses in nine of the past 11 games. As has been the case with many such sessions over the years, it was at times fiery.
“He wants it just as much as we do,” Bazemore said of Budenholzer. “You love that when your head coach is out there competing just as hard as you. His shirt is drenched after the game. He is very cool, calm and collected when he is off the floor. To see him get that rage in his eyes, does something for us.
“It’s that time of the year. With all the frustrations that we’ve been going through all year, a lot of guys are on edge. I love coach Bud. He knows what to say to get good things out of us. He’s not afraid to get on you. He’ll come hug you after practice. That’s the type of relationship you need, that love-hate relationship.”
For the record, Budenholzer said it’s both rage and love in his eyes. But mostly love.
The Hawks begin the final week of the regular season with the Celtics on Thursday, followed by back-to-back games against the Cavaliers on Friday and Sunday. They are the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, separated by just a half game headed into Tuesday’s NBA schedule.
The Hawks are sixth in the conference with a one-game lead over the Bulls and a two-game lead over the Heat and Pacers for the final three spots.
The playoff start now, Millsap said.
“These have to be must-wins for us,” said Millsap, who returned in Sunday’s loss to the Nets after missing eight games with synovitis in his left knee. “No matter what happens, for our confidence, for our morale, we have to get out there and compete. When we get to the playoffs, we have to be playing good basketball. These are good tests for us. We have to rise to the occasion.
“I think we have to see it as (the start of the playoffs). We have to prepare as such.”
The Hawks also have games remaining with the Hornets and the Pacers of the final two days of the regular season. They Hawks have lost all three games with the Hornets and split two games with the Pacers. The season could come down to the final game in Indianapolis.
Of the film session Tuesday, Budenholzer acknowledged some frustration as a coach to be focused on the basics for much of the up-and-down season. The main message was to be more competitive. The Hawks need to take their competitiveness and effort to another level, despite being short-handed. The team just got Millsap and Bazemore back from injury and Thabo Sefolosha remains out.
“I think every team, every coach, has their frustrations,” Budenholzer said. “Some things that seem so simplistic often times are the hardest. The better teams figure it out and have less of that. I think it’s part of our season, part of our journey. The better we are, that is going to give us our best chance.”
Millsap said the team has chosen to look at their current predicament with optimism. Sure, things may look bleak. The postseason was a virtually certainty just weeks ago. Now, it is not.
“I think it’s good for us,” Millsap said. “We have to figure it out fast. If we are going to go anywhere in this playoffs, these games have to mean something. We have to get better these games. We have to treat these games as such. I think we can go pretty far if we come out with the right mindset.”
Bazemore agreed and pointed to the success the Hawks have had at times this season when healthy and when playing at their best. For those reasons, getting into the playoffs, no matter how or where, is the first challenge.
“We aren’t worried about a seed going into the playoffs, I don’t think, because we know what type of team we can be when everything is clicking,” Bazemore said.
The Hawks have five games in seven days to figure it out.