Things are always interesting in the state capitol of California for the Atlanta Hawks. Despite a brutally bad team for the past 5 years, the Kings always seem to find a way to hang around, and hang around they did late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
The Hawks got off to another slow defensive start in the first quarter. They looked out of sorts, failing to slow down the large-bodied DeMarcus Cousins on multiple fast breaks straight down the lane. Then the Kings began to pour it in from long range. 7th overall pick in the 2013 draft and sweet shooting SG Ben McLemore got off a couple of times in the first half. He finished with 15 points and 6 rebounds. The Kings made 4 of 8 three pointers and led by 7 points after the first quarter.
The Hawks would find their groove in the second quarter, however. Jeff Teague took over despite a scare after rolling his ankle in the first quarter, dropping in numerous floaters from the painted area and wreaking havoc on the opposing turnstiles masquerading as guards. He was able to find a cutting DeMarre Carroll and Cartier Martin for lay-ins as well as run the pick and roll with Horford and Millsap to perfection all night long. Not to be outdone, Dennis Schröder checked into the game and picked up where Teague left off. He finished with 7 assists in only 19 minutes of play. Kyle Korver was very quiet in the first half, only attempting one shot. He pushed his streak of consecutive games with a made three pointer to 77 games, dating back to last season.
The fourth quarter was almost an unmitigated disaster, with the Hawks almost blowing an 18 point lead. The Hawks had a stretch in the fourth quarter when they turned it over on 5 of 7 possessions, indicating crunch time ballhandling will need augmenting. The quarter belonged to Isaiah Thomas, as his 18 points almost outscored the Hawks alone. The Hawks were able to fend off the Kings eventually, but not without cause for concern.
The lack of John Jenkins, apparently still recovering from preseason back stiffness despite his run against the Lakers, Lou Williams and Gustavo Ayón showed, as the bench was mostly ineffective. The good new is that all were seen taking jumpers with the team in the pregame shootaround.
It’s pretty clear that if Cartier Martin is not hitting threes, he’s near useless without a desperate need for wing defense against a shallow team like the Kings. Also, it’s still unclear what Pero Antic’s role is on the team. He has yet to become anything resembling a stretch forward, although his defensive improvement in the last couple of games is palpable. The starting unit of Teague-Korver-Carroll-Millsap-Horford has some cracks defensively. Rotations can be late to come and a lack of length and size hampers them against lineups that can knock down outside shots.
The good from the game was clearly the passing. The starting Hawks and young Dennis Schröder all whipped the ball around with pace and accuracy. It was a marvel to see. The offense is undoubtedly in Jeff Teague’s hands now. I talked about access to new stats this season here, but to reiterate, assists are so 2012. The new assist opportunities counter via the NBA’s SportVU cameras is a non-supporting cast-dependent way to measure a point guards abilities. Coming into tonight, Jeff Teague was in the top 5 of the league with 16 assist opportunities per game, or passes that would lead to an assist should the player passed to made his shot. It showed tonight. He looked very comfortable as the main ball handler, despite still learning the intricacies of a new offense in the offseason.
It was the Hawks 11th consecutive win over the Kings. The Hawks play next Thursday night in Denver against the Nuggets at 9 PM Eastern Standard Time.
1. Paul Millsap: Game Balls returns this season! It’s the 1 year anniversary! You’ll just have to picture the confetti dropping yourself. This newcomer bailed the Hawks out with solid two way play and clutch buckets, including a turnaround corner three that was well defended, just beating the shot clock with under 5 minutes to play. He finished with an impressive double double that included 25 points on 15 shots.
2. Al Horford: I have not gone back and tallied the Game Balls from last season but I’d wager Al was the leading recipient a year ago. He makes his triumphant return to the tune of 27 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks. He played solid defense from the second quarter on, something that has been extremely unreliable from this season’s team through the first four games.
3. Jeff Teague: Teague seems to be at a higher level than last season. He’s playing a confident style of ball, getting to the rim at ease and becoming an even better distributer, as his 10 assists would attest. It will be very fun to see his continued development in an even higher paced offense than last season.