ATLANTA -- Did you see Paul Millsap float an alley-oop to Al Horford out of a pick-and-roll in the half court? What about Millsap finding DeMarre Carroll for an open 3-pointer when Washington got crossed up when Kyle Korver cut backdoor? How about Jeff Teague skidding a pass to Carroll in transition as if he was rippling a stone across a glassy pond? Or the Hawks’ strongside defense showing a crowd to John Wall coming off a pick-and-pop and inducing the Washington Wizards into a barrage of clanky long jumpers?
As has become habit in this postseason, the opposing defense had its head on a swivel against the Atlanta Hawks’ starting unit on Sunday afternoon, while the Hawks tightened a vise on the other end of the floor. This is the brand of basketball the Hawks rode to 60 wins in the regular season, and have ratcheted up even more in the postseason, in which the starters are outscoring their opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions, per ESPN Stats & Info.
In Game 1 against Washington, the Hawks’ starting unit was so fluent in its choreography, so sure-footed in its execution, that it outscored the Wizards by 10 points before an intentional foul in the closing seconds. Even though they didn't shoot the ball well, the Hawks’ starters finished with an offensive efficiency rating of 111.6 points per 100 possessions and held the Wizards to 95.4 points per 100 possessions. In a game with a possession count in the 90s, as most NBA playoff games have, that’s a blowout.
There’s only one problem: The starters played only 18 minutes and 36 possessions together in Game 1. During the remaining 30 minutes and 60 possessions, the Hawks’ other units hemorrhaged against the Wizards, and the margin gave Washington a 104-98 win in the opener of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup.
Asked if the decision to play the starting unit intact for only 18 minutes was by design, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said that the rotation wasn't a departure for Atlanta.
“It was a pretty similar rotation to what we used most of the year,” Budenholzer said. “It was by design, but I don’t know that 18 minutes was by design.”
To Budenholzer’s point, the starting unit averaged 16 minutes per game in the 57 games it appeared in during the regular season.
But that number doesn't account for several blowouts when the starters sat in garbage time, more serious foul trouble than the Hawks saw today, cautionary substitutions for minor injuries and fits of whimsy a coach entertains in the regular season, say when backup point guard Dennis Schroder has it going.
Those stipulations aside, Budenholzer’s statement doesn't account for the most important factor:
This isn't the regular season.
Certainly luxuries that can be afforded against a cellar-dweller on a Monday night in December aren't necessarily good practice in May.
During the latter stages of his tenure as Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant in San Antonio, Budenholzer was generally entrusted with the substitution patterns, and he was masterful. While some teams prefer a bench mob whereby the starting unit yields to five reserves -- or maybe four plus a holdover from the starting unit -- Budenholzer has always preferred to stagger the rotation, whereby a couple of starters remain on the floor at virtually all times. The rotation in Atlanta, both during the regular season and the playoffs, is a whirlwind of substitutions, with players getting shorter bursts of burn.
It didn't hurt that the Spurs’ bench featured possibly the most prolific reserve in NBA history and handpicked veterans with an intuitive understanding of the Spurs' system and a bounty of postseason experience.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, Manu Ginobili is not walking through that door, nor is Robert Horry, Steve Kerr or Malik Rose. The Hawks are without their most trusted reserve in Thabo Sefolosha, who is out for months with a broken leg suffered in an altercation with police officers in New York last month.
Those reserves available to Budenholzer include the lightning-quick but raw Dennis Schroder; Macedonian big man Pero Antic, a security blanket of sorts for Budenholzer, who loves his nuanced understanding of the game; the wiry, energetic Kent Bazemore, who defends well but struggles offensively; stretch big Mike Scott, who ranks 70 out of 95 qualified power forwards in real plus-minus.
Reserve units this postseason for Atlanta have scored only 95.6 points per 100 possessions and have given up 101.8, per ESPN Stats & Info. That net efficiency of minus-6.2 is making life far more difficult than it should be for the Hawks. During the 55 minutes the first three guys off the bench -- Schroder, Antic, Bazemore -- play together, the net efficiency is minus-15.2. Meanwhile, Scott is killing the Hawks, who are getting beat by 24.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
Budenholzer subscribes to the San Antonio school, which teaches that closely monitoring and limiting key contributors’ minutes played in the regular season is an organizational imperative. Not one Hawks starter topped 2,500 total minutes and none averaged more than 33 minutes per game.
Science agrees with Budenholzer that the opportunity for a player to rest and recover helps his long-term performance, especially in the postseason. But that postseason advantage exists only if it’s leveraged. This postseason, the Hawks don’t have a single player who ranks in the top 20 in minutes played per game (Korver ranks No. 21 with 38.1).
Herein lies the challenge for Budenholzer. The Hawks feature one of the league’s most lethal starting units, one that is comparatively well-rested. When the starting five occupies the floor, it puts on a clinic. When it doesn't, the Hawks get beat. Admittedly, the starters can’t each play for 48 minutes, but right now that unit represents just over a third of the Hawks’ total minutes this postseason.
It’s a basic math problem for the Hawks, one they can contemplate now, or in a chaise lounge alongside an infinity pool.