Hawks' Bench In A Groove Going Into Playoffs

Story by KL Chouinard

Like the rest of the starting lineup, Dennis Schröder didn’t take part in a 5-on-5 scrimmage after practice on Monday.

But unlike the rest of the starters, Schröder stayed in the gym, sat on the floor and propped himself along a wall on the baseline. He snapped a few pictures on his gold-colored phone and shouted words of encouragement to the participants.

“Thaboooooooo,” he bellowed when Thabo Sefolosha hit a corner three-point shot. When Sefolosha hit a similar shot two possessions later, Schröder repeated his refrain.  

Sefolosha had missed eight games with a groin injury, and one goal of the scrimmage was to give him a chance to evaluate his rehabilitation. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said afterward that the team didn’t have a fixed timetable for a return date for Sefolosha.

“He’s making good progress,” Budenholzer said at the time.

Sefolosha’s return Tuesday meant the Hawks had fully stockpiled the deep playing rotation that has been one of their biggest strengths in recent games — as it was in the beginning of the season.

In the first month of the NBA calendar, when the Hawks jumped out to a 9-2 record, much of the team’s success could be attributed to lineups that featured starter Paul Millsap mixed with one or more bench players. Sefolosha, Malcolm Delaney, Mike Muscala, and Tim Hardaway Jr. figured prominently.

Much has changed since then. Kyle Korver was traded. Sefolosha became a starter. Players, including Millsap, Sefolosha, and Kent Bazemore, dealt with injuries. Ersan Ilyasova and José Calderón were added to the bench and given a crash course of minutes, at times supplanting Muscala and Delaney in the rotation. Hardaway started games when needed due to matchups and injuries. 

Then Bazemore and Millsap returned in roles where they played limited minutes from the bench, and in doing so, gave the bench a bit of a jolt. At the same time, those two players may have given an even bigger boost away from the court.  

“Baze has been putting (inspirational) quotes up (on the whiteboard),” Delaney said. “Paul started speaking up a lot more because he was kind of pissed about how we were playing. And I think everyone just responded to our vets and our leaders.” 

In a return to the early-season form, numerous players turned in strong performances from the bench last week. Millsap scored a game-high 26 points playing as a sub against Boston. Delaney had 10 points and 8 assists in the first of two wins against Cleveland. Muscala followed it up with a performance that had too many remarkable plays to list in the Hawks’ comeback win over the Cavaliers at Philips Arena. 

“We’ve watched some film, and we’re seeing how much of a better team we are when we move the ball,” Delaney said. “You can see it:  We had 39 assists the other night. It trickles down to everybody. Once one person makes the extra pass, everybody starts doing it. That’s when we become a better team. I think we can beat anybody when we play that way. But if we don’t, we can lose to anybody as well.”

Budenholzer appreciated the floor-spacing and movement of his bench units, even if he didn’t expect them to turn in 45, 53, and 44-point performances, as they did during Atlanta’s 3-0 week last week.

“To expect that from any bench is probably not realistic, but I do remember how we started the season and how well the bench was (playing) coming out of the gate,” Budenholzer said, before rhetorically weighing some key questions. “Can your bench give you a positive bump? Or if they are playing against starters can they just hold, and then your starters can take advantage of matchups or situations against their bench? We are a team that is built that we need a lot of guys playing well and everybody playing together.”

Delaney said that he had never erased a fourth-quarter deficit as large as the 26-point gap they overcame Sunday on any level of his playing career. 

“That was fun,” he said “It just seemed like we were scoring in fives. We just kept scoring and getting stops. People were trying to take charges. It was like every play we made the extra pass and people made shots when they needed to.” 

For a suddenly resurgent Hawks team, that exact style of play gave them the momentum and rhythm that they want to have going into the playoffs this weekend. If they maintain it, they will have a lot to say about how the Eastern Conference Playoffs shake out.

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