Going inside the Hawks’ 115-100 loss to the Hornets on Saturday night in Charlotte
One night after clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Mike Budenholzer gave his starters the night off. Ever. Last. One. Of. Them.
The left John Jenkins to make his third start of the season, while Elton Brand and Mike Muscala earned their fourth and Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder posted No. 9.
Aesthetically, nothing was different.
Atlanta, which ranks second in the NBA in assists (25.4 per) and 3-point percentage (38.4), racked up 32 assists on 37 field goals and hit 15 shots from distance.
They also has that typical Hawks balance, as Bazemore scored a season-high 20 points, while Schroder had 17 along with 11 assists, Jenkins’ 16 were his highest since posting 20 on April 17, 2013 and Muscala had a career-high 18.
But where this group was lacking was on the defensive end, especially against Charlotte’s backcourt.
The Hornets are shooting just 42.2 percent on the season, 29th in the league, but they were at 52.5 (42 of 80) against the Hawks. The brunt of that damage came vs. Kemba Walker, who had 21 on 7 of 19 shooting, while Gerald Henderson was 9 of 10 for 20 points and Mo Williams had 18 on 6 of 9 from the field.
As much as the Hawks maintain the same offensive flow regardless of the pieces, the defense isn’t the same minus Paul Millsap, Al Horford and DeMarre Carroll.
While Bazemore has 1.7 defensive win shares on the season and Schroder, Muscala is at 0.4 and Jenkins 0.2.
Credit the Hawks reserves for cracking triple digits, but they were also responsible for the highest point total the team has allowed against an East opponent since the Raptors had 126 on Nov. 26.
Considering the Hawks have two more games in the next three days — Monday at home vs. the Bucks and Tuesday at the Pistons — expect Budenholzer to give those backups plenty of minutes in the coming days.
As previously mentioned, Muscala had a career-high with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting and added 10 rebounds — for his first double-double — and had four assists and two blocks.
But the second-year forward also hit both of his 3-point attempts, which doubled his career total.
Muscala hit a trey on Nov. 15 against the Cavaliers, then added another in Friday’s win over the Heat.
This wasn’t really part of Muscala’s game when he starred at Bucknell. He hit 21 3-pointers in 133 college games, but as we’ve seen with impact Budenholzer and Co. have had on Millsap, they have a system that can allow players to expand their games.
Muscala may not make a Millsap-level transformation, but at least for the last two games he’s doing a strong impression.
A lot can happen here with 10 regular-season games remaining for the Hornets.
They are 11th in the East, but in a testament to just how tightly bunched the bottom of the conference is, are just one game behind Boston for eighth.
The Hornets can further close that gap on Monday when they host Boston, but the underlying storyline here is, that should Charlotte get in, it would be in line to play these Hawks.
This latest meeting isn’t a fair assessment with so many of the Hawks’ key players out, and given their first game (Nov. 7) was decided by a wild Lance Stephenson 3-pointer at the buzzer in double overtime, no one is going to claim the Hornets have the Hawks’ number.
But Saturday’s win gives the Hornets a 2-1 series edge, making them the only other East team besides the Raptors (1-3) to have a winning record against the Hawks this season.
0 — Number of first-half turnovers by the Hornets. They finished with nine
8-1 — The Hawks’ loss was their first with Schroder starting this season.