ATLANTA — With 14.9 seconds left in regulation, the Atlanta Hawks had cut a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit down to two against the best team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers.
That might not be newsworthy if the group that had accomplished that were the Hawks starters. Instead, in the waning seconds Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer put out a fivesome of rookie Dennis Schroder, second-year players Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack and Cartier Martin, who spent much of the early part of the season with the Hawks but is now on a 10-day contract, along with starter Paul Millsap.
Ultimately, they could not pull off the comeback in an 89-85 loss at Philips Arena but in the process, the Hawks’ young players might have gained some valuable experience — Schroder, one of the team’s first-round picks in 2013, in particular.
Budenholzer said he was just searching for something that would work offensively against the Pacers (38-10), who entered allowing a league-low 90.3 points per game. Through three quarters, the Hawks (25-22) were shooting 39.7 percent and had only 55 points, as they trailed by 11.
"It’s always a tough decision for a coach," Budenholzer said. "The starters are guys that we obviously believe in and feel strongly about and tonight we stuck with the group that cut the lead and let them try and get the win."
On the bench for the game’s final 15 minutes sat starting point guard Jeff Teague (nine points, seven assists). Another starter, DeMarre Carroll, did not play at all in the fourth quarter and a third starter Kyle Korver, who, like Teague, made 4-for-8 shots from the field, sat on the bench as Martin made the 3-pointer with 14.9 seconds left that pulled the Hawks within 86-84.
"I think we played great defense and I think we brought energy and tried to get stops and tried to get it on offense," Schroder said.
Scott scored 11 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. He said he was not surprised that Budenholzer let the young group stay out on the court instead of the starters.
"No, I think we just had a good little vibe, a group going on," Scott said. "That’s what coach does when he sees a group doing what they’re supposed to do. He just stays with that group and just tries to see what happens."
Schroder, who had spent 12 days in the NBA Development League in December and has only appeared in 22 of the Hawks’ 47 games, appears to be picking up momentum and, at times, he’s been doing it against some of the league’s top teams. Last week against Oklahoma City, owner of the best record in the Western Conference, he equaled his season high with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting in 13 minutes. The next game against Philadelphia on Friday he had nine points in 17 minutes. On Tuesday, he finished with four points on 2-of-3 shooting and two assists in 10 minutes, all in the fourth quarter.
"Every time I get on the court I try to earn my minutes," he said. "I have to give everything and try to help the team."
Budenholzer said he thought Schroder and the others would benefit in the long run from the experience of competing in that situation against one the league’s best teams.
"For him to be competing against that group is invaluable for him and Shelvin and Mike Scott," Budenholzer said. "Cartier is someone who we have had for a lot of time this year. For him to come in and hit a couple of big shots, we want to build a team here and that is an opportunity for that group to contribute and start laying those bricks and building with us and they worked hard.
"Dennis had an unbelievable practice yesterday and I think the practices carry over to the games so I’m happy for him. It takes a team to win in this league and that’s what we’re trying to build."
Alas, with young players come mistakes. With 1:54 left in the game and a chance to cut the lead to four, Schroder did not see Indiana’s Paul George as he made a cross-court pass. George intercepted it, dribbled down the court alone and threw down a windmill dunk to expand the Pacers’ lead to 82-74.
"Oh, no, I didn’t see him," Schroder said. "That was a tough turnover. I’ll learn from it for sure. Just mistakes I can’t do."
It’s the kind of experience that can only come from playing — succeeding and failing at the same time.