ATLANTA — After the Atlanta Hawks pushed their longest winning streak of the season to five games on Tuesday with a 118-113 overtime win over Toronto, Hawks forward Paul Millsap was asked if his team was streaky.
The current run began after the Hawks had lost 14 of 15 games and endangered their playoff chances.
Millsap responded with a reflexive, "yes," but behind the crowd of media members who had gathered around the Hawks’ all-star a seated Kyle Korver piped up, "You could call us healthy."
The Hawks’ descent in the standings began with their top three centers (Al Horford, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon) all injured. Other starters like Millsap, who sat out two weeks, and Jeff Teague (one game) also missed games during that stretch.
Now, the Hawks (31-35) are healthier (Horford and Ayon are both out for the season) and they are winning. The Hawks, eighth in the Eastern Conference, moved 4-and-a-half games ahead of the ninth-place New York Knicks (27-40). On Tuesday, Millsap registered the first triple-double of his career: 19 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists and Teague scorched the Raptors (37-29) to tie his career high with 34 points on 11-of-18 shooting.
Korver said the Hawks’ play over the past five games is more indicative of who they truly are.
"It’s always somewhere in the middle, right, like everything in life?" Korver asked rhetorically. "… But I think this is more who we are than what we were during that stretch and I think just having bodies gives you more confidence going into the game that you’re going to go out there and play well and have a great chance to win."
The Hawks’ past two wins came on back-to-back nights, including Monday’s 97-83 victory in Charlotte, against teams ahead of them in the standings. Budenholzer liked what the wins said about the Hawks’ progress.
"Charlotte and Toronto are just both good teams and I think it’s a sign that we’re a playing better for longer stretches and we keep talking about playing better for 48 minutes and improving our defense," he said, "and I think to be tested the last two nights by two good teams, it’s good for us. That’s what we need and it’s going to continue going forward."
Korver said it was particularly encouraging as the Hawks did not necessarily have a "lot in the tank, as far as energy goes."
"The second unit gave us an energy boost," he said. "Coach laid into us pretty good and guys responded and kind of found that reserve, I guess."
In terms of contributions from the second unit, there was a notable one from rookie guard Dennis Schroeder — but it came on a play that also proved costly. Schroeder suffered a sprained left ankle with 8:20 left in the fourth quarter and did not return. He made a nice defensive play, getting back in transition to steal a pass, but as he gained possession, he got bumped by Toronto’s Greivis Vasquez and fell hard to the floor. Vasquez was called for a foul and the game was stopped. Schroeder stayed on the floor for a few moments but made it off the court on his own power.
Budenholzer has talked all season about the importance of transition defense and he singled out that play. (He did not have an update on Schroeder’s condition.)
"It’s great to see that carryover for the whole team," Budenholzer said. "But particularly for a young player like Dennis to see how important our transition defense is and the effort and commitment it takes from everybody in transition and that’s just a great example for our whole group and it was a big play. It was just an effort play by Dennis and I think it’s indicative of the progress, hopefully, our group is making."
In the overtime, Antic (eight points, four rebounds) made a 3-pointer to start off the period and then Teague made all four of his free throws. Teague appeared as if he could beat his defender off the dribble at will and was aggressive getting to the basket. Both he and Korver talked about the significance of Antic’s presence in opening up the court for Teague’s drives.
"Yeah, definitely," Teague said. "He can stretch the floor. He’s a really good shooter. Having him and Kyle on the floor at the same time, it’s a tough match-up for people. If they stop me driving, I’m going to kick it back to him. He’s a confident shooter and he can knock it down. It’s big for us having him back."
As for Millsap, he typically deflected credit to the team for his triple-double.
"I can’t do it without the team," he said. "They knocked down shots, especially for the assists. They gave me some good looks. I knocked down some shots. It’s a great win overall. That’s what we’re out to get. We’re out to win games."