ATLANTA — During the Hawks’ first-round playoff series with the Pacers — the Eastern Conference’s top seed — much attention has focused on the high-profile struggles of the Indiana players, notably All-Star center Roy Hibbert.
As the series wears on, Hibbert has played less. After averaging 24.5 minutes in the first four games, Hibbert has logged just 12 minutes for Games 5 and 6.
Now, as Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer attempts to rally his troops for a Game 7 win at Indiana on Saturday, the spotlight is starting to fall on a player who occupies the same position opposite Hibbert: Atlanta center Pero Antic.
The Hawks’ 6-foot-11 rookie center has shot 18.9 percent for the series (7 for 37), averaging 3.7 points — down from 7.0 in the regular season. In the last five games, the 31-year-old Antic has shot 13.3 percent (4 for 30).
In Thursday’s Game 6 loss in Atlanta, Antic scored five points on 1 for 7 shooting in 27 minutes, netting six rebounds and three turnovers, tied for the team high. One of the turnovers came with 2:52 left in regulation and the Hawks leading by three. The Pacers cut that deficit to one on the following possession, en route to victory.
Yet, in a Friday conference call, before the team departed for Indiana, Budenholzer reaffirmed his faith in Antic.
"I would say, if anything, we will probably use Pero more," Budenholzer said. "I think that it’s really, if you look at a lot of different things and the subtleties of the game and all the different things that Pero’s bringing to our team, there’s way too much focus, way too much on just I think we’d all like for (and) Pero would like to make a few shots.
"But you just look a lot of different things and if you look at the game closely and you look at the numbers closely, Pero is having a really positive impact on the game and on the series.
"The great thing for us is, we think he can have an even more positive impact if he does start making a couple of shots and a couple of threes. Pero has been very good and will be used the same, if not even more."
Budenholzer must be referring to the plus-minus ratio. Only NBA.com tracks those figures. Antic had a plus-11 for Game 6, best among the Hawks. He also was plus-8 in Game 5, a Hawks win.
Again, on Friday, when Budenholzer was asked whether it was more important for the Hawks to shoot better in Game 7 — they shot 35.8 percent on Thursday — he continued to emphasize defense.
And when asked about the particular "subtleties" regarding Antic, Budenholzer also mentioned defense.
"Defensively, he really he has a very good instinct or basketball IQ and sees rotations and sees things happening just in a good way," Budenholzer said. "He makes plays and presents length and size at the rim, in the paint. Rebounding he can get a hit, hold his position and still get rebounds.
"Sometimes he may not get the rebound but Kyle (Korver) has had a very big rebounding series, our guards have had a very big rebounding series; and at times, that’s when our bigs, not just Pero, but all of our bigs may get a hit. It’s a physical game. He’s just does so many things on that end."
The 6-foot-7 Korver, indeed, has had a fantastic rebounding series, grabbing nine apiece for Games 4 and 5. Against the larger Pacers, rebounding has not been an issue for the Hawks, even if Antic has not excelled in that department. After totaling seven in Game 1, he has three, three, two, two and six boards in the other games.
In many ways, it seems, Budenholzer prefers philosophically to have a player like Antic, who shot 32.7 percent on 3-pointers during the regular season, on the floor over reserve Elton Brand, a more traditional center.
Given the Hawks’ style of play, it’s essential to have Antic on the perimeter to stretch the defense. Budenholzer also wants his players to attack the basket and having Antic on the perimeter aids in that effort.
Spacing helped Jeff Teague score 29 points by getting to the basket frequently in Game 6; and it also helped Paul Millsap and Lou Williams to be effective in their drives to the basket.
"On the other end, he’s still spacing the court," Budenholzer said of Antic. "He’s still a threat. Everyone knows Pero can make threes. I think when he makes some shots, everyone is very aware of him, and it creates space for us and creates opportunities for us. He’s a huge positive for us."
After Atlanta shot 50 percent in Game 5, including 15 of 27 on 3-pointers, Budenholzer was asked if the Hawks were due. He agreed that might have been the case.
Antic is definitely due. If he can help provide an offensive spark in Game 7, it will provide a huge boost for the Hawks’ chances to pull off the series-ending upset.â