Hawks crushed by Game 7 loss, excited about prospects for '15

The Hawks were happy to make the playoffs and push the top-seeded Pacers to the brink in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But, as a group, they're not satisfied with a season that ended too soon, writes John Manasso.

The Hawks, led by Jeff Teague (left --- 16.5 points, 6.7 assists per game) and All-Star forward Paul Millsap (right), return the bulk of their core next season -- including injured big man Al Horford.

Mark Lebryk/Pat Lovell / USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA -- By Kyle Korver's estimation, sometimes progress is an uphill climb.

"You've got to go down sometimes, too," said Korver, who spoke ruefully of the Hawks' missed opportunities in losing their first-round series with Indiana in seven games. "You've got to learn and you've got to lose and you've got to get mad and you've got to get better. In that series, we saw what we're capable of -- in good and bad ways.

"We saw what we have to get better at, and there's a lot of things to build on and get better."

On Monday, Hawks players and coach Mike Budenholzer met with the media for the final time following their 38-win season and first-round playoff exit, at the hands of the Indiana Pacers (seven-game series). And while some were struggling with how their season came to end, mostly all spoke with optimism about the future.

"We have a lot of areas where we can improve and I definitely have a lot," said Budenholzer, who admitted to learning a lot in his first season as a head coach at virtually any level. "There's a lot of positives we can all take from this year."

Budenholzer, a longtime assistant with the San Antonio Spurs before joining the Hawks last summer, was lauded by the players for his system, cultivating "a fun way to play basketball," as Korver puts it and how he handles the players, as individuals and a group.

For example, take Jeff Teague, who had a career year with the Hawks (16.5 points/6.7 assists per game). When the situation was right, Budenholzer had a knack for being stern with his point guard, while also giving him freedom to flourish as a leader.

"He's a great guy, very personable," Teague said of Budenholzer. "He's funny, he's emotional, he's everything so he's like the perfect coach."

For much of the season, Budenholzer and general manager Danny Ferry spoke of laying the foundation for years to come. In that way, Budenholzer felt the Hawks made significant gains.

"I think there was a lot of good things in that regard," he said. "The players have a good vision and a good feel for what we want to do offensively and defensively; and now it's just taking that to another level."

The Hawks are certainly pleased with the depth of their core:

**Forward Paul Millsap, a first-time All-Star, has one more year on his contract (he declined to discuss the possibility of staying beyond the end of his current contract).

**Two-time All-Star Al Horford will return from a season-ending pectoral muscle tear in the fall.

**The emgerging Teague, who inked a four-year deal with the Hawks last summer.

**Korver, one of the game's top three-point shooters, has several years left on his contract..

**Small forward DeMarre Carroll (one year left on contract) showed promise as a defender.

Other young players like forward Mike Scott, a second-round pick in 2012, and guard Shelvin Mack will be restricted free agents.

Some players talked about what they need to improve individually. Teague, who said he would spend more time in Atlanta this summer since, jokingly, his mother "kicked me out of the house," and rookie guard Dennis Schroeder, one of the team's first-round picks last year, said they need to get stronger.

Millsap wants to improve as an overall player, namely cutting down on his 2.5 turnovers per game; and coming off an injury from last year, guard Lou Williams found this season to the most disappointing personally.

Carroll produced the line of the day, saying he wants "to get my shot automatic like Kyle Korver. I want people to be like, 'That's the African-American Kyle Korver.'"

Carroll also wants the Hawks to be "the most aggressive team in the NBA next year" -- both physically and mentally.

The Hawks will need to be mentally tougher next season to close-out situations like that in Games 4 and 6 against Indiana, when they squandered late leads at home.

Korver attributed that disappointment to his team being set with outside factors -- in the form of a raucous crowd at Philips Arena, urging the Hawks on.

That enthusiasm, in part, spurred Korver to re-sign with Atlanta last summer. He wants to help the Hawks build something.

"It was tough," he said. "Obviously, we're upset about Game 7. We know how that series could have gone. Just lots of conversations on the flight back about different games, different plays and personnel things. So, yeah, I think we have a motivated group. I think we have a lot of guys who plan on sticking around here and working out this summer. ...

"We like our group. I know (Budenholzer) keeps on saying that. One thing we like about our group is that everyone works hard and is going to keep on getting better."

Korver said one thing that made this season a learning experience was that while most of the players on the Hawks have played in the postseason in the past, they had larger roles on this team.

Budenholzer said the team would learn from the experience of the playoffs. He was also asked about the difference between being close and finishing.

f"We've got to look at ourselves honestly and critically," he said. "There's things we can do better in those situations. I think our players understand that. Our players understand that we're going to come back and work on those things. It wasn't for lack of work this season. We put a lot of time and effort in to be prepared for those situations. I think we all feel like we can do better.

"I think with our experiences together, with more time together, the hope, obviously, is that you're better when those opportunities come up. But we put ourselves in that position. I think it's really important for our group to know what they did to put themselves in that position in Game 4 (against the Pacers), to put themselves in that position for Game 6 (up five with 3-plus minutes left) and to be in the playoffs and go to a Game 7, you're got to do a lot of things well to get to that spot; and now, we've got to be better when we get there."

Budenholzer added: "It's practice. It's film. It's some mental things. That's, I guess, the beauty of sports or coaching -- hopefully, players will be excited as coaches to go and work on them."