ATLANTA — When the buzzer sounded in Philips Arena Wednesday, Larry Drew turned with two clenched fists, looked to his assistant coaches and gave a sharp nod of the head.
The third-year head coach of the Atlanta Hawks is pressing plenty of buttons, calibrating and tweaking his renovated roster on the fly, trying to find the right formula. His tinkering has produced two wins, both in come-from-behind fashion. Sunday night came the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder. On Wednesday, it was the Indiana Pacers relinquishing a late lead to the Hawks, who won, 89-86.
Two wins, two 2011-12 playoff teams. If it feels, to the Hawks, like they’re a boxer getting a feel for an unknown opponent in the ring, that is precisely what it looks like outside the lines.
“It’s trying to find that mix that allows us to stay competitive,” said Drew, who is 94-75 as a head coach. “I don’t want to put our guys in a type of disadvantage. You know, I’ve got to juggle things around a little bit until I’m able to get that combination that I feel would not put us at a disadvantage. … Some nights, it’s by a total committee.”
Drew invested time and energy this offseason into learning how to play smaller lineups — after all, five of the nine Atlanta players getting significant minutes measure 6-foot-6 or shorter — yet he came out with a new look for the rebound-friendly Pacers. He went big. He sporadically signaled for a full-court press, a rarity in the NBA game. The Hawks, who came into the game being out-rebounded 95-74, won the battle of the boards against the Pacers. Another game, another alteration.
But perhaps the biggest shift in Drew’s plan came in the fourth quarter.
After being outscored 27-14 in the third, he employed a zone defense that yielded just nine points to close out the game. Even though the Hawks did not stay in the zone throughout the final quarter, it was enough to discombobulate a Pacers offense managing without its best player, Danny Granger, who is expected to miss the next three months with knee problems.
The Pacers shot just 21.1 percent for the quarter.
“We were flying around,” Drew said. “As I told the guys, some nights it’s going to be good, some nights it’s not. That’s two games in a row it’s being very effective for us. It got us going.”
As much of a juggling act as the early portion of the season may turn into — the Hawks have already started eight players in three games — one constant looks to have solidified his spot on the floor in the key moments: point guard Jeff Teague.
Other than forwards Josh Smith and Al Horford, Teague is the lone incumbent starter on the roster. But while Atlanta’s two standout forwards were never expected to be pushed for playing time, general manager Danny Ferry brought in two additional ball-dominant guards in the off-season — Devin Harris and Lou Williams — that could have had Teague looking over his shoulder.
He looked straight ahead against Indiana.
“I feel (Coach Drew) has a lot of confidence in me,” Teague said. “I’m just trying to use every opportunity I get to go out there and make a play and be effective on the floor, make him want to have me out there.”
When it mattered most, Teague appeared confident, pouring in a team-high nine fourth-quarter points. His two biggest baskets came in the closing minutes. His 3-pointer with 1:04 remaining reclaimed the lead for the first time since early in the third quarter. He followed it up with a smooth up-and-under move for two points, sealing the Pacers’ fate.
Teague finished with 15 points (7-of-15 shooting), six rebounds and six assists. He was one of four Hawks players to finish in double figures, along with Smith, Horford and revived outside shooter Kyle Korver, who came alive for 13 points after starting the season in a brief slump.
With Teague pushing the pace, along with spells of speed from Williams and Harris, perhaps more of Drew’s on-the-fly changes will continue to find success.
“We’re buying in. We’re buying into the system; nobody is bucking the system,” said Smith, who finished with 11 points, five rebounds and a game-high seven assists. “Even when we get hit with adversity, because it’s going to happen during this lengthy season, we’re just going to stay together.”
In what figured to be a rebuilding year, the Hawks are 2-1 and rallying. They’ve come back from nine or more points in every game this season (even though the Houston game ended up as a loss). If anything, resiliency looms.
And when a team believes that no deficit is too large, there’s always that chance.
When Drew strode into the Philips Arena tunnel, it was clear he was a man fighting for his job under a new boss. His fists were clenched for a split second, a brief window of perseverance in a long NBA season.