ATLANTA — Hawks coach Larry Drew said losing streaks inspire all kinds of maladies — sleepless nights, edginess, flaring tempers.
Returning home on Wednesday for their second game in two days against a similar kind of big, muscular opponent, the Hawks were at risk of losing their third straight and falling victim to all of that.
Making matters worse, they were even more depleted than the night before up front. In addition, to missing Zaza Pachulia (Achilles’ tendon) again, the Hawks chose to rest DeShawn Stevenson, whom they do not play in back-to-back games.
Showing what Drew deemed urgency, the Hawks downed Memphis 103-92 at Philips Arena in a game that was not as close as the final score reflected, as the Hawks led by as much as 23 late in the third quarter and by 18 entering the final period against a Grizzlies team that entered with a better record from the more rugged Western Conference.
“I hope we can build from this, we get it rolling again and start winning some games,” said Hawks forward Al Horford.
Drew said he had an epiphany on Wednesday morning to start Anthony Tolliver, a player who barely made the roster out of training camp, at small forward. The ploy worked, as Tolliver harassed Memphis’ Tayshaun Prince into 3-of-9 shooting, including 1-for-7 through three quarters. Tolliver also grabbed a season-high seven rebounds in 29 minutes.
And with hot shooting from the start, the Hawks (27-21) did not allow the Grizzlies’ size advantage in the form of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to overwhelm them.
The hot shooting came in part because of point guard Jeff Teague’s play, both in his shooting (7-for-10 for a game-high 22 points) and his distributing of the ball, as he finished with a season-high 13 assists.
The Hawks seem to think if Teague can keep playing the way he has the last two nights, it could fuel another strong run like they had at the beginning of the season. Playing in his hometown of Indianapolis on Tuesday, Teague posted 24 points and eight assists in a 93-83 loss to the Pacers.
Teague, whose 6.6 assists per game rank him 15th in the league, followed that up with his seventh double-double of the season on Wednesday to go with only three turnovers.
“By far, he’s being more aggressive,” Horford said. “He’s getting into the lane and when he’s that aggressive, that’s why we were so successful earlier in the year. I think Jeff has played in every game this season. He hasn’t missed a game. He’s one of the few guys, so he might have been a little tired, run down in a few games, kind of went down, but he’s starting to pick it back up because when he’s playing like this we’re a totally different team.”
If Horford was right about Teague having suffered from fatigue, it probably is a result of taking on more minutes recently because of injuries to fellow guards Devin Harris and Lou Williams. After sitting out on Tuesday, Harris chipped in eight points and three assists in 17 minutes on Wednesday but it marked just the 11th game he’s played in the last 25. Williams is out for the season with a torn ACL he suffered on Jan. 18.
Teague is the only Hawk to play in all 48 games, but Horford entering the game having played more minutes, as did Josh Smith.
“I’m just playing, trying to get wins,” Teague said. “Doing whatever it takes to get a win. I think that’s the whole group.”
While Harris might have been limited in terms of minutes because of his sore foot, Drew again got a strong effort from rookie John Jenkins, who made a career-high three three-pointers for nine points to go with five rebounds in 23 minutes.
Now the Hawks have a chance to go into the All-Star break strong with only three games left until that breather.
“It’s always important to kind of get that monkey off your back,” Drew said. “When you go through a tough period, the last thing you want is for it to be prolonged. We’ve played some good teams. We haven’t played our best basketball, but I’m proud of the fact that our guys haven’t used any excuses.
“We’ve been shorthanded, we’ve been banged up, which all NBA teams are…. We went through a tough period. I would like to think that tough period is over with.”
Maybe by playing with more urgency and a reinvigorated Teague, it is.