ATLANTA — Mike Budenholzer might be a first-time head coach with the Atlanta Hawks but as a long-time NBA assistant he still has the right perspective on how long the season is.
His team entered its game on Wednesday at Philips Arena against the struggling New York Knicks with a 2-0 home record and facing an opponent missing two key players, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire.
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Budenholzer was asked after the team’s morning shoot around if, with a 4-3 record that ranked third in the Eastern Conference, a big opportunity might be opening up for the Hawks.
“No,” he said. “I’m amazed that after seven games people talk about the standings. It’s just such a long season and 82 games and there are so many things that will happen and change. It’s so tight. I mean, I’m excited about our group and I’m excited about what we can do and where we can be but it has nothing to do with where we are in the standings after six or seven games.”
The wisdom of those words came into sharper focus following the Hawks’ 95-91 loss to the Knicks, a loss that showed the ways in which the Hawks, with a number of new, key players, still need to learn and to grow.
Down by 17 points in the second quarter, the Hawks battled back and took a six-point lead in the fourth quarter but let it slip away as the Knicks (3-4) went on an 11-0 run to grab an 83-78 lead from which they never looked back.
Two stats in particular stood out. One was that the Knicks made 12-of-34 three-pointers (35.3 percent) while the Hawks made 5-of-24 (20.8 percent), an advantage of 21 points for New York. In addition, the Hawks committed 15 turnovers to the Knicks’ three. While Budenholzer and some players credited the Knicks’ defense, the Hawks’ DeMarre Carroll said he thought at least seven of them were unforced. That led, in part, to the unraveling of the Hawks’ brief fourth-quarter lead.
Budenholzer said he thought the Hawks, who had scored at least 102 points in every game until Wednesday, became disjointed on offense after taking the fourth-quarter lead. That dysfunction included Mike Scott missing a 26-foot three-point attempt and an offensive foul by Pero Antic. Kyle Korver made a bad pass that resulted in a turnover and Paul Millsap was called for traveling. By then, the Knicks led 90-81.
“And I think they picked up their press and we didn’t respond the way we needed to respond,” Budenholzer said, “so I think there were some tough shots they made during that stretch … and us just not being as organized and functioning offensively like we need to be.”
Al Horford, one of the Hawks’ leaders who had a dominant offensive night, making 11-of-14 shots for 23 points, did not mince his words.
“We had slippage,” he said. “The same things that have been happening to us a lot early this year. We’re having leads in the fourth and we’re disappearing. It’s unacceptable. We’ve cost ourselves I know two or three games because of doing that and we need to be better at it.”
Point guard Jeff Teague, who notched team highs in points (25) and assists (eight), was a bit more generous, but acknowledged that the Hawks “have to clean it up”.
“I mean, we made mistakes, we’re still a new group,” Teague said. “We’re still trying to figure each other out. We’re getting better every game. They’ve been together for a while. They know what to do in the fourth quarter. They have fourth-quarter plays. They go to Carmelo (Anthony) and those guys. We just have to take the challenge and clean some stuff up.”
Anthony, who scored 25, went cold in the third quarter, as Budenholzer challenged his team to play better defense. It worked, as the Hawks held the Knicks to 10 points in the quarter and Anthony to 2-of-10 shooting. However, Anthony got hot during the Knicks’ 11-0 run in the fourth quarter with six straight points. He got a little bit of luck on one of those baskets, banking it in. As a result, Anthony helped to back up the guarantee of a victory by Knicks owner James Dolan.
Like Teague, Carroll said the loss was part of the Hawks’ growing pains.
“We should’ve never put ourselves in that situation,” he said. “We went up and we should have taken advantage of (it). It’s a learning experience. Eight games into the season, it’s a learning experience.”
The loss was a small setback for the Hawks but overall things are looking up. Guard Lou Williams, who will provide some scoring punch off the bench, could be back soon. Budenholzer said on Wednesday morning that Williams, who tore his ACL last season, has been cleared by doctors and has participated in 5-on-5, full-contact practice sessions.
With the Hawks having been heavy on offense early on, Budenholzer liked the defensive effort on Wednesday. He wants balance. So the Hawks are edging in that direction.
“I think that the defense, particularly in the third quarter, was something that was a really good effort,” he said, “and was something we can go back and look at and hopefully build on. It’s the key, the cycle we’ve been talking about is we want to be good on both ends and tonight we were better defensively, probably, and the offense wasn’t quite in flow or in sync but New York’s defense deserves some credit for that and making some threes would have helped with that, too.”