Hawks’ bench potent complement behind defense, mindset
ATLANTA — Naturally, it’s the Hawks offensive approach that draws the most comparisons to the Spurs, where coach Mike Budenholzer studied for 19 years. As LeBron James said a month ago, Atlanta’s sets are "identical" to those of Greg Popovich.
But as the Pacers’ Frank Vogel sees it, the influence of the San Antonio system goes even deeper.
"Pop was the first one, really, to understand the middle parts of each half, when the bench comes in," the Indiana coach said. "Obviously, Bud has done a great job making sure their bench is coming in and doing an ever better job against opposing benches than the starters are doing against opposing starters."
And they’re doing it with limited opportunities.
The Eastern Conference-leading Hawks have a bench that among the least-used in the NBA, with 21 teams’ reserves seeing more minutes this season. But they’ve been crucial to the team’s franchise record 15-game winning streak.
Over the last 10 games, Atlanta’s reserves lead the league in 3s (44.7 percent) are ninth in overall shooting percentage (44.7). They’re also ninth in assists (8.4).
"The biggest thing for us is don’t relinquish a lead," said shooting guard Kent Bazemore, who is playing 11.6 minutes a game. "If anything, keep it where it is. Just bring the energy."
The bench follows the tenets of the Hawks’ blueprint: 3-point shooting and ball movement. It’s because of that there is little to no drop off from the first five to the reserves.
But it’s on the other side of the floor where Budenholzer says this group truly makes its impact.
"I think our bench, our defense doesn’t really drop off … maybe, you could argue even gets better as we come in with different individuals on the bench and the way those guys are working together defensively," he said.
"I think that’s just been a real important element to our entire group and if you look at the bench, they are creating turnovers and creating a lot of opportunities for us to go the other way and get baskets in transition and open 3s."
Thabo Sefolosha spearheads that effort with a team-high 3.1 Defensive Box Plus/Minus — that comes in 19.4 minutes per game, the most of any Hawks reserve — Bazemore is fifth in that department (1.3) and second-year point guard Dennis Schroder is at 1.0.
None of that should come as any surprise. Bazemore and Sefolosha were lauded for their defensive play when they were added as free agents this summer as depth behind DeMarre Carroll and the long-armed Schroder’s enthusiasm on D has earned him an apropos nickname, "Menace."
In all, the Hawks’ backups are eighth in steals over the last five games (3.5) and are limiting opponents to 28.3 shooting on 3s (11th).
"Their whole bench comes in and plays with great defensive energy and they don’t drop off too much on the offensive end," said Vogel.
Said forward Mike Scott: "That’s one of the big things we have to do, come off the bench, be ready defensively — of course, first thing — pass the ball, make shots, just spark the team with energy."
Scott preaching defense might seem an oxymoron for a guy who since coming into the league in 2012-13, has attempted 15 shots per 36 minutes. Only two other bench players to see less than 16 minutes a game are higher in that span, Marreese Speights (16.8) and Shabazz Muhammad (16.3).
The high volume of shot attempts are still there, with Scott at 15.1 per 36 minutes this season — he scored a season-high 20 points on Jan. 19 against the Pistons — but his approach has changed.
"Everyone looks at me as offense first and I’ve been trying to switch things up and not be too passive on offense," he said. "Focus a little bit more on other things rebounding, defense and making plays for other teammates."
That includes center Pero Antic, who is averaging 6.3 points and 2.9 rebounds at 17.2 minutes per and PG Shelvin Mack (4.5 points, 2.8 assists in 13.7), who has missed the last two games with a calf strain.
The chief challenge for a group that, through Wednesday, has played a combined 3,553 minutes (more than 1,000 behind the league-leading Bucks) is staying in the flow of the game when you’re not in it.
For Bazemore, the key is visualization.
"You kind of feel a part of it throughout the game, how active the guys are," he said. "As you’re out there, watching the game, getting ready, locking in, you’re making plays in your mind."
Bazemore will see a teammate hit a 3-pointer and pick up on how an opponent is set defensively, knowing their not likely to change their approach to Atlanta’s motion offense based on personnel.
"You’re just out there getting ready and when you go out there you just play within the system and everything takes care of itself," he said.
That approach is working.
Bazemore is hitting a career-best 44.4 percent from distance, joining Scott (37.4) as Hawks reserves shooting better than the league average of 35.0. He’s also supplied a season-best 17 points, coming Jan. 13 at Philadelphia.
During Atlanta’s streak it has had 16 instances of a backup scoring 10 or more points, led by five from Antic and four via Scott and has a 10-assist outing from Shelvin Mack.
It’s all part of the mindset of the Hawks’ reserves, which, at least from Bazemore’s end, sees their role as a competition with the starting five of Carroll, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague.
"’Ya’ll set the bar and we’re going to try and raise it,’" Bazemore said. "Everyone is competing against each other and making each other better. When you go out there you have to hold up your end of the bargain."
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney.