Court Vision: Hawks win 13th straight, despite rebounding shortfall

With the Hawks in need of an offensive boost after the first quarter, Mike Smith (9 of 15 shooting) came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points against the Pistons (tied with Paul Millsap).

Dale Zanine

ATLANTA — Here are a few detailed observations from the Hawks’ 93-82 win over the Detroit Pistons — a Monday matinee commemorating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday — which also served at Atlanta’s 13th straight victory (just one shy of the franchise’s all-time mark from 1993):

1. The Hawks are slowly mastering the art of winning decisively on days they don’t play particularly well

Yes, Atlanta launched a seven-game home stand on Monday, the reward for posting a perfect January (so far) and earning four road victories in five nights last week. And yes, the club got an extra boost of afternoon adrenaline from the sellout crowd at Philips Arena (19,108).

But the Hawks looked a little leg weary in the opening 18 minutes, succumbing to the Pistons’ initial desire to minimize the back-and-forth pace.

That mode of sluggishness carried over to other aspects, as well, with Detroit crushing Atlanta on the rebounding end (61- 42) and seemingly getting many clean looks within the paint area.

The rebounding disparity was a hot topic for Mike Budenholzer during his postgame media address; and frankly, the second-year head coach didn’t have a viable explanation for it.

"I don’t know, that’s a good question," said Budenholzer, sporting a look of relief more than joy, when pressed for wisdom about the rebounding gap (19). He then added: "I covered my eyes sometimes when the ball went up to the rim. Our guys were fighting — it’s not for a lack of effort."

The coach has been in the NBA for a while (longtime assistant to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before coming to Atlanta), meaning he understands the value of rebounding.

"We’re probably (ranked) 30th in offensive rebounding, and (the Pistons) are probably first; so it’s one of those things where the opposites collide. They killed us on the boards. It’s not something we like."

Budenholzer paints a rough picture in the above quote. But in reality, the Hawks fared well within their volume of shots, posting decent marks with field-goal shooting (44 percent) and free throws (71.4 percent).

The only Debby Downer aspect involved shooting from beyond the arc, with Atlanta making only nine of 30 tries — with Paul Millsap (20 points, seven rebounds) and Kyle Korver (13 points, six rebounds, five assists) burying three triples apiece.

Budenholzer seemed wholly content with Mike Scott’s two-way effort against the Pistons, netting a team-high 20 points (tied with Millsap), collecting five rebounds and nailing 9 of 15 shots from the field.

"It was great to see (Scott) have a game like that," said Budenholzer of Scott, one of seven Hawks with a positive plus/minus ratio on the court (+7) — most notably the entire staring five. "He’s been working so hard. His defense and his activity have maybe gone unnoticed. Every time he shoots (the ball), he’s a little like (Kyle Korver), we think he’s going to make it. …

"For (Scott) to give us a (solid effort) on both ends and give us that boost off the bench … it was great for us."

Atlanta certainly needed a spark early on, holding a sluggish 16-12 lead after the first quarter and trying to match the energy level of a revved-up home crowd that was psyched to welcome the league’s hottest team.

This is how the NBA operates, in general: Unless you’re unspeakably bad, or lack the fight (and talent) to consistently stay in ballgames, most outings look reasonably close through three quarters.

But good teams — like the Hawks — find a way to finish strong in the final quarter.

"Honestly, we finally just made some shots," said Korver, who has averaged 16 points in his last four games. "We want to be a great defensive team, whether we’re making shots of not. When you make some shots, especially (the triples) that get the crowd into it … you can just feel that shift (of momentum)."

2. The Hawks should feel fortunate that center Andre Drummond served as the Pistons’ primary free-throw shooter

It’s no secret Drummond ranks among the NBA’s least effective shooters from the charity stripe (at 44 percent). That said, it must be doubly disheartening to go 2 for 10 during the third quarter (overall free throws: 3 of 10) — at a time when the Pistons played well enough to carry a four-or-five point lead into the 4th.

Instead, Detroit (16-26, 9th in the Eastern Conference) trailed by seven going into the final stanza, a deflating tally, considering the Hawks — at the time — hadn’t strung together a consistent run of points since the opening minutes (8-0 immediately after tip-off).

Free throws are a big bugaboo with Drummond (13 points, 18 rebounds vs. Atlanta):

On one hand, the 21-year-old wunderkind (6-foot-11, 279 pounds, absurd athletic ability) has the physical tools to dominate this league for the next eight, 10 or even 12 years. But it’s hard to entrust him during crucial stretches of play … when making five of every 10 free throws might be viewed as a quiet victory.

"I thought we played pretty well in the third quarter … the free-throw shooting just rocked us (then)," said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. "When you get a point-blank shot (at the basket — either from the charity stripe or in the paint) and come away with nothing three straight times, it’s just hard to overcome that against a really good team."

In Drummond’s defense, he didn’t attempt a single three-pointer for the Pistons, who converted on only nine of 35 shots from beyond the arc. Nor was Drummond responsible for Detroit’s best four perimeter shooters — Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler, Jodie Meeks — draining 11 of 43 shots from the field. Ugh.

Jennings (seven points) and Caldwell-Pope (10 points) were especially wretched, combining on a 5-for-25 shooting day.

The lone bright spot for Detroit: Greg Monroe, a potential free-agent pursuit for Atlanta this summer, rolled for 16 points and a game-high 20 rebounds.

3. It would be a minor surprise if Atlanta didn’t make it to the All-Star break with the NBA’s best record

At 34-8 (1st in the Eastern Conference) and trailing the Golden State Warriors by mere percentage points, the above declaration hardly qualifies as a bold statement.

And that especially rings true when peering at the Hawks’ schedule over the next three weeks — leading up to the All-Star break in mid-February:

The remaining January home slate includes four struggling clubs (Pacers, Timberwolves, Nets, 76ers) and just two teams of similar caliber (Thunder, Blazers).

For February, the Hawks must contend with a more cumbersome early slate — traveling to New Orleans, Memphis, Minnesota, Boston and hosting the Wizards and NBA-leading Warriors.

But it’s also worth noting: The Hawks only have one back-to-back outing during that stretch.

Put it all together, and it’s reasonable to believe Atlanta will own a 43-11 or 42-12 record in advance of its nine-day break.

In that span, Golden State (33-6, factoring in its Monday mauling of Denver) must contend with high-profile clashes against Oklahoma City, Houston, Atlanta on the road … and Houston, Chicago, Phoenix and Dallas at home.

Which brings us to this: The NBA doesn’t hand out trophies to the team possessing the best record at the break. But it shall remain a substantial goal for a Hawks franchise that — since the 1968-69 season, their first in Atlanta — has not reached the conference or NBA finals.

And given the doable schedule at hand, this should be the time to strike … while the iron’s scalding hot.