Hawks inch by Rockets in ‘slugfest’

Hawks forward Paul Millsap led the way with 20 points and seven rebounds in an 83-80 win against the Houston Rockets on Friday night.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks solidified their position as the No. 3 team in the East with a slugfest-type of win against the Houston Rockets, winning 83-80. Here are three observations from the game:

There was a common and predictable theme to the Hawks’ locker room talking points following the team’s second straight home win against a team with a winning record.

"We just kept sticking with our defense," Mike Scott said.

"Once we got our defense under wraps, got some stops, we could run," said Elton Brand.

Defense. Defense. Defense. There were compliments for help defense and individual defense and all sorts of points-preventing efforts against one of the league’s most efficiency offensive forces. Houston, a team that was averaging 109.6 points per 100 possessions entering the game, was held to 41.4 percent shooting, not to mention logging more turnovers than assists.

"The competitiveness that they’re putting out there, it starts on the defensive end of the court. There’s some examples tonight of guys making rotations, making ‘V-backs’ — difficult, hard situations — guys making rotations," coach Mike Budenholzer said. "It’s just good seeing that trust being built up. If we continue to do that, there’s stretches where our offense, we can play off our defense."

With the win, the Hawks’ place in the awful Eastern Conference remains firm at No. 3. However, they also improved to .500 against Western Conference teams, 20-17 overall. The roster is not at full strength — and will not be for the rest of the season — but if this trend holds and this Hawks roster stays at or near third place in the East, expect Budenholzer to earn more than his fair share of Coach of the Year votes.

At this point, the storyline of Howard returning to play against his hometown team is a bit played out. After 34 games, it’s clear that he’s found success against the Hawks, averaging 17.2 points and 14 rebounds per game. But for the first time since spurning the Atlanta franchise in free agency, his first foray into the open market, Howard returned and the new-look Hawks were ready for him.

Even without star forward Al Horford, Atlanta’s defense is starting to come around. Budenholzer, the team’s first-year head coach, credits the defensive system as a whole, one he says his roster continues to buy into and trust, for the team’s resiliency even against the league’s top teams. The Hawks have now held teams under 91 points in four consecutive games. Not even Howard and James Harden could break the streak.

To no surprise, Howard finished with his usual double-double stat line: 15 points, 11 rebounds.

But the Hawks continually made things difficult for No. 12, a strategy that Budenholzer said doesn’t really change from one game to the next. Trust the scheme.

"We practice and work and talk a lot about making catches tough. He wants it go (into the post), we don’t want it to go there. So it’s a battle of wills," Budenholzer said. "I think our guys have done a nice job of just working to not let people catch it where they want, just making the angles difficult, making the passes difficult. Because once (Howard) gets it, he’s just so hard to guard — he’s just so physical and so strong. And I thought the activity once he did catch it, wither our digs, was pretty good also."

Added center Elton Brand, who added 11 boards in 24 minutes defending Howard: "Keep him away from deep position. Make him make some moves a little bit. He’s such a load. He’s so big and athletic. It takes a team effort to kinda stop him. Keep Harden out of the paint. But with Dwight, try not to give him angles. Try not to foul him too much — even though he’s not a great free throw shooter, that gets him in the bonus and Harden and those guys can attack the cup.

Even Harden’s 25 points could be considered a success: he’s one of the league’s premier superstars, ranking in the top-20 of player efficiency metrics, and the last time he walked into Philips Arena he walked out with a career-high 45 points. The Hawks made him work a bit harder this time around, with defensive specialist DeMarre Carroll following him around for the better part of 34 minutes and "holding" him to 6-of-14 shooting. That’s not a shutdown effort, but it was enough to keep the Rockets’ offense from running away with it.

In his fifth season, Teague has developed into one of the league’s better point guards. He’s improved his scoring and assist rates to career-levels while seeing a four-point jump in his usage rate.

But for the second time this season against the Rockets, the numbers were not there. After scoring just four points (0-for-5 shooting), six assists and three turnovers in the two teams first meeting in Houston, Teague put up yet another quiet — and inefficient night — missing 10 of his 12 shots and posting his lowest assist total since Nov. 16.

The slack was in part picked up by the team’s bench: Brand’s rebounding, Lou Williams’ efficiency (eight assists, zero turnovers) and Mike Scott’s energy. In fact, when asked how the Hawks overcame a season-worst 10-point quarter to start the game, Budenholzer gave one answer: "Mike Scott."

Simple enough.