Hawks use raucous first half as springboard to win over Heat

Hawks forward Paul Millsap collected a team-high 26 points against the Heat on Monday, which included a 20-point flurry in the first half (on 8-of-9 shooting).

ATLANTA — Perhaps the Atlanta Hawks should schedule more outings at the twilight hour of 5:30 p.m.

Or maybe don the cherry-red "away" uniforms for more home games.

Or plan an in-season excursion to London every other week.

All three ancillary factors were at play on Monday, with the Hawks sprinting to a 121-114 victory over the world champion Miami Heat — as part of Atlanta’s tradition of hosting a game on the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On a night when both clubs shot above 50 percent from the field and notched 70-plus points in the opening half — highlighted by Paul Millsap’s 20 points (8 of 9 shooting) — there were few action lulls to recall.

Atlanta opened with a 7-0 run and seldom eased off the gas pedal from that point forward, rolling for 34 and 37 points in the first and second quarters, respecitvely. Miami countered with a 39-point second stanza, with the majority of makes involving Mario Chalmers (nine straight points), Chris Bosh and LeBron James.

In hindsight, it might have been one of the NBA’s cleanest and most efficient halves of the season. To wit, eight — count ’em, eight! — different players had scored in double figures after the 24-minute mark.

"Pace has been one of our top, top priorities (for the season) — whether we’re coming (home) from London" or any other NBA city, said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer in the post-game media scrum. "You’re never sure how you’re going to respond from a long trip (to England), but our guys had some juice" against the Heat.

How fast-paced was the action early on? In the Philips Arena media room during halftime, Hawks play-by-play man Bob Rathbun (TV side) could be overheard saying, in his best disco-era voice, "We’re going all the way back to 1973!" — a joyful nod to the NBA’s up-tempo style from the 1970s, when clubs routinely crossed the 100-point threshold midway through the fourth quarter.

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It wasn’t all rainbow jumpers and breakaway dunks in the second half. The overall scoring dipped to normal levels, with neither team eclipsing 26 points for the third and fourth quarters.

And when things mattered most, the Hawks ended up claiming the possession-by-possession battles during crunch time, limiting the Heat to just 41.2 percent shooting from the field (7 of 17 shots) in the fourth quarter.

Given all the early scoring, "we knew one team would make stops in the second half, and we wanted to be that team," said Budenholzer, while praising Atlanta’s "commitment" to bearing down.

"And we were able to score just enought to find a way to win."

The key sequence in the fourth quarter: With Atlanta nursing a four-point lead with three-plus minutes to go, Miami’s Bosh was seemingly positioned for a layup on the left side.

Upon his shot fake, though, the Hawks’ duo of Pero Antic (17 points, six boards) and Millsap attempted staggered leaps at Bosh — with the latter blocking the shot into the waiting arms of Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll.

The Bosh block "was indicative to our commitment of getting things done as a team," beamed Budenholzer, in his first season as an NBA head coach.

On the enusing possession, Carroll scored on a way-too-easy layup off the baseline inbounds pass, extending the Hawks’ lead to six. That uncontested play elicited a blank stare/shaking of the head from Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.

Things got a little hairy a minute later, after James scored an and-one layup to slice the Atlanta lead to two. But on the Hawks’ next possession, with the Heat furiously trying to force a steal, Kyle Korver (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) buried a three-pointer from the left corner, essentially icing Atlanta’s 15th home triumph of the season.

"I was almost too open. I had missed all the other ones," said Korver, who upped his NBA record for games with at least one made three-pointer (109). "They were focused on Paul (who) had a great fourth quarter. We were just feeding him, and he just dumped off passes to Pero and made plays at the rim for himself."

Is there such a thing as reverse jetlag? How else to explain the Hawks having fresh legs just four days after jetting to London to play the Nets?

If the playoffs started today (an awkward way to open a sentence, for sure), the Hawks (21-19) would open the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed, with a best-of-7 series against the Chicago Bulls in the quarterfinal round.

The sub-bracket winner would then presumably draw the Heat (29-12, 1st place in Southeast) in Round 2, an assignment that doesn’t come with home-court advantage.

To date, the Hawks have a 1-2 record against LeBron and Co, with all three games having some form of drama in the fourth quarter. But it’s fair to wonder how much of this will truly resonate in the spring?

Obviously, every team wants to maximize its victory total during the regular season. But not all November-April games are created equal; and for the Heat, who played without Dwyane Wade on Monday (general soreness), they have now concluded a six-game, 10-day road trip through the Eastern half of the U.S.

Let’s be honest: When you’re the reigning champs, in pursuit of a third consecutive NBA championship, it’s tough to max-out, intensity-wise, on a random January evening.

Particularly on defense.

And the Hawks took full advantage of the Heat’s unwillingness to halt dribble-drive penetration on fast breaks, and seal off baseline drives in half- court sets.

"Thirty-three assists is a real positive for our group," said Budenholzer, when assessing Atlanta’s third 120-point outing of the season.