Hawks’ bench finding groove as team begins to rediscover itself

Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic drives with the steal against Sacramento Kings Maurice Harkless (left) and Buddy Hield in a NBA basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic drives with the steal against Sacramento Kings Maurice Harkless (left) and Buddy Hield in a NBA basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Hawks’ 2021-22 season: a masterclass in maddeningly consistent inconsistency. But their latest spurt shows the team that captured Atlanta’s heart with a deep playoff run last summer is still in there somewhere, hidden behind injuries and early-season misfortunes.

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With their blowout victory over the Kings on Wednesday, the Hawks have won five consecutive after a five-game skid. An instrumental element to their revival is a rejuvenated bench, one that helped awaken a slumbering offense against Sacramento.

After trailing 33-21 in the first quarter, the Hawks engineered a 26-9 run, sparked by a trio of dunks from big man Onyeka Okongwu and flashy 3’s from sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Hawks won the quarter 46-17 and won the game 121-104. The bench produced 41 points in the first half and 70 overall.

“I thought they really gave us a lift,” coach Nate McMillan said. “I thought our first unit started off slow, and the second unit just came in and really established the defense, got some stops and got out in transition.”

Okongwu and company provided energy on a night that began with little. The Hawks were lethargic against the De’Aaron Fox-less Kings. The lighter crowd was seemingly aware its home team was hosting an out-of-conference foe that hasn’t had a winning season since Tyronn Lue wore a Hawks uniform.

Those nights are primed for letdowns, especially with the Celtics and Lakers – always good for electric environments – awaiting this weekend. The reserves injected an adrenaline shot. Their recent play is a welcomed change of pace from the usual breath holding and finger crossing that ensues when Trae Young exits.

“I’m looking to bring energy on both sides of the floor,” said Okongwu, who’s healthy and proving crucial. “I’m out there to play the right way, have fun and do what I do best. It’s contagious, obviously. So I’m going to have to continue being me.”

What we do know about the perplexing Hawks: The offense is exhilarating. The defense is putrid. Young is marvelous. The core around him hasn’t done enough to make one believe Hawks mania is primed to return this summer.

The Hawks are streaky. They’ve often been injured. They’re a team with depth that’s seemed off; in the NBA, those situations are ripe for trade rumors.

Come to think of it, this market hasn’t seen such an inconsistent but talented roster since the Braves’ first half in 2021, which featured a similar win-loss seesaw. Of course, the Hawks undergoing a full-on defensive makeover is far less practical than the Braves acquiring a slew of undervalued outfielders.

If the Hawks are to concoct their own memorable turnaround, the bench’s recent improvement is a promising place to start. There’s no question the group possesses firepower. With Bogdanovic or Kevin Huerter, along with a steadier Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari and Delon Wright, there aren’t many benches that equal the Hawks’ blend of scoring and playmaking. (On Bogdanovic, he stressed he doesn’t care whether he’s a starter or second-unit spark.)

Williams, Gallinari and Okongwu combined for 51 points Wednesday. Gallinari added seven. Wright, valued for defense and ball security, chipped in six. It was the Hawks’ second unit at its best – and finally together.

“I think it’s getting healthy,” McMillan said. “They’re in better shape. At the start of the season, I didn’t think our conditioning was good enough. Then all of a sudden we have injuries and COVID, all of those guys are coming back from that. The conditioning was just not there. You have to be in good shape to play offense and defense. I think they’re in better shape than they were to start, and the chemistry is getting better the more they play with each other.”

It’s possible that the Hawks address their defensive deficiencies at the trade deadline next month, but expecting a dramatic turnaround is foolish. The Hawks, as constructed, will win with elite offense. Until the team consolidates or tweaks its depth, this imperfect ensemble is tasked with finding harmony.

Over the past five contests, the Hawks’ bench is plus-4.7 in plus-minus, ranking fourth in the NBA. It isn’t a misleading number, either. Before thrashing the abominable Kings, the Hawks topped the Bucks, Timberwolves, Heat and Hornets - all winning teams.

“We’re a playoff team,” Okongwu said. “We’re starting to play like one.”

The Hawks have faced one of the NBA’s tougher schedules thus far, and they’re now healthier as the slate eases down the stretch. FiveThirtyEight projects the Hawks at 43-39, destined for the play-in tournament but on a better pace than the 22-25 start.

If the reserves continue what they’ve achieved recently, the Hawks will be trending upward before the real season begins. If they’re going to replicate or surpass last season’s run, the depth will need to shine.

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