Hawks face ‘choppy’ schedule in second half

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan, center, encourages the team during a timeout in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan, center, encourages the team during a timeout in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Since taking over as interim head coach, Nate McMillan has mentioned he may make some tweaks to the Hawks’ strategy.

But, he’s also acknowledged it’s not realistic to make sweeping changes in the middle of a season, especially given the compressed nature of this season’s schedule after COVID-19 upended the NBA’s calendar.

“We can’t do a lot,” McMillan said Thursday. “What we have is good. We’ve been doing a good job of executing what we’ve been doing. It’s just, we have some guys that are going to be coming back, and we’re probably going to personalize some of our sets, but it’s not going to be a major change.

“You just can’t do that in the middle of the season, change everything that we’ve been doing. What we have in is good, it’s working, we have to just do it and do it better.”

The Hawks are hoping to get De’Andre Hunter back in the coming weeks, and if everything goes as planned, Kris Dunn will be able to make his debut by the end of March.

So far, in a small sample size, the Hawks (17-20) have had a taste of success with that mindset, winning three consecutive games since McMillan was promoted. In total, they’re 5-1 under him this season, as he filled in when previous coach Lloyd Pierce took time off for the birth of his second child in mid-February and went 2-1. McMillan hasn’t upended what the Hawks do (though they ran a bit less pick-and-roll in their win vs. Toronto on Thursday), but has flipped their fourth-quarter problems upside-down, winning their past three games thanks to surges down the stretch.

In the second half of the season, he won’t plan to make any major changes, and wouldn’t really have the time to install them, anyway — their second-half schedule is jam-packed. With that in mind, McMillan is emphasizing the importance of rest to the team. For example, the Hawks took a red-eye flight after the win vs. Toronto and got home around 2 a.m., then had to wake up early Friday morning to get COVID-19 tested.

“It’s choppy. … They really have to try to get their rest,” McMillan said. “This is not going to be something that they’re used to doing during the season. We don’t have a lot of time to recover because you do have to get up early every morning for the testing, and it’s going to be really important that they pay attention to that and try to get their rest at night to make sure that they’re mentally, physically ready to go.”

The Hawks will play 35 games in 65 days, with eight sets of back-to-backs, beginning with Saturday’s game vs. the Kings followed by Sunday’s game vs. Cleveland (right now, they’re looking for their first four-game win streak since the 2016-17 season). They play every other day, with three exceptions: two days in between facing Milwaukee on April 15 and Indiana on April 18, three days in between Indiana on May 6 and Washington on May 10 and two days in between Orlando on May 13 and Houston on May 16. They also face a brutal eight-game trip out West from March 20-April 2.

With travel days, that leaves basically no time for live practices or scrimmaging, with those longer gaps the only potential exceptions. That means the Hawks are left o hammer out issues during games. On those in-between days, the Hawks are usually traveling, studying film or treating them as “maintenance days,” getting treatment and resting to let their bodies recover.

They also aren’t allowed to spend as much time together, cutting down on team bonding.

“It’s awful, the whole schedule, the testing, the wait times, they make you wait for this test, and we can’t do anything as a group, no more team dinners, no more team activities,” fourth-year power forward John Collins said. “I can only be outside the hotel for an hour, all these stipulations and guidelines when guys just want to play ball.”

Really, the only good news is that everyone else is in the same boat. And every team either faced a quick turnaround after playing in the Orlando bubble, or a long layoff after the season was suspended March 11, like the Hawks did.

McMillan said he’s praying for brighter, healthier days ahead, but for now, the Hawks have to continue adapting to the NBA’s new rules, amid the pandemic.

“It’s going to be a challenge with the schedule that we have, to finish the season, but as I told the guys, that’s the bad news, the good news is everybody else has the same type of schedule,” McMillan said. “We’re going to be playing every other day. Really, (Wednesday) was our last probably live practice that we will be able to have because of the scheduling. … So it’s going to be a big challenge for all of us to be able to adapt to the schedule.

“We’re trying to tweak some things and maybe add some things, and it’s going to be really tough to do because you just don’t have the practice time, even the days that you have in between games are going to be travel days and basically recovery days. So it’s going to go quick. We know where we are, as far as the standings, and we know the things that we have to do in order to put ourselves in a position to try to make the playoffs.”