Five observations from the Hawks’ 110-108 victory over the Thunder Monday night.
1. The Hawks went out of the box when finally selecting on a starting lineup when center Dwight Howard was a late scratch due to back tightness. Instead of inserting another center into the lineup – such as Mike Muscala or Kris Humphries – the put Paul Millsap at center and surrounded him with point guard Dennis Schroder and four wings in Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver.
“We were bouncing ideas and debating, couldn’t decide,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You could go more traditional. We decided to go a little bit out of the box. It took us a while to come to that but we felt good about it. They competed.”
The final call came about 30 minutes before opening tip. Sure there was some scrambling but the Hawks rode the new look to a 10-point lead in the first quarter.
Millsap has played center in certain rotations this season. But only for short stretches and never against a team with big men like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter.
“I played center in high school and college so …” Millsap said. “It was tough. I just tried to frustrate the guys as much as possible. I had some good help down there, rebounding. It wasn’t all me. I had a lot of help.”
Millsap finished with 11 rebounds.
2. The lineup change was accompanied by a dramatic shift in defensive philosophy. Usually, the Hawks try to fight through screens and use help defense if necessary. However, against the amazing Russell Westbrook, the Hawks switched on every screen. Sefolosha started defending Westbrook but the switch meant Bazemore, Korver, Millsap, Tim Hardaway Jr. – well, anyone – could defend him.
“The aim is to try to take away his driving lanes to the basket,” Korver said. “A lot of times, the different coverages we would run, he is good at splitting it. He’s good at finding those creases. He’s a rocket and he just finds that crack. We tried to switch it up and keep a man in front of him shoulder to shoulder and make him shoot those jump shots. He was really good at them tonight though. It’s a pick your poison with him. But him not being able to get all the way to the basket it takes away his passes and we don’t all have to collapse on him. I thought Thabo and Baze played amazing.”
3. It had to be Millsap to hit the game-winner – even though he was the third option on his basket with 12 seconds left. Korver assisted with a pass to Millsap, who drained the 10-footer.
“It was a great play coach called up,” said Millsap, who finished with 30 points. “Went through our first option. Went through our second option. I was able to catch the ball, put it up to the rim and it went in.”
The Thunder had a chance when Westbrook missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left. Adams got the rebound with .3 seconds left but his dunk was well after the buzzer.
4. Schroder also had another solid game. He finished with a team-high 31 points, including 18 in the first half. In the past 10 games, Schroder has two 31-point and a career-high 33 point game.
Korver said Budenholzer got on Schroder when the team was mired in a seven-game losing streak. Schroder responded.
“He is playing the best basketball of his career,” Korver said.
Schroder acknowledged the words from Budenholzer.
“I just tried to do everything I can to win games. He got on me. He said do this, do that, do this. I just try to compete out there.”
5. Following the game, Howard said he doesn’t expect his back to be a long-term concern. In fact, he believes he will be ready for Wednesday’s game against the Timberwolves.
“It’s nowhere near anything long term,” Howard said. “In the Toronto game, it’s been bothering me since then. It started flaring up after the last game. Instead of allowing it to keep going and playing through it, rest it and I should be ready to go Wednesday.”