Millsap gets angry, Hawks respond to roll into postseason

Hawks forward Paul Millsap reacts in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, April 9, 2017, in Atlanta. The Hawks won in overtime 126-125. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)

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Hawks forward Paul Millsap reacts in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, April 9, 2017, in Atlanta. The Hawks won in overtime 126-125. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)

Paul Millsap was angry.

His teammates used a different adjective to describe the mood of the power forward as he watched the Hawks endure a seven-game losing streak that began in mid-March and threatened their playoff chances. Millsap was sidelined eight games with synovitis in his left knee, during which the Hawks were 2-6. All of a sudden, the postseason was not assured.

“Paul starting speaking up more because he was (ticked off) how we were playing,” Malcolm Delaney said last week. “I think everybody responded to our vets and our leaders. Paul did a good job of doing that.

“You could tell he just got tired of watching it. When you sit on the sideline you see a lot more than when you are playing. I think he started to notice some things that weren’t like our team. He started speaking up a lot more, especially in huddles. … When he does that, everybody listens to him.”

Millsap returned April 2. The Hawks lost that game at the Nets, in which he played 26 minutes. It may have been the low point of the season for the Hawks. The loss ended a stretch of 10 games, with eight opponents having a record below .500, with only two wins. The Hawks were 39-37 and hovering about the playoff line.

The words struck a chord with the team. The Hawks won four consecutive games to clinch the No. 5 seed. The streak included wins over the Celtics and Cavaliers (twice), the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. Now the Hawks open the postseason against the No. 5 Wizards in a first-round series that begins Sunday in Washington.

Millsap reluctantly acknowledged his increased vocal presence and the manner in which he spoke.

“Just trying to play better,” Millsap said before Game 1. “Trying to get us back to where we were playing excellent basketball. Sharing the basketball. Our bench was into it. Guys are high-fiving running up and down the court. Just the little things. Trying to get back to that which makes us a really good basketball team. Down the stretch, I wanted to emphasize that. These last few games, you see a completely different group.”

The Hawks’ four-time All-Star has tried to be more vocal this season despite a quiet nature that has served him for 11 NBA seasons. Now, when Millsap talks, people listen.

“I actually was surprised,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “I expect that from (Kent Bazemore) and Dennis (Schroder). That’s what we need in our All-Star. We need him to be vocal. I think we got on him about it a couple times this year. I think it finally got to him, and he answered the bell. That being said, hopefully we don’t get to that point. We shouldn’t have our All-Star getting on us about competing and playing hard on both ends of the floor.”

There is no denying the leadership of Millsap on the court. He led the team in scoring at 18.1 points per game. He was second in rebounding (7.7), assists (3.7), steals (1.3) and blocks (0.9). He clearly has been the Hawks’ best player this season.

Millsap will more than likely opt out of the player option for next season on his contract and again enter unrestricted free agency. The Hawks managed to keep him two summers ago, and they will try again as the 32-year old will get maximum contract offers.

That will be offseason business. For now, Millsap’s job is to help the Hawks make a postseason run after what can only be called an up-and-down season. The Hawks were without starters Thabo Sefolosha, Bazemore and Millsap during much of the most recent losing streak.

“He did a better job talking to us,” Schroder said. “I don’t think he was (ticked off). He knew three starting roles were out. It’s tough to win in the NBA even if all three of there are playing. I think he did a great job. He was vocal, talking to everybody, and I think that’s what he’s got to do. He is the man. He has to talk to us and give us confidence.”