ATLANTA (AP) — Maybe the Atlanta Hawks finally figured things out.
If so, their timing is impeccable.
After a regular season marked largely by perplexing inconsistency, the Hawks turned in some of their best performances over the final week.
Two victories against defending NBA champion Cleveland, including a 26-point comeback. Another win against the Boston Celtics, the top-seeded team in the East.
Now, heading into an opening-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards, the Hawks are overflowing with confidence.
“I think we’re playing probably as good or better than we have all year, especially offensively,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. “That’s what you want to be doing going into the playoffs. I think the team’s in a good mindset, a good place.”
Make no mistake this season was a disappointment for the Hawks, who just two years had a franchise-record 60 wins and were the top seed in the East. Last season, they slipped to 48-34 and underwent a major shake-up that included the signing of polarizing center Dwight Howard and the promotion of Dennis Schroder to starting point guard.
Instead of improving, Atlanta dropped even farther (43-39) and was actually in danger of missing the playoffs before the final-week surge.
Even though the Hawks will be making their 10th straight postseason appearance, the team has generated little buzz around the NBA or even in its own city, where home games continue to be marked by thousands of empty seats and most sports fans seem more focused on the start of baseball season, the NFL draft and a promising new soccer team, Atlanta United.
Howard shrugged off the lack of support.
“Keep `they’ outcha life,” he said. “All the people who don’t believe in us, that’s `they.’ You’ve got to keep `they’ outcha life. It doesn’t matter what `they ` want. It matters what we want.”
Atlanta’s offensive improvement has coincided with a reduction in Howard’s minutes late in the season, and Budenholzer seems intent on sticking with an extended rotation during the playoffs. He praised the play of the bench, which includes former starter Kent Bazemore, Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, Mike Dunleavy and Jose Calderon.
“We have a deep bench and I think we’re going to try to use as much of it as we can,” Budenholzer said. “We’re in a little bit of a unique position where, at least going into Game 1, the plan is to keep a deep rotation and play a lot of guys and continue to massage that. If we need to adjust in a game, we will.”
Off the court, All-Star forward Paul Millsap shook things up by dressing down the team when things looked especially bleak – a change of pace for the normally soft-spoken player. He demanded better ball movement. He urged the bench players to get into the game. He wanted to see teammates high-fiving each other and playing with enthusiasm.
“Just the little things,” Millsap said. “We’re trying to get back to that, which makes a really good basketball team. Down the stretch, I wanted to emphasize that. These last few days, you’ve seen a completely different group.”
The Hawks will continue to go with a starting lineup that includes Tim Hardaway Jr. and rookie forward Taurean Prince. That leaves Bazemore coming off the bench, an unusual role for someone who’s in the first year of a $70 million contract.
He isn’t complaining, saying this is “the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
Indeed, after battling injuries late in the year, Atlanta has everyone ready to go against the Wizards, who won the season series 3-1.
Game 1 is Sunday in Washington.
“I think we’ve got a helluva team,” Schroder said. “Everybody’s back now. We showed what we can do and who we can beat. We’ve just got to keep competing and doing the same things.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 .