Even with star Al Horford back on the floor, it seemed as if the Hawks gave all they had left in Game 3’s overtime loss. LeBron James and the Cavaliers led essentially the entire game en route to a 118-88 blowout victory to complete the Eastern Conference Finals sweep.
Horford had just two points and two rebounds in 29 minutes. DeMarre Carroll struggled offensively once again, scoring just seven points. Paul Millsap did his best, turning in 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He missed all four of his threes, though, and Atlanta was just 5-32 overall from distance, sorely missing the injured Kyle Korver.
Jeff Teague was aggressive, scoring 17 points on 13 shots. Atlanta’s offense was at its best this season when there were a frenzy of passes around the court. With several Hawks hobbled and the sharpshooting Korver not darting around screens, that ball movement disappeared. Teague had only one assist.
Dennis Schröder and Shelvin Mack weren’t great, combining for 14 points on 6-18 shooting. The two played most of the fourth quarter along with Mike Muscala, Mike Scott and John Jenkins as Mike Budenholzer chose to clear the bench with the Hawks down 85-60 after three.
Many coaches wouldn’t have chosen to give in this early, but Budenholzer recognized that his starters just had nothing left in the tank. Further, Atlanta built its historic 60-22 record with a deep team that boasted breakout performances from anonymous bench players regularly. If Atlanta had one magical comeback left, the bench would bring it out. Alas, they did not.
Atlanta enters the offseason far more confident in its standing amongst the Eastern Conference than in years past. Coming off a disappointing 38-44 2013-14 season, the Hawks blew out expectations and were the NBA’s best team for a good stretch of the season. Their truly impressive 19-game win streak had Atlanta at 40-8 at the end of January.
Of course, the Hawks stumbled a bit heading into the playoffs and nearly gave away their first-round series to Brooklyn. They recovered, though, and their takeout of Washington in Round 2 was significant. The Wizards were banged up and at a talent deficit, but John Wall and Bradley Beal were playing on another level. Wall’s injury obviously changed the series, but Washington stumbled on a potent new identity with Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden at power forward.
Most expected Atlanta to give Cleveland a run for its money; some even foolishly picked the Hawks to win. While injuries certainly marred the series for the Hawks, it was clear that Cleveland was the superior team at this point. A hobbled Carroll and absent Korver ultimately doomed the Hawks to an ugly sweep, but they have nothing to be ashamed of. It was a wonderful season.
However, they now face some serious offseason questions. Both Millsap and Carroll are unrestricted free agents. It’s widely assumed that Millsap will re-sign, but he’ll surely command upwards of the $9.5 million he earned this season. Carroll is due for a much-deserved payday which may not come from Atlanta.
Perhaps the bigger question concerns who’s actually making the front office decisions for the Hawks. Danny Ferry has been on an indefinite leave of absence since making racially insensitive comments about Luol Deng in a scouting report last offseason. Ferry was the mastermind behind this team, though, and it certainly seems as if the Hawks and the larger NBA community are ready to welcome Ferry back eventually.
Budenholzer has made personnel decisions in Ferry’s absence, but there’s a checkered history of coaches playing the GM role as well. Just this season, Doc Rivers gutted the Clippers’ bench to nothing and still seems to think he’s turning rags to riches. Stan Van Gundy cut Josh Smith loose midseason for tens of millions of dollars because he was sick of having to play him. Smith was a bad fit in Detroit, but he’s an undoubtedly valuable player who has flourished in Houston. Even Gregg Popovich has R.C. Buford.
Regardless, it’s hard not to be confident in whoever ends up making the calls for Atlanta. Budenholzer is a brilliant basketball mind who knows to surround himself with more of the like. They’ll do their best to bring back this season’s superb core and aim to exact revenge on LeBron in future Eastern Conference Finals.