Given San Antonio's strong start, the idea of a must-win game might seem dubious this early in the season. But, coming off the loss to Houston on Saturday and with the next two games coming against Minnesota (always a tough matchup for the Spurs) and the league-leading Pacers, followed by four games in five nights... Well, tonight's matchup against the Atlanta Hawks is a win San Antonio will want to secure -- and preferably early.
To do so, the team's defensive focus will fall on the Hawks' three stars, point guard Jeff Teague, makeshift center Al Horford and former Jazz star Paul Millsap.
Teague is showing the Atlanta front office that the money they used to re-sign him over the summer was well-spent. He's averaging over 17 points and 8 assists a game while spearheading an offense that is getting the most out of what they have. Like Tony Parker, he's not a point guard in the traditional sense. So it's no surprise that former Spurs assistant Budenholzer has been able to maximize the young player's talents.
Horford has long been the Hawks' reluctant center, often forced to play out of position due to his presence as more of a power forward. Still he remains one of the NBA's most efficient bigs, thanks to his strength and a soft touch that extends to around 18 feet.
Millsap is a crafty player who the Hawks got at a bargain price of $10 million a year for two seasons. He's transitioned well to his new team and is helping the Hawks to play at a high level (when considering they're in the Eastern Conference), despite the departure of two franchise faces, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson.
Kyle Korver, who's one game shy of Dana Barros' record for consecutive three-pointers made, has been kept out of the past few games with a rib contusion, and may miss this game as well. That'll certainly hurt Atlanta's spacing, allowing the Spurs to take away the lane from the elusive Teague. Cartier Martin has been starting in Korver's absence.
Beyond that, Atlanta's team is largely a collection of dudes -- an old dude (Elton Brand), some young dudes (Mike Scott, John Jenkins and Shelvin Mack) a Mexican dude (Gustavo Ayon) and one dude who might be the scariest-looking stretch four in NBA history (Pero Antic). None of these dudes will get much fanfare, but they're all serviceable players that can do damage if permitted.
Pop hasn't been averse to shaking up the starting lineup this season, and this game could be another example of that, given the peculiarities of Atlanta's starting five. Horford is an undersized five and Millsap is an undersized four. Of course that could also depend on whether or not Korver and Lou Williams, who's returning from injury as well, play tonight.
On the offensive side of the ball, San Antonio should look to take advantage of the Hawks' undersized bigs often and early. It'd be nice to see Timmy avoid the available jumpshot, and instead operate in the post against the shorter Horford. Due to their lack of size, the Hawks are one of the league's worst rebounding teams, which should allow the Spurs more second chances than we're used to.
Matchup to watch: Tony Parker versus Mike Budenholzer. Few coaches know Parker as well as Coach Bud, so it'll be interesting to see how he prepares defensively for San Antonio's offensive catalyst. Of course, Jeff Teague will be a big part of that, but it takes a team effort to keep all of Tony's cuts, curls and counter-moves in check.
Hawks perspective can be found at the terrific Peach Tree Hoops.
Game Prediction: Spurs by 9
As always, Tony must dominate Fisher, and NBA League Pass is recommended for those who are willing to pony up the cash. Almost every Spurs game will be broadcast there, which is especially helpful for those of us who aren't in the San Antonio area. Please don't post links to illegal game feeds in the game thread. Links to illegal feeds are not permitted on SBNation, but you can probably find them out there on the internets if you're resourceful and desperate.
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