Morning Rehash: Hawks Punch Back, But Spurs Punch Last

"Yes, thank you. I WILL take this game for my own." - Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks battled the Spurs and found themselves in a great position to win, but in the end, it was the Spurs that endured, needing some vintage Big Fundamental to come out on top.

"Some moments, we stopped doing our stuff, trying to do random pick and rolls, because they already know what we're going to do."

Tiago Splitter

The final round in Rocky II is one of the most gloriously ridiculous sports scenes ever put to film. The insanity of its choreography is at once both a product of the times and transcendent of its era. The punches are extreme, the reactions are melodramatic, and the interaction between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed makes absolutely zero sense to anybody who has watched a lot of boxing. Fighters just don't move like that, especially at the peak of exhaustion. It's really quite bizarre.

But the scene, of course, makes perfect sense in the movie. The two fighters know each other's styles inside and out. They operate within similar frameworks. The movie's climax - an appropriately cheesy near-double knockout - wouldn't work if the opponents weren't so similar. To beat Creed, Rocky has to endure. He has to survive. To win the fight, he only has to be one punch better.

I kept thinking about Rocky II while I watched the surreal scene that unfolded at the AT&T Center. The Hawks are hardly a frightening opponent, coming into the game with a 9-9 record, but for one night they seemed to baffle the best team in a fiercely competitive Western Conference. Every move the Spurs made met its perfect countermove. Players found their usual lanes thwarted, their favorite shots blocked.

The Hawks' roster might not jump out at you, but Coach Mike Budenholzer clearly gleaned much from the years he spent as Gregg Popovich's right hand man. Budenholzer's knowledge of the Spurs playbook has been a part of his plan for the Hawks from day one, guiding offensive improvement and, particularly against the Spurs, creating a defensive identity predicated on conceding bad shots and preventing good ones.

Having seen so many Hawks games in the past blemished by Josh Smith pull-up threes, it was a bit jarring to see Budenholzer's squad pushing the ball around to create open looks for smart shots. 61% of their field goal attempts on the night occurred from behind the three-point line or in the paint (out Spurs-ing San Antonio's 54%). The Hawks were a disciplined bunch, from the opening tip to the final buzzer.

Coach Mike Budenholzer (or "Kind Bud," as I like to imagine Stephen Jackson called him) has all his pieces working in just the right roles to create a sort of Bizarro Spurs in Atlanta. Even the roster set-up is strikingly similar. Tony Parker and Jeff Teague can carry the offense with guile and speed. Tim Duncan and Al Horford man the boards and provide solid post-up threats. Danny Green and Kyle Korver require constant attention as they tiptoe around the three-point line. Manu Ginobili and Lou Williams introduce a level of creative chaos off the bench. It's not a perfect match, but it's close enough to see what Hawks General Manager (and, of course, Spurs alum) Danny Ferry is envisioning.

And for one night, his vision became a reality. The Spurs seemed off from the start, and the young Hawks pounced as the game stayed close throughout. They hustled to take the lead and fought back when they lost it. They matched the Spurs shot for shot and found themselves in a great position to win on the road against one of the toughest home teams in the NBA.

But in the end, it was the Spurs that endured, finding a bit of magic to survive when it counted. Parker's corner three to take the lead in the third quarter. Danny Green's shot clock beating three - his only basket of the game - to create some space in the fourth. And finally, Tim Duncan's elbow jumper to put the game away and cap off a legendary night (more on that later). The Hawks punched back, but the Spurs punched last.

And about those Hawks: they look good. They had a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference team and gutted their roster to create a ... well, a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference team for the moment. But two things are working in their favor. First, and perhaps most important, the team finally has an identity and a coach capable of developing and adhering to a trusted system. Second, their current mediocrity is financially reasonable, and the team is preserving cap flexibility while remaining decently competitive (albeit in an incredibly weak conference). They might not seem like much now, but take a great coach, throw in some Millsap, add a Horford and a Teague? Baby, you got a stew goin'. Spurs 2.0 might be closer than you think.

Be sure to read Fred Silva's recap if you haven't already.

STANDARD POP QUOTE OF THE GAME

"I don't like it at all. It's awkward. ...You win and you feel badly. You lose and you feel even worse."

- Pop on playing against former assistant Mike Budenholzer

GAME MVP

Duncan

TIMOTHY THEODORE DUNCAN

PTS

FGM/FGA

AST

REB

BLK

STL

+/-

MIN

23

10/15

2

21

2

1

+1

34:36


Timmy had himself a game. As the Express-News' Jeff McDonald noted, at 37 years and 221 days old, Duncan became the oldest player ever to have a 20/20 game (well, at least dating back to 1985). Everything about the night's performance could be described as vintage, from the gorgeous outlet passing:

Duncangod

to the game-clinching elbow jumper:

duncanHOF_medium

Duncan was everywhere this game, and though the Spurs are at a point where Duncan's best games seem to come when the rest of the team is flat, it was a real treat to see the old man take over, especially in light of his recent shooting slump. His FG% is quickly moving back to 50%, and with his per game minutes down and plenty of season left, I'd expect his per 36 numbers to finish close to last year's. When Duncan has games like this, there's not much more you can do but shrug your shoulders and laugh. The dude is 37. Appreciate this while you can, Spurs fans. [Editor's note: And for those too young to remember, it used to be like this on a nightly basis. -jrw]

GAME LVP

Green

DANIEL RICHARD GREEN, JR.

PTS

FGM/FGA

AST

REB

BLK

TO

+/-

MIN

3

1/7

1

4

1

4

-3

22:32


Danny Green couldn't hit anything this game. Anything. Wide-open corner threes, mid-range shots, layups – nothing was going in. So naturally, his only basket came on a desperation, top of the key, hurried, shot clock beating three-pointer. Of course. By now we're all familiar with Green's "Icy/Hot" moniker (coined by 48 Minutes of Hell's Andrew McNeill), but it's still painful to remember why the nickname has stuck. Green played decent defense, but other than that shot, he failed to leave a mark on the game. Green's margin for error is smaller now that Marco Belinelli is a viable option. Belinelli's not nearly the defender Green is, but he is an improvement over Gary Neal and is a more creative part of the offense. Danny Green finds himself with a shorter leash, and occasionally it seems like that gets in his head. Games like this from Green will appear every now and then, but here's hoping he balances things out these next two games.

GAME NOTES

  • Unlike the Rockets game, Popovich elected to ride the Leonard/Green tandem for a key stretch in the fourth quarter, and for the most part, the move worked. Leonard in particular played excellent defense (although, it should be noted, Jeff Teague did hit the game-tying three-pointer on him). Pop still finished with Manu and Marco on the floor, and while it's nice that he has so many lineup options, it's perhaps a bit unfortunate that the (lack of) spacing Leonard provides on offense prevents him from being an automatic closer. He's 1000 times the defender Belinelli is, but if the Spurs need points, they probably also need the spacing. It's definitely something to monitor going forward.
  • Tim Duncan was not on the floor for Jeff Teague's game-tying three-pointer. That seems like a new thing that I have never seen or heard of before (ahem), so no need to ever mention it again, thanks.
  • Kyle Korver was out for the Hawks with a rib contusion for the third straight game, and with the way the Spurs played for most of this one, they definitely lucked out not having to chase him off the three-point line.
  • Elton Brand's still here, everybody.
  • Do the Hawks have the most pun-friendly frontcourt in the NBA? "Al Scoreford" and "Paul Skillsap" were making the rounds on Twitter throughout the game, much to my delight.
  • The AT&T Center has operated a mini-donuts stand for about a year now. (I've been a season ticket holder for the last five years. How have I missed this?) Between the donuts and the new grilled cheese stand, it looks like the arena has identified "late night, Jack in the Box stoners" as a key demographic.
  • In addition to a big decrease in his three-point FG%, Kawhi's FT rate is also down. Tim Duncan's shooting numbers appear to be coming around, so Kawhi's progress at least gets the benefit of the doubt. But we're nearly twenty games into the season, and he's starting to become hesitant to take the shots he was making last season. It's early, but with his incredible performances in the Finals still fresh in our minds, it's hard not look at Leonard's growing pains and worry. (But seriously, though. He'll be fine.)

BIRD IS THE WORD

BY THE NUMBERS

  • 22.7: Kawhi's three-point FG% for the season, a nearly 15% decrease from last season. He missed both of his three-point attempts this game.
  • 21: Number of 20/20 games in Tim Duncan's career.
  • 0: Number of players older than Duncan to post a 20/20 game.
  • 5: Number of free throws the Spurs conceded to the Hawks.
  • 30: For comparison's sake, the number of free throws the Spurs conceded to the Rockets on Saturday (only six of which were a part of a Hack-a-Dwight strategy).
  • 30: Minutes played by Boris Diaw, who was playing with a recently dislocated finger. It's acceptable to call him an "Iron Man," but only if you're referring to the Mach 1.

GOING FORWARD, THE SPURS NEED TO...

Get ready. After a month of feasting on the league's bottom dwellers, the schedule toughens up considerably, with games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers later this week. That game against the Pacers will be a huge test and a great opportunity to make a statement. Both teams will be rested, and the Pacers will have yesterday's loss to the Blazers in their heads. (Although, Roy Hibbert might want to come off that Blazers/Pacers Finals prediction just a bit.) The Spurs, for their part, will have recent losses to the Thunder and the Rockets to serve as inspiration. Wednesday's game against the Timberwolves should be fun, but Saturday's game against the Pacers is going to be a brawl. Mark your calendars, friends.

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