As the Bulls and Toronto Raptors jockeyed for playoff position over the regular season’s final month, the general thought was that the loser of that battle — thus earning the No. 4 seed — would actually be better off, avoiding the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs’ second round.
Since dealing for Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith in early January, the Cavaliers, led by a resurgent LeBron James, won 34 of their final 46 games and headed down the home stretch looking like the favorites in the East, with James searching for his fifth straight Finals appearance. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks, who led the East by as many as 11 games in early March and had the conference's top seed locked up before April 1, had lost two straight heading into their regular-season finale, perhaps too casually heading toward the finish line after losing to the Knicks at home on Monday.
Seemingly forgotten as the 60-win team with four All-Stars, head coach Mike Budenholzer then made the decision to play his regular starters in Wednesday's finale against the Bulls.
And the result was a clear message to Chicago and the rest of the Eastern Conference, that when healthy and clicking the Hawks are still a dominant group worthy of contender status.
Budenholzer's decision to play his starters in a seemingly meaningless game had merit, as power forward Paul Millsap (shoulder) was returning from a five-game absence. But Wednesday wasn't just a test run for these Hawks, to let Millsap work a few shots in with the rest of the starters before emptying the bench early in the contest.
Instead, the Hawks came out as the more aggressive team against a Bulls group clearly playing to win in order to maintain their third-place standing in the East. The Hawks raced out to a 16-4 lead to begin the game, forcing Bulls turnovers, getting Millsap involved early with three shots and dominating inside against a Bulls team without Joakim Noah and a healthy Taj Gibson, who left the game in the second quarter with a shoulder strain.
"Monday (against the Knicks) I don’t think we were very good, and so tonight we feel better abut how we’re playing and I think that was really important for us," Budenholzer said. "We needed our group to play better, and I think that starting group had a lot of good stretches, three or four good stretches where they played well. And I think that was most important."
The next good stretch occurred with the Hawks up seven at halftime thanks to the hot shooting of sixth man Dennis Schroder. Budenholzer again opted to begin the third quarter with his starters, and the result was an 11-0 run to begin the period, giving the Hawks a commanding 18-point lead on the road against a Bulls team that hadn't lost at the United Center in over a month.
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The Bulls didn't back down, eventually cutting into that lead and trailing by two at the end of the third quarter. It was then that Budenholzer opted to take his starters out of the game. Even still, the Hawks showed off their depth in that final quarter, trailing by just two inside two minutes to play with a lineup led by the likes of Austin Daye, John Jenkins and Elton Brand. Ultimately the Bulls finished the 91-85 victory, but the starters' message had been sent long before the final horn.
The Hawks had rested starters earlier in the year after wrapping up the East, and to do so on the road against a team as physical as the Bulls would've made sense. And though their primary goal was to re-acclimate Millsap and get some momentum going, without trying they gave yet another glimpse of how dominant a group they can be.
"We just want to be playing at a high level, and we want our whole team to be playing that way. We went out there and competed. We played hard today, so I’m pleased with where we’re at as a team," said Al Horford, who had 14 points in 22 minutes. "The Bulls are a type of team where you can’t come out and not bring it, because they’ll embarrass you and guys came out with good energy. We responded well."
For the Hawks, Wednesday was simply another day at the office. Both Budenholzer and Horford agreed that competing against a playoff contender in Chicago was more beneficial than if they had played a lottery-bound team. Yet to do it in such a dominating fashion against a Bulls team they could meet in the Eastern Conference Finals was an indicator that the Bulls didn't necessarily draw the short straw in avoiding the Hawks.
"Every time we play we want to get up for the game and try to give a great effort," said point guard Jeff Teague, who finished with 10 points in 23 minutes. "Every time we go out on the floor we try to put the best product out."