Posts Tagged ‘mike muscala’

Horford savors Hawks’ breakthrough


VIDEO: Al Horford played hero for the Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals

ATLANTA — Al Horford never put a timetable on it.

He wasn’t thinking that far ahead when the Hawks made him the third pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and he went from two-time college champion to starting center for a struggling outfit in Atlanta, where he knew enough to know that there would be no Final Fours and contending for titles right away.

Fast forward eight years and Horford and the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage, facing off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the right to go to The Finals. To say this ride has been something of a roller coaster would be an understatement of epic proportions. And not just this stunning season, one that began with no one outside of the Hawks’ most die-hard of supporters believing this sort of dream season was possible, but the entire trip from the moment he arrived to now, the moment when he and the Hawks have truly arrived.

“I think you acknowledge it,” Horford said of the Hawks’ breakthrough to the conference final round for the first time in the franchise’s Atlanta history. “But then you move on and realize that is more work to be done. That’s what I did after Game 6 in Washington. It was like, ‘man, that’s good but we still want more and we are still looking forward to the next round.'”

The compressed schedule for mountain climbing in college makes it much easier to get caught up in the moment at that level. Superstar players spend one, maybe two and rarely three seasons on campus before departing for the adventure that is professional basketball. Horford did not enter Florida as a guaranteed pro, a surefire one-and-done prospect headed for the top of the Draft. His journey was different.

And he knew that from the start. That’s what made winning back-to-back titles with the Gators so great. Same goes for a NBA career that began with him being selected behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant eight years ago. The road to back to respectability for the Hawks has been an arduous one. The fact that it’s been paved on Horford’s watch, with his blood, sweat and perhaps a tear or two over the years, makes this moment even sweeter than you might imagine.

Once the youngster of the bunch — playing alongside Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia, Mike Bibby and others — Horford’s the seasoned veteran now. A three-time All-Star, he’s the one pointing the way for youngsters like Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, alongside fellow veterans and All-Stars Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and veteran swingman DeMarre Carroll. 

As much hard work as it takes to grind away this long before reaching the conference finals, it also takes a ton of patience to continue plugging away with all of the distractions, on and off the court, that came up along the way. The cast of characters has changed dramatically and there have been regime changes in the front office and coaching ranks. The one constant has been Horford and his undeniable work ethic and desire to be better this year than he was the year before.

“You’ve got to look at yourself as an individual and it depends on where your goals are,” he said. “I always wanted to be a better player. I always wanted to challenge myself. For me it’s just, I feel like the league is changing quickly and every year I want to make sure I can be better and to put my team into a position to be successful. That’s always my mindset, to make it a point of just getting better and not feeling content with what you have done.”

Horford has found a kindred spirit in Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, whose arrival before the start of the 2013-14 season ushered in a totally different program than what the Hawks were used to. The emphasis on player development and individual skill building became more than just operational procedure. It became a mission for all involved.

The results are obvious.

The best season in franchise history during the regular season. The breakthrough, finally, to the conference finals. And who know what else looms on the horizon in the next two weeks. There are children growing up in Atlanta who will identify Horford’s time with the Hawks as some of the greatest times in franchise history, from the flash of the Highlight Factory days to this trip to the NBA’s version of the Final Four and the matchup against LeBron, the face of a generation in the NBA.

“When you get to this point, if you want to be one of the best teams, you have to go through the best players and teams,” Horford said. “There are no shortcuts when you get to this stage of the season. We have a huge challenge in front of us, and we obviously don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but I think this is the way you want to do things.”

Emotional Budenholzer praises Pop after Coach of the Year win


VIDEO: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer thanks Gregg Popovich for taking a chance on him

ATLANTA — He did everything he could to keep his emotions from getting the best of him.

Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is notorious for wanting to do any and everything he can to avoid the spotlight. Guiding his team to a franchise-record 60 wins and the top spot in the Eastern Conference is the worst way to accomplish that goal.

With the eyes of the basketball world on him Tuesday afternoon, Budenholzer stepped to the podium to accept the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year for the 2014-15 season, and from the minute he leaned into the microphone he had to fight back the tears. With praise for all of his mentors — most notably his own father, Vince Budenholzer, a legendary high school coach in Arizona, and San Antonio Spurs coach and his longtime boss and friend, Gregg Popovich — Budenholzer had to fight back the tears when speaking about what both men have meant to him throughout a lifetime immersed in the game that he loves.

He thanked his father for instilling in him a passion for the game that Popovich helped him hone as a longtime assistant, first as an intern with the Golden State Warriors and for 18 years after that with the Spurs.

“It seems only appropriate to finish with the real Coach of the Year, Gregg Popovich,” Budenholzer said as he wrapped up his acceptance speech at Philips Arena. “This award has a permanent spot on his desk in San Antonio. He just takes it out every couple of years and shares it around with the rest of us. I might be able to sneak back into his office and put it back down.”

Appropriately enough, it was Popovich, at the urging of the Hawks after they found out Budenholzer had beaten out Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd for the top spot this season, who called and informed his former protegé that he’d won the award. Boston’s Brad Stevens was fourth and Popovich fifth.


VIDEO: Popovich explains how he told Budenholzer about the award

“There are some things better kept between Pop and myself,” a smiling Budenholzer said later how Popovich broke the news. “And I’ll go so far as to say … He was nice, really nice, and he assured me that he was not pulling my leg.”

Budenholzer’s surprising resuscitation of the Hawks’ brand after just two seasons has been nothing short of remarkable. A perfect January and a 19-0 stretch overall led to four All-Stars, Budenholzer and his staff coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars in New York in February. The Hawks’ 60-win season and dominance all season led to Budenholzer posing for pictures with Pop’s trophy.

From a 38-win team and No. 8 seed in the playoffs after his first campaign to their current status as the No. 1 seed is not something anyone forecasted this team in the summer as they were reeling from the drama caused by derogatory comments in emails from part-owner Bruce Levenson and insensitive comments from general manager Danny Ferry that led to Ferry’s indefinite leave of absence.

“There is a certain degree of satisfaction that adds to it,” Budenholzer said. “We feel like this is a group that they believe in what they are doing and we obviously believe in them as players. And we’re trying to build something together. A lot of us were put together, but there were some pretty important people that we joined in Jeff Teague and Al Horford and Kyle Korver and even John (Jenkins). This group has really come together and it does mean something extra.”

Budenholzer praised Ferry, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who introduced him Tuesday, ownership and the entire organization for giving him the opportunity. He’s stayed in contact with Ferry, who was not in attendance, and did not shy away from handing out credit where he felt it was deserved.

“He’s been incredibly supportive of me from Day 1,” Budenholzer said of Ferry. “He’s very happy for me and continues to be. So it was good. But it’s been a tough year for everybody and hopefully, everybody has handled it to the best of all of our abilities.”

On a team with balanced scoring and devoid of one individual superstar to garner MVP mention or first-team All-NBA mention, the one individual award the Hawks had the best chance of winning was Coach of the Year.

Horford called it an honor extremely well-deserved, knowing his coach would want nothing to do with the pomp and circumstance that comes along with NBA postseason awards.

“He is the type of person that is all about the team,” Horford said. “So he is not going to want to take any credit for it. But it’s because of him. He really deserves that award, so I’m very, very happy for him. I just think that the whole mindset of working as a team. That goes a long way. One through 15 all the guys here believe in what we’re doing and what he’s preaching.”

Budenholzer’s approach — each man as responsible as the next for not only his own individual improvement, but also the collective improvement of the entire group — is what resonates with his players.

He showed up with the sparkling credentials, but he didn’t get a free pass, particularly from the veterans. Sure, they saw the tremendous gains in player development from veteran guys like Teague, Korver, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll as well as youngsters like Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala. Still, there was a connection that had to be made in order for the Hawks to take that next step as a group. And Budenholzer and his staff clearly put in all the necessary work to make that happen, following that Pop/Spurs blueprint as best they could.

“I’ve played for a lot of coaches, so I’ve seen plenty of situations and it wasn’t an instant thing,” Elton Brand said. “We didn’t get the head coach from San Antonio who won all the championships with the Spurs. It still took time. What’s his system about? Do we have the personnel to get it done? We had all the usual questions. And then we had a little success, started winning, made the playoffs and it takes off from there. But he still had to work for it. He had to earn the trust, just like any coach, even one from that background and that Spurs family tree. He didn’t just walk in the door and it was instant. He had to come in and earn everyone’s respect and show us his character. He did that, and that’s what makes this even more special.”

Hawks rest their case with Schroder

One of the benefits of clinching a playoff spot before April is sitting key people. In that sense, the Hawks earned the right by virtue of claiming best record in the East days ago.

And now, there’s perhaps a chance we won’t see Dennis Schroder for the rest of the season. Not that the German point guard is an injury case — his left toe damaged the other night against the Bucks was diagnosed as sprained — but it’s just another reason for the Hawks to play it safe here in the season’s final two weeks.

While the Hawks played their usual starting five tonight against the Pistons, none were scheduled to play 30-plus minutes. From now until mid-April, expect to see lots of Mike Muscala, Kent Bazemore and Shelvin Mack.

Other teams aren’t so lucky, especially those chasing playoff spots. For example: You think Miami would love to give Dwyane Wade a break? Well, not if they want to get the No. 7 or 8 seed in the East. With three teams chasing those spots, the Heat can’t afford to give Wade’s chronically-sore body a rest here down the stretch. Same goes for David West and the Pacers, Russell Westbrook and OKC (although that might change in a week) and a few other teams.

Still, the “rest” controversy is here to stay. Weeks after the lottery-bound Nuggets sat three players, the Kings gave DeMarcus Cousins a night off.