After fallback season, Hawks look to rise again in East

ATLANTA (AP) Paul Millsap tossed and turned much of the night.

He didn't expect the summer to begin this soon.

Millsap and the Atlanta Hawks were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, capping a season that fell short of expectations from start to finish.

Now, the Hawks face some huge decisions, from figuring out a way to re-sign free agents-to-be Al Horford and Kent Bazemore to charting the future of the point guard position.

''It's tough, especially when you expect more,'' Millsap said Monday after the Hawks wrapped up their exit interviews with coach Mike Budenholzer. ''We really felt like we had a good chance.''

But really, this playoff exit wasn't much of a surprise. The Hawks struggled all season to find the sort of consistency that carried them a franchise-record 60 wins the previous year.

After slipping to a 48-34 record and fourth seed in the East, the Hawks did manage to get by injury depleted Boston in the opening round. That was it. LeBron James and the Cavaliers breezed past Atlanta in four straight games, the same result as the previous season when the teams met in the conference finals.

''For five or six years, whatever team LeBron James has been on, the East has been trying to figure out how to beat that team,'' Budenholzer said. ''We're just like the rest of the East right now.''

The biggest priority for the Hawks is re-signing Horford and Bazemore, who are both unrestricted free agents.

Horford has spent his entire nine-year career with Atlanta, and it's hard to imagine where the team would be without him. While he struggled in the playoffs, the 6-foot-10 center is the type of hybrid player that Budenholzer loves to have in his fast-paced offense, a big man who can run the court and even became a bit of a 3-point threat this season.

Bazemore was one of the most improved players in the league, a 6-5 bundle of energy who wasn't even drafted out of college but averaged 11.6 points a game in his first year as a starter. While still raw, his potential upside that is off the charts.

''They're two big pieces,'' teammate Kyle Korver said. ''Al has been the cornerstone of this team for a lot of years. What he brings to the table, there's just not anyone really like him in the NBA. Baze is obviously just figuring out who he is as a player. I think he'll keep on getting better.''

Horford would prefer to remain with the only NBA team he's ever known, but he's just starting to think about all the ramifications of the huge choice he'll face this summer.

''I really haven't had a chance to start thinking and talking about all this stuff, even with my family,'' Horford said. ''I had a rule this season: Focus on the team, focus on the now, I don't want to hear anything about the summer. Now the summer is here.''

The Hawks are also facing a reckoning at point guard, where Jeff Teague is the longtime starter but Dennis Schroder is coming on strong. Tellingly, the 22-year-old German led the Hawks with 21 points in the season finale, Sunday's 100-99 loss to the Cavs, and had the ball in his hands for a potential game-winning shot at the end.

Teague was merely a spectator, watching from the bench.

Budenholzer, who has the final say in personnel matters, could elect to keep both point guards for another season. But Teague's trade value is probably as high as it's going to get entering the final year of his contract. Schroder has made it clear he wants to be the starter someday.

While another sweep by the Cavaliers prompted inevitable questions about a major overhaul, that doesn't seem likely. Budenholzer often talks about the importance of continuity, and he's counting on getting a lot more next season from players such as center Tiago Splitter, who went down with a season-ending injury, and Tim Hardaway Jr., who barely played at all the first half of the season.

''Blowing it up is probably not the way to beat a team like Cleveland,'' Budenholzer said. ''We value what this group has done, the success that they've had.''

The core of the team may return.

But no one wants to go through this again.

''We all want more,'' Budenholzer said. ''I think it's great that we've put ourselves in that position where there's some expectations. People want and expect a lot of us. We expect that. Tomorrow, the challenge is to come in, get to work, find a way to get better, find a way to go to that next level.''

---

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.