Hawks' Paul Millsap steps up in Al Horford's absence

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

With steady star Al Horford out of the lineup for the rest of the season, Atlanta is asking Paul Millsap to shoulder a huge load. Thus far, he's been more than up to the challenge.

Paul Millsap had only one 30-plus point game last season, and it came in a triple-overtime game. He had two the season prior, one of them in double-overtime. He's had two in the past three games.

Now the Atlanta Hawks' No. 1 option with Al Horford out for the year after surgery on his torn right pectoral muscle, Millsap has made his presence felt. He's had to.

Millsap's monstrous 34-point, 15-rebound effort in Boston on Tuesday was enough for them to come back from a 19-point deficit and steal the game. This was despite shooting 36 percent as a team.

''We were able to find a way to win a game where we weren't able to shoot well from the perimeter, from the basket, really from anywhere except for Paul Millsap,'' Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters.

Millsap did his work efficiently against the Celtics, shooting 12-for-19 from the field and 10-for-14 from the free throw line. In addition to the scoring and the work on the boards, he had two assists, two blocks and two steals. Without him the Hawks would have been blown out.

Matched up mostly with fellow undersized power forward Brandon Bass, Millsap did his normal thing, creating scoring opportunities out of the mid-post and off of offensive rebounds. He had more touches than usual, but never forced anything or tried to go outside of his repertoire to try to make up for Horford's absence.

He's just not that type of player.

"I don't think about it," Millsap said of playing without Horford. "I just play basketball. For me, it's just getting out there and doing what I've been doing."

It wasn't much different than what he and the Hawks did three days prior. Millsap won his duel with his former frontcourt partner in his first game without his fallen frontcourt partner in a 118-116 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday. He scored 33 points to Al Jefferson's 24, both of them shooting 10-for-18 from the field. Millsap shot 12-for-14 from the free throw line and added 13 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal to his stellar line.

Atlanta looked discombobulated and trailed by 14 with just a few minutes left in the third quarter, but rallied back and escaped with an overtime victory.

''Everybody's still a little shocked about the situation,'' Millsap told reporters. ''You could tell. Al's a big part of what we do, but once we shook it off, guys just got out there and played ball.''

In between those two explosions, Millsap went for 17 points and seven rebounds against the Orlando Magic, perhaps fatigued from playing in three straight overtime games. While those numbers are only slightly below his season averages, it's no coincidence that the Hawks lost. With the current makeup of the roster, Millsap needs to carry the load in the frontcourt.

Over the past three games, Millsap has shot 51 percent from the field and his teammates have shot a combined 38 percent. When he's gone to the bench Atlanta has been a mess on both ends of the floor, and this shouldn't be super surprising. The Hawks are essentially starting three power forwards right now — Millsap, Mike Scott and Elton Brand — and are using only Pero Antic off the bench. Gustavo Ayon is getting single-digit minutes now instead of DNP's, but he hasn't scored a point since the first week of December. If none of these guys can take pressure off of Millsap, the team should at least consider making a move.

Budenholzer's new challenge might be avoiding wearing Millsap out, but early indications are that he's more than ready to step into the spotlight.

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