Commentary

PER Diem: March 20, 2009

Hawks reserves help take over the second quarter in team's latest win streak

Originally Published: March 19, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Flip MurrayScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFlip Murray sparked an 18-0 run in the second quarter of a 95-87 Hawks win Thursday.

ATLANTA -- Flip Murray called himself "Fourth Quarter Slaughter" a year ago when he was with Detroit, but now that he's in Atlanta, he might consider renaming himself "Second Quarter Slaughter."

I'll explain: There's a trend at work here, and Murray has been a huge part of it. The Hawks have been absolutely killing opponents in second quarters, when Murray and Zaza Pachulia normally play nearly the entire frame, and it has been the main reason the Hawks won all seven games on their just-completed homestand.

Consider this stat: In their past eight games, the Hawks have won the first, third and fourth quarters by a combined total of just seven points.

The second quarter? They've won that by 67. That margin, over eight total quarters of basketball, is the rough equivalent of winning consecutive games by 33 points.

Last night's win over Dallas was the crowning example. The Hawks lost the other three quarters 71-62 but hung an embarrassing 18-0 run on the Mavs in the second stanza behind nine points and an assist from Murray. That run turned an early deficit into a comfortable lead that they maintained throughout the second half … and marked the third time in the past six games that the Hawks were plus-14 or better in the second.

"Our undoing tonight was in the second quarter," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "We turned it over six times after going for zero turnovers in the first quarter. We lost our aggressiveness defensively."

He wasn't the first coach to leave Philips Arena muttering about a rough second quarter. The past eight games have been the most prominent examples, but the trend has been evident all season. Murray (plus-4.4) leads the Hawks in plus-minus, while Pachulia (plus-3.6) is tied for second with Josh Smith. It's not hard to see why: While other opponents see a big drop-off in play when the second unit checks in, Atlanta's deficit is small by comparison.

It's an amazing turnaround for a bench that looked to be a disaster zone when the season started. Josh Childress, the lone reliable reserve on the 2007-08 squad, bolted for Greece and seemingly left the cupboard bare. But Pachulia rebounded after suffering through a brutal 2007-08 season, and Murray has been a revelation as a late-summer pickup after being waived by Detroit last season.

"It's all about timing in the NBA," Murray said. "Some guys are fortunate that they're put in the right situation at the beginning of their career, and their teams work around them. I'm in a situation where I was trying to find the right fit. Everything's going well for me in Atlanta since I got here."

While Murray takes care of much of the offense in second quarters, Pachulia provides the muscle -- especially when he teams with Al Horford to form a huge, physical frontcourt that wears down opposing reserves. It was on display again last night, when the Mavs got upset with the Hawks' physicality and Carlisle earned an ejection for complaining about it.

"We just needed to establish the inside presence," Horford said. "They were getting early offensive rebounds, but once we got settled in the second quarter I think we were good after that."

It's an unusual arrangement because the Hawks are down to a seven-man rotation in Marvin Williams' absence -- Acie Law and Mario West see occasional cameos, but basically Pachulia soaks up all the backup frontcourt minutes, and Murray does the same on the perimeter.

But it's working. The Hawks are en route to their first winning season in a decade, and possibly their first trip to the second round of the playoffs in that long as well. And night after night, the "Second Quarter Slaughters" have been a huge reason why.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.