The 31-year-old rookie from Macedonia was behind former All-Star Al Horford, veteran Elton Brand and journeyman Gustavo Ayon in the pecking order. Even on the NBA’s smallest team, the 6-11 Antic didn’t figure to play much.
And he didn’t. Even with Ayon sidelined by a shoulder injury suffered early in camp, Antic had 11 DNPs in the first 22 games as new coach Mike Budenholzer relied heavily on a big man rotation of Horford, Paul Millsap, Brand and Mike Scott.
Despite his inactivity, Antic has shown a flair for the dramatic, making not one but two clutch plays that led to wins for the Hawks.
In a 101-99 home overtime win over Washington on Dec. 13, Antic had four points and just one rebound in 13 minutes. But he also had four assists, including an inbound lob to Al Horford for the game-winning shot.
And on Saturday vs. Charlotte, Antic made just 1-of-7 shots, but it was a big one. With Atlanta trailing by three late in regulation, he launched a crazy, off-balance 3-pointer that probably had Budenholzer saying, “No … NO! … Great shot!”
Antic’s shot paved the way for a 118-116 overtime win. And while he shot poorly, he did have season highs of seven assists and three blocks.
This week, however, the expectations for Antic changed dramatically. Horford is out for the season following surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, and the rookie is now firmly entrenched in the rotation. And the occasional clutch play isn’t going to be enough.
The Hawks are in a strange position. They clearly are not in the same class as Indiana or Miami. But as the only other team above .500 in the awful Eastern Conference, they clearly aren’t among the dregs, either.
Even without Horford, the Hawks appear better than the rest of the East. That can change, of course. Toronto has been playing better since trading Rudy Gay. The Wizards and Bobcats are being led into uncharted territory by players too young to know better.
How and what Antic contributes for the rest of the season will determine whether the Hawks remain a solid third in the East and get an eminently beatable first-round opponent, or fall among the dregs and get a possible matchup with the Pacers or Heat.
Brand has started three games in place of Horford but is averaging just 4.7 points and has as many fouls (7) as rebounds in 15 minutes per game. Antic is averaging 21.7 minutes over the same stretch, contributing 4.3 points and 4.7 rebounds.
But Antic may bring more to the table than Brand. The 3-pointer is clearly part of his repertoire. He is a good passer for a big man, which fits Budenholzer’s offense. And unlike many Europeans bigs with range, he plays with force at the defensive end.
Antic didn’t fall off the basketball turnip truck. He teamed with Bo McCalebb to lead Macedonia to the medal round of Eurobasket 2011 and averaged 13.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in Eurobasket 2013. In between, he helped Olympiacos win consecutive Euroleague titles.
The Hawks are going to need that from Antic if they want to remain above the dregs.
On to the rankings.