The Atlanta Hawks hold the second-best record (31-8) in the NBA with relatively little hype and fanfare. They have flown under the radar in spite of a standing atop the Eastern Conference with a four-game lead and continue to quietly dominate their competition night after night.
Their top players are only scratching the surface in All-Star voting and the team ranks 24th in home attendance. The Hawks have kept a low profile to this point, and they’re perfectly content that way.
Since many people are talking about all the other teams in the league, let’s let the Hawks do the talking themselves. They put into their own words why they are, simply stated, playing so well this season.
Jeff Teague: “We thought we let Atlanta down last year.”
“We had a little taste of success in the playoffs last year and we thought we let Atlanta down because we had the series* … Watching the rest of the series go on, the Pacers played the Wizards, it ate at all of us. We thought we should have been there. We wanted to come back this year with more effort, hungrier on the defensive end, and right now we’re doing that.
(Our chemistry is stronger from) going through those wars together, being the eighth seed in the playoffs, bringing guys in that are good character guys on and off the court. When you’ve got those kind of people in the locker room, it’s easy to jell. We have fun, we enjoy it. Guys really like one another. We hang out all the time, we go out to eat. We enjoy each other’s company.”
*Last season the eighth-seeded Hawks pushed the first-seeded Pacers to Game 7 of their first round series.
Al Horford: “A lot of teams saw us as contenders — ‘They’re good but they don’t look good at times.’ With this team, it’s different.”
“When I came in in September, everyone on the team was here except for one guy, focused and working really hard as a team. I was just very impressed with what I saw, from playing pickup and the way the guys were working out. I didn’t know we were going to be this good, but I felt like we had a chance to do something special.
I think once we went through a stretch (in mid-December) when we beat Chicago, then beat Cleveland, Houston and Dallas on the road, then I realized that we had a pretty good team. Obviously it’s still a long season but I do feel good about where we’re at.
I’d have to say it all starts with us on the defensive end. I feel like we’ve improved so much as a team defensively, adding guys like Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore. I feel like they’ve given us more athleticism on the perimeter, that’s been a big difference.
I feel like people sometimes overlook some of our players. Maybe they don’t think some of our guys are as good as they are, like Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap. I think they’re both All-Star-type players and they’re doing a great job for us.* But it’s fine. Guys here don’t mind. We’re going to keep working, we know it’s about the team.
Before, I understand (not receiving a lot of attention) because a lot of teams saw us as contenders — ‘They’re good but they don’t look good at times.’ With this team, it’s different. But with our guys, we’re not caught up in that. We know that the playoffs are what it’s all about and we want to get there and be in a good position.”
*None of the Hawks were ranked in the top 10 for votes in the third return of NBA All-Star balloting.
Paul Millsap: “Things that a lot of teams start the season off wanting to do, we stayed consistent with throughout the season.”
“We’re playing as a group. We’re not playing as a bunch of individuals. Guys are playing together, moving the basketball, helping each other on defense — things that a lot of teams start the season off wanting to do, we stayed consistent with throughout the season.
It started in training camp, you build habits. We’ve been lucky and blessed to have the same team as last year with a few additions.* Bringing those habits from last year into training camp into the start of the year, it’s brought us to this point.”
*Twelve of the current Hawks were on the roster last season. Only Sefolosha, Bazemore and Adreian Payne are new to the team.
DeMarre Carroll: “We’re playing unbelievably right now, but we’ve still got a lot more room for improvement. I think once we get there, we can be like the San Antonio Spurs and play the way they play every night.”
“I just think we’re a very unselfish team. Nobody has egos. We’ve bought into Coach Bud’s system, what he brought from San Antonio.* I think everybody knows their roles and that’s the biggest thing for a winning team. You know what you can and can’t do, and you play to your strengths. I think Coach did a great job of identifying roles before the season, letting guys know what he liked and what he didn’t like.
I think you’ve got to give credit to Coach Bud and (president of basketball operations and general manager) Danny Ferry for the type of character guys they brought in. A lot of teams, they really just go by talent. But I think it’s is a combination of talent and character and guys who can buy into the system. We’ve got high character guys. We don’t have what I call ‘knuckleheads.’
People don’t realize we haven’t even reached our peak yet. I think we’re still feeling our way out. We’re playing unbelievably right now, but we’ve still got a lot more room for improvement.
I think once we get there, we can be like the San Antonio Spurs and play the way they play every night. They’re that fundamental team, the ultimate team. You might point out a star like Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, but I think Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, they’re stars too. It’s just about being able to do it on the highest level.”
*Mike Budenholzer worked in the Spurs system for 19 seasons, including his final six as the top assistant coach.
Dennis Schroder: “We try to push the pace on offense. I think that’s the reason why we are the first seed right now.”
“I think we share the ball very well, have good chemistry, push the pace on offense and set the tone on defense. It doesn’t matter who scores. Not a lot of teams do that. Our coach does a great job with telling us to share the ball every time.* If we don’t have an open shot, we try to find a better pass.
We get the ball and just try to run, try to push the pace on offense. I think that’s the reason why we are the first seed right now. We try to run their bigs every time. Paul, Mike Scott, Pero (Antic), Elton (Brand), they do a great job to run the bigs. Everybody runs and tries to create transition offense. I think we can make it far, but we try to take it game by game.”
*The Hawks lead the NBA in total assists (998) while ranking second in both in assists (25.6) and points created by assists per game (61.1).
Elton Brand: “When you’re playing so free offensively, sharing the ball, it crosses over to defense.”
“In the NBA, we’re all taught one-on-one stats. On the collegiate level, you share the ball a little more, you pass it, it’s assisted. But on this level, you get drafted high if you can create your own shot. You hear that, this guy can’t create his own shot in the NBA, so he doesn’t get drafted high. But if he can shoot, he’d be a great system guy. We’d like a guy like that on our team. He doesn’t have to get his own shot; we’re going to create shots for him.*
That triggers defense. When you’re playing so free offensively, sharing the ball, it crosses over to defense. You want to get stops, you want to make that extra play, you want to help your teammate because you’re touching the ball and engaged in the game. Some teams, you just get the ball to one guy six times in a row and get out of his way. When you run back on defense, it’s like alright that guy touched the ball, shot it every time, that guy can go play defense. But that’s not our team.
People should know that we have one goal and that’s winning every night, truly. Guys don’t care about the headlines, guys aren’t reading the headlines. … We care about us and we care about winning.”
*The Hawks lead the league in catch-and-shoot points per game (34.0), nearly one-third of their scoring average (103.1).
Kent Bazemore: “(Our system is) hard to scout, and the energy we play with, how the ball moves, how we move bodies, it’s tough to guard.”
“We’re buying into a system that’s proven. San Antonio was the first to bring it to the front. Coach Bud was doing it for 19 years under Gregg Popovich and his regime, and it was something they were very successful with. Danny Ferry, Coach Bud and the front office worked really hard to get guys to fit the mold of the system and we’re just running with it. It’s hard to scout and the energy we play with, how the ball moves, how we move bodies, it’s tough to guard.
Our defense is pretty good. I think we’re up there as far as points allowed per game.* We’re an opportunistic team defensively. We stick to the books but if something goes wrong, we’re cerebral enough to rotate or make a play for another guy, which is good. We’re just very unselfish, we just like making plays for each other.”
*The Hawks rank second in the league with 96.7 points allowed per game, compared to 101.5 last season.
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