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BOSTON -- The Atlanta Hawks are having a moment, which as they’re quick to remind you is all they’re entitled to right now. "We’ve still got a long way to go," coach Mike Budenholzer intones like a mantra. "We’ve put in the work and now we get to enjoy some success, early in the season," center Al Horford said before helpfully repeating the last part. "It’s still very early in the season."
It is, and it also isn’t. We’re at the midway point and while the Raptors and Wizards go through their growing pains, the Bulls break down physically and the Cavaliers continue to flounder, the Atlanta Hawks of all teams have emerged as the Eastern Conference’s best.
The same Hawks who have often been treated like strangers by fans in their own building. The same Hawks who came to define the league’s peculiar curse of being good, but never great. The same Hawks who are still dealing with the fallout from racially-charged comments made by one of their owners and former general manager Danny Ferry that were made available by a different owner, and who are now completely up for sale … Yes, those Hawks.
Their leap has been startling. They were 5-5 early in the season and going nowhere fast before suddenly winning 11 of 12 games. They followed that up with a five-game streak that included road wins over the Rockets and Mavs and then followed that up with a 12-game winning streak capped off by back-to-back road wins over Toronto and Chicago.
Over the last two months, they’ve gone 28-3 playing the space and pace system that Coach Bud brought with him from San Antonio. The Hawks are not flashy, but they are a joy to watch. They work you and work you and work you some more before hitting you in the mouth with a quick run, displaying a savvy that takes teams years to develop.
"It feels more like a college team in a lot of ways than a pro team," Kyle Korver told me after the Hawks dispatched the Celtics with relative ease. "The business side of the NBA is always going to be there and it’s still there for us. We have a couple of guys in contract years and surely they think about that, but you don’t ever know about that. Everyone feeds off each other and no one’s out there trying to do their own thing. That’s really rare in the NBA. We have something special here."
The question has evolved rapidly from "the Hawks?" to "Why not the Hawks?"
In short, their collectivist approach invariably attracts skepticism. Come playoff time teams with more time to prep will try to disrupt their rhythms and turn their greatest strength into their biggest weakness. They are not a great rebounding team, nor are they particularly deep. Even with veterans up and down the lineup, they are still unproven.
"We don’t talk about end of the year stuff right now," Korver said. "We still haven’t won a playoff series yet together as a team. We still have a lot to prove and long ways to go, but we feel like we’ve made a lot of progress in the year and a half that we’ve been with Bud."
All true and fair, but to jump ahead now does their run a disservice. What they have achieved thus far is a triumph of execution and skill over individual prowess. They are playing a beautifully interconnected style that manifests itself on both the offensive and defensive ends.
If that sounds a lot like the Spurs, there’s a reason for that. Budenholzer spent his college days at Pomona-Pfitzer in Claremont, Calif., where Gregg Popovich once coached. After playing professionally in Denmark, Bud spent 19 years with Pop, starting as a video coordinator in 1994.
He has adopted several Pop traits, including a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. When asked about all the notoriety his team is attracting, Budenholzer cracked, "In a perfect world we’d play the game with nobody in the stands." He laughed and added, "No, don’t say that. That’s where I played in college."
Beyond the mannerisms is another Popovichian trademark. His players swear by him and the system they’re running.
"Bud has done a great job of setting a culture of team," Korver said. "We may not have the superstar guy, but we have pieces that fit really well together and everyone knows that we need each other. That makes everyone play hard. All the guys that are out there can really think the game really well. We can mix things up on offense, we can mix things up on defense and we play really hard."
It starts with Al Horford, who is the connoisseur's player, a pro’s pro who is skilled at the important big man arts of the day. Horford can defend pick and rolls on the perimeter and also protect the paint. He knocks down 20-foot jump shots, sets terrific screens and is a willing passer.
"He’s a very unique player," Budenholzer said. "He impacts the game in a big way on both ends of the court. Hopefully people appreciate it. He’s just really versatile and you can say the same thing on the offensive end. He does a lot of things for us that are impactful, that’s the best word I can think of."
When Horford tore a pectoral muscle last season, the Hawks were 16-13 and playing the kind of good-but-not-great basketball they’ve been synonymous with throughout their tortured history. They went 15-28 without Big Al and were in danger of missing the playoffs before a late-season surge got them the eighth seed where they proceeded to push the Pacers to seven games.
"At the end of last season they were rolling," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Everyone was hard on the Pacers, but it may have been the Hawks were that good at that time."
It was likely a combination of both. The Hawks learned how to play without their big man, but they are clearly a different team when he’s in the lineup. What’s changed this season has been subtle improvement from his cohorts, notably point guard Jeff Teague. Always a blur with the ball, Teague has refined his game to the point where he’s playing at an All-Star level.
"I don’t know what qualifies as a superstar, but I know this," Stevens said. "Nobody in the league can keep Jeff Teague in front of them. Nobody."
If Horford is the backbone and Teague is the engine, the wonderfully eclectic Paul Millsap is merely indispensable. Perpetually overshadowed throughout his career, Millsap is an efficient scorer and solid rebounder who also thrives at forcing turnovers, a key element to Atlanta’s otherwise vanilla scheme.
"He’s really gifted and we try not to screw him up and just let him be Paul," Budenholzer said. "He does a lot of things that you really can’t teach."
Rounding out the frontcourt is DeMarre Carroll, the glue guy on a team already constructed out of Elmer’s. On any other squad, Carroll would be hailed for his 3-and-D contributions. On this one, he’s an ever-present wraith, tying together all the loose ends with relentless energy and hustle.
Then there’s Korver, who is posting absurd shooting percentages this season and could make a run at being the league’s first 50-50-90 player. Korver credits a combination of accumulated wisdom and physical conditioning for his lights-out shooting. "As you get older, you should keep getting better, right?" Korver said. "As long as your body holds up, you should keep getting better."
Those traits were honed in a brutal offseason workout influenced by the ancient Japanese practice of misogi, defined by Outside magazine as "(taking) on challenges that radically expand your sense of what’s possible." For Korver, that meant diving to the ocean floor to retrieve an 85-pound rock and then pushing it around the ocean. Twenty-four times.
"Once you get past, ‘Man are we really going to do this?’ You accept that, ‘Okay, we’re going for this, how do we figure it out?’" Korver said. "You get lost in the detail. Before long the detail is not the detail anymore. There’s a detail that is smaller than the next detail. There are long periods of time where you keep doing the same thing over and over again and you try to perfect it, just the littlest things. And that’s what really carried over to basketball. It’s not just about getting my legs into the shot, it’s how am I getting my legs into my shot, where am I dropping, how am I using them, where the angles are, all the different things. I’ve just tried to keep breaking them down more and more. I never thought misogi would help my shot, but it really has."
In so many words, that defines the Hawks. They are perfecting the details and expanding the idea of what’s possible. In the process, the Hawks are rewriting not only their own narrative, but also the way we look at teams. After the Celtics were taken apart in a game that both Horford and Korver sat out, Stevens accurately described the Hawks phenomenon.
"The game comes really easy to them," Stevens said. "It’s slow on defense. They can see things coming. They play well together. They know the biggest threats. They react to the biggest threats. And on offense, they stay spaced to make the right basketball play time and again. There’s something to be said about a group that just – it’s like a machine. I mean, they’re a machine. They’ve really got a good thing going already."