On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET, the Warriors and Hawks face each other in a matchup of the two best teams in the NBA. It's the first of two games between the teams, with the second coming next month on March 18. Friday's game, though, is much-watch television for anyone with a rooting interest in the NBA and a possible preview of the Finals.
Unfortunately, because nobody expected these two to be the best teams in the league, the game will only be broadcasted locally and on League Pass. ESPN originally scheduled a Knicks-Nets game in that slot, but flexed out of it in favor of a Clippers-Raptors game from Toronto. At the time, Toronto was atop the Eastern Conference, but the Hawks' rise changed that. One would think ESPN wishes they made a different decision.
Atlanta's 41 wins are most in the NBA while Golden State's win percentage is No. 1 in the league. What has each team done to get to this level?
The explosive Warriors
With a 21-2 start to the season, the Warriors wasted no time letting everyone know this year was different. Led by MVP candidate Stephen Curry, Golden State boasts the league's No. 1 offensive and defensive efficiencies, per NBA.com's stats page.
After losing in the first round to Los Angeles in last year's playoffs, Golden State fired Mark Jackson and replaced him with Kerr, a first-time coach. There were a few doubts about the move over the summer, but in hindsight, it has been unanimously lauded as a brilliant decision. Kerr has the Warriors playing fast -- they are No. 1 in the league in possessions per game -- and loose, knowing his stingy defense will generate plenty of easy baskets. With a roster full of two-way players, Kerr has an almost unlimited number of lineups he can employ depending on the situation.
Curry and Klay Thompson make up the league's best backcourt, one that can trade 50-point games within weeks of each other. On Jan. 23, Thompson drew the attention of the sporting world by dropping 37 points in the third quarter alone and 52 overall against the Kings. On Wednesday, not even two weeks later, Curry caught fire for 51 points in a 128-114 win over the Mavericks.
The rest of the offense trickles down from those two. Kerr has dozens of creative sets and is always looking for ways to screen defenders that they won't see coming in order to find open three-pointers.
The team's two other starters, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, can interchangeably make plays or shoot three-pointers. It doesn't stop when the bench comes in, either, with Shaun Livingston, David Lee and Andre Iguodala making up the second unit.
Marreese Speights has been fantastic for Golden State, too. Even though he's playing for the Western Conference's best team, he's succeeding under the radar, quietly averaging 12 points a game on 50 percent shooting off the Warriors' bench. He only plays 18 minutes a game, but he makes them count, packing in a scoring bunch that helps Golden State take big leads even when the starters go to the bench.
The keys to the NBA's best defense are Green and Bogut, two of Mike Prada's Film Room All-Stars. Bogut is a wall near the rim, sealing the interior with his 7', 260-pound frame.
Green, meanwhile, is the Swiss Army Knife who can do virtually anything Golden State needs. Defend a pick and roll? Switch onto a smaller player? Disrupt the passing lanes? Done, done and done.
Everything Golden State does works in a perfect, symbiotic relationship. Forcing defensive stops and turnovers allows Thompson and Curry to find wide open three-pointers on the break. Scoring as often as Golden State does gives the slow-footed Bogut time to situate himself in the middle of the paint.
The Warriors have been one of the most fun teams in the league for several years, but what they're doing this season is terrifying, too.
The balanced Hawks
On Nov. 26, the Hawks were 7-6 and barely an afterthought for most teams on the schedule. All they've done since then is win 34 of their next 37 games, including a 19-game winning streak that included a historic 17-0 month of January and Player of the Month honors for their entire starting five.
You can't blame the NBA for the cop-out move because it's nearly impossible to single out any one player from the Hawks. Their offense and defense function as a cohesive unit without the help of a single overbearing superstar or veterans earning "legacy" minutes for past achievements.
If you have to start somewhere, it's probably with the two big men, Al Horford and Paul Millsap. They make things hum along in the Atlanta machine with so many little things that often go unnoticed -- solid off-ball picks, tagging a defender rolling down the lane, boxing players out with zeal. Millsap is the team's leading scorer at 17.1 points per game, while Horford isn't far behind with 15.5 on 54.6 percent shooting.
Nearly everyone on Atlanta can shoot the three-pointer -- they have six players average about one make per game -- but Kyle Korver's shooting season is incredible. He's shooting 51 percent from the floor, 53 percent on 3-pointers and 92 percent from the line, which puts him in consideration for the first 50/50/90 season ever. His mere presence on the floor exerts a gravitational pull of the defense towards him. They are scared that any window of space he gets will result in three points for Atlanta.
Jeff Teague's having a wonderful year as the team's leading point guard and the bench can pack a punch, too. Last year's first-round pick, Dennis Schroder, has particularly taken huge strides as the team's backup point guard. He still struggles from outside, but his 8.4 points and 3.5 assists per game are more than adequate production for when Teague sits.
The Hawks are a team for basketball purists. They're the team your high school basketball coach dreamed he'd have one day: totally unselfish with each player making the next one better. They have the best Twitter account in sports. The city of Atlanta has rallied around them and Philips Arena is one of the league's toughest places to play this season.
The Warriors and Hawks are two incredible teams and they're each doing something very special this season regardless of who leaves with a win on Friday. It's a shame the national audience can't see them play each other.