Before the season popped off it was all about the “C’s.” The Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose returning and Pau Gasol lending his All-Star skills to an already rock-solid, playoff-tested mix. The Cleveland Cavs, led by the NBA’s reigning king and two other all-stars. And The “Capital Kids” of Washington, DC, who flex one of the dopest backcourts in the sport with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Eastern Conference would be ruled by one of these emerging squads, rich with potent blends of young promise and veteran talent.
Somebody forgot about them swift and claw-cladded birds from the “A.”
The Atlanta Hawks are an Eastern-Conference best 31-8 on the season. They’ve been crushing cats in ‘95 Bulls-fashion of late, but despite the Hawks wiping the floor with A-list teams, the squad’s media hype is still tempered by doubts as to whether or not this is a team built for a legit postseason run or one that is benefiting from abundant depth during a rigorous 82-game schedule. While most teams are pacing themselves for the playoffs and on some nights just can't compete, the Hawks are relentlessly putting the pedal to the metal and having equal success with interchanging parts.
Teague, Paul Millsap (second on the team in scoring at 16.9 ppg and top rebounder at 8.0 rpg) and DeMarre Carroll (11.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) were well-rested after getting a night off Tuesday, when Horford led the Hawks past Philadelphia with his first career triple-double. On Wednesday, it was Horford and vet gun-slinger Kyle Korver resting up as their teammates thrashed the Celtics 105-91.
After the game, Celtics ballers Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley went into full sweat mood, referring to the Hawks as “a machine.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens gushed about Atlanta being such a “connected team” and he said they possessed attributes of “greatness.”
A handful of other NBA teams with lofty postseason goals and gaudy records may not be feeling Stevens’ Southern compliments, but the Hawks organization isn’t acting surprised to be the crème de la crème of the Eastern Conference—a conference that has been the personal playground of the league’s best player in LBJ. They aren't bragging either, just cautiously optimistic.
"It's just the start. It's a long season, so we're not too excited," ATL guard Jeff Teague said after dropping a game-high 22 against the Green Machine Wednesday night.”
That’s a good thing because very few people outside of the ATL seem to share the Hawks’ optimism. These sharp-shooting, fast-moving, post-polluting Hawks kind of remind you of the 2004 Pistons; no Top 10 ballers, just effective and super-live players who move as one unit and don’t care about external noise. They just want to win.
As we approach the 2015 NBA All-Star festivities to be held on The Planet Brooklyn, the Hawks are cold-kickin' NBA ass, but nobody really cares…yet.
"I think the group we have is going to do well with it, because they don't really pay attention," said veteran forward Elton Brand, another of the all-in guys that have shaped this surprising Hawks squad. "We beat Cleveland early on (by 29 on Dec. 17) and I think LeBron (James) said something like, 'It doesn't matter, really, it's only one game. We beat them pretty handily by 30 (earlier). And we'll be in the Eastern Conference Finals anyway.' Or something like that."
"And someone told me about it," Brand continued. "I didn't see it either. So the next day, we were at an event. 'Hey, you heard what LeBron said?' No one heard it. No one watched it. No one cared. And that's just the group of guys we have."
"They don't care," he said. "They're just focused on us and winning ball games."
ATL's beasting - ballers have won 10 straight for the first time in 17 years. The Hawks also have their first double-digit winning streak since winning 11 in a row early in the 1997-98 season. As road warriors they haven't missed a beat, winning 10-straight on the road, the longest streak in club history.
What the Hawks players do care about is how their basketball business is conducted. It all starts at the top with second-year coach Mike Budenholzer, who spent the 1996-2013 seasons as an assistant, getting incomparable training under Greg Popovich as a part of the Spurs Dynasty. Budenholzer, a Holbrook, Arizona native who played overseas and then coached youth basketball in Vejle BK (Denmark), won 4 NBA championships while with the Spurs.
Budenholzer left San Antonio at the end of the 2013 NBA Playoffs. In his first season with Atlanta the Hawks qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs as the 8th seed, but got bounced by Paul George and No.1-seed Indiana in the first round.
Not to turn a complimentary piece about the Hawks into a Spurs praise session, but the principles of excellence and professionalism, unselfishness and understanding of the game that every Spurs assistant and player exhibits, can now increasingly be seen in the way the Atlanta Hawks communicate and create chemistry.
Budenholzer-- the mastermind of this funky Hawks flow -- is slowly but surely getting his recognition as well. On January 5th Budenholzer was named the December Eastern Conference Coach of the Month after leading the Hawks to a 14-2 record.
It all makes sense. The Spurs connection. The meticulous teamwork, ball sharing and spacing. The deft outside shooting.
The Hawks have passed the first level towards greatness, but the second half of the NBA season and the playoffs holds another level of difficulty. As the year wears on, only the squads that are ready for postseason pilfering will survive the game. The Hawks have come out of the gate like gang busters, but as the stakes get higher NBA Nation will find out if these new gunners-playing-out-of-orbit can withstand the second-half star rush of teams with killer names and lethal games.