By Corey Knapp
Do you remember the Atlanta Hawks? Do you remember the team that won 19 games in a row last season and took its city and the NBA by storm? After the Cleveland Cavaliers swept them in the Eastern Conference finals, and after they had an inconsistent start to this season, did you write them off?
Did you put them in the category of just another team from Atlanta that did what Atlanta teams usually do?
In the famous words of College Gameday’s Lee Corso, “not so fast, my friend.”
The Hawks are back, and this year they’ve saved their best play for the right time. Atlanta is surging, winning four straight and 14 of its last 17 games to move into third place in the East, with one of the losses coming on the road in overtime to the otherworldly Golden State Warriors.
While the Hawks’ magical and historic 19-game winning streak last year was fueled by their ruthlessly efficient ‘pace and space’ offense marked by all kinds of ball movement, fast-break points, and deadly 3-point shooting, this year’s team has begun to dominate games on the defensive end of the court.
After their undefeated run last season, when the offense came back to Earth, so did the Hawks. They became an average team again on both sides of the ball, and it showed in the playoffs, where they struggled early, and the Cavs exposed them late.
This mediocrity carried over into the current campaign when the offense got out of the gates slowly. Atlanta wasn’t playing bad defense, it just wasn’t playing well enough to support a team trying to regain its offensive rhythm.
That narrative has changed completely heading into the last couple weeks of this season. The Hawks are locking teams down on defense, and the offense, slowly but surely, is beginning to find January 2015 form.
Atlanta makes a concerted effort with all five players on the floor to defend the areas closest to the basket and behind the 3-point line, which is paying dividends. The Hawks’ 98.6 defensive rating trails only that of the equally otherworldly but far less discussed San Antonio Spurs.
Paul Millsap (1.4) and Al Horford (1.6) are not considered traditional rim protectors, but both rank in the top-20 in the NBA in blocked shots per game.
Good defensive possessions culminate with defensive rebounds, and although they’re still not coming down with all of them, the Hawks have made improvements in that area as well, aided in part by the addition of Kris Humphries.
At the outset of head coach Mike Budenholzer’s third season at the helm, it was clear that team defense had become the priority after firmly establishing his offensive system.
He essentially acquired Tim Hardaway Jr. for a first-round pick on draft day and then, despite his scoring strengths, hardly played him at all until he learned how to play the type of defense that is required on a top team. Hardaway Jr. did that and has developed into a weapon off the bench.
The key x-factor to this whole defensive clinic the Hawks are putting on is Thabo Sefolosha. Despite DeMarre Carroll’s best efforts, the void left by Sefolosha’s injury following the incident with the New York Police Department last spring left the Hawks scrambling.
He was desperately missed in the playoffs. Now pretty close, if not already back, to full strength, Sefolosha’s defensive presence and performance coming off the bench is driving his team to be great on that part of the floor.
Atlanta gives up nearly 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when Sefolosha is on the court. He works with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to get steals, which start the Hawks transition game, contributing to them leading the NBA in points off turnovers.
With the incredible defense putting the Hawks in position to win every night, the offense has a little bit of room to work to reach its optimal level when the playoffs start in April.
If Atlanta can get to the point where it is playing high-quality basketball on both sides of the floor for 48 minutes each game, then look out. This team has the opportunity to be dangerous.
In 2015, they peaked too soon. It’s 2016 now, and the Hawks are peaking at a significantly better time.
If you think this is just another case of ‘Atlanta sports,’ I’ll gladly show you the door. But good luck getting through…The Atlanta Hawks are guarding it.