PHILADELPHIA – There are worse things to be called.
So, yes, it’s okay to use the “S” word when you’re talking about the Atlanta Hawks, a team virtually no one has noticed most of this season, and whose dearth of national TV appearances has already been covered on this site.
They don’t mind being referred to as the “Spurs of the East.’’ Heck, who wouldn’t?
While LeBron’s return to Cleveland , Carmelo and the Knicks’ fall from grace to embarrassment, along with the adventures of Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler in Chicago have garnered most of the attention, the Hawks quietly gone about compiling the best record in the Eastern Conference. They’re now a franchise best 30-8 in the midst of a nine-game winning streak after dismantling the Philadelphia 76ers 105-87 here last night.
With Mike Budenholzer, a longtime Gregg Popovich disciple, at the helm, there have been few rainy nights in Georgia this season for the team that barely squeezed into the final playoff spot in the East last season at 38-44, then had the top-seeded Pacers on the ropes in the first round of the playoffs before going down in seven games. These Hawks have been a team on a mission, playing a precision passing game which results in balanced scoring and playing terrific defense, where the only statistic that matters is the final score.
Sound like anyone else you know?
“I get that question a lot and keep saying if it’s good solid fundamental basketball on the court, then that’s what we want to be doing,’’ said Budenholzer, moments before he took another page out of Pop’s book—and gave starters Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll the night off – yet still had more than enough in his arsenal to take out good buddy Brett Brown’s team. “I think San Antonio does a lot of things that are very fundamental on the court.
“There are some similarities, but I think it’s just good basketball. Junior high, high school, college teams are making sure their weak side is aware of being back, getting movement on offense and playing unselfishly.
“San Antonio has done it well, but there are teams at all levels we want to steal from.’’
The true hoops aficionado can’t help but appreciate them, just as the country became so enamored with the Spurs as they dissected the Heat last June. No one’s predicting the Hawks are on that level—at least yet—but it’s time to realize they’re no fluke.
No, Dominique Wilkins, Sweet Lou Hudson and Dikembe Mutombo aren’t walking through that door, Hawks fans. But considering they never won a thing, isn’t that a good thing?
Maybe this nondescript team will be different. “I think they have very skilled players who are well coached,’’ said Brown, the other mainstay in that Popovich/Budenholzer coaching triumvirate down by the Riverwalk. “They tick off a lot of boxes.
“They have shooters, but the pass is still king. They play extremely unselfishly and the thing that flies under the radar more than it should is they’re a very good defensive team.
“They don’t do it in a way that makes people pay too much attention. It’s done because of intelligent positioning and good schemes.
“I’m proud of what Bud’s done. He’s taken that group and he’s done a great job with them.’’
On the surface the only difference from last year is a healthy Al Horford, plus the insertion of free agent role players Thabo Sefalosha and Kent Bazemore into the rotation. By itself you wouldn’t think that would result in such a dramatic improvement.
Of course it’s much more than that.
“This is an unselfish group of high character guys,’’ said Millsap, who along with Teague are the likeliest Hawks to be named to next month’s all-star team while averaging 16.9 and 7.9 rebounds. “Guys who really want to win.
“The system is the same as last year. We’re just more comfortable in it. We’ve all bought in.
“We don’t get style points. It’s a choice. Do you want to look pretty or look ugly and win?. I’d rather look ugly and win all day.’’
But there’s nothing remotely ugly about these Hawks, who personify that old axiom “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM.’’
“Nobody watches SportsCenter,’’ said Teague, averaging a team high 17.4 and 7.2 assists. “Nobody talks about the winning streak.
“We just kind of go about our business. I guess we’re a little bit under the radar. Getting into the playoffs last year and having a little success was a big step for our organization. Having that little taste, I think guys came back hungry for more.
“They were locked in and focused. We knew we’d be good. We just had to be better defensively. We knew if we could bring the defense the offense would take care of itself.’’
It has, with six Hawks averaging double figures, including Horford (14.6), who posted his first career triple-double in this one (21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and sharpshooting guard Kyle Korver (12.9). One player not among that group, 16-year veteran Elton Brand, says these Hawks do it the right way.
“We’re not sneaking up on teams anymore,’’ said the 35-year-old Brand, who’s never made it out of the second round of the playoffs. “We beat a bunch of teams over .500 on the road and at home and people said ‘Okay, this is a good team.’
“It’s just the system and it’s the guys in the system,. They’re selfless. They just want to win the ballgame. They don’t care about stats.
“Looking ahead we have to get prepared mentally for what we’ll face in the playoffs. It’s role reversal from last year when Indy was the No. 1 seed and we were No. 8. Now we’re No. 1. We have to keep guys healthy and fresh.’’
Which is why with four games in five nights, Budenholzer rested those three starters against undermanned Philadelphia, trusting his bench and his system would still get the job done. “Obviously I’ve seen firsthand the positive effects of being conscientious of your players’ health,’’ said Budenholzer, who’ll go for 10 in a row tonight in Boston. “I learned a lot there (San Antonio), but we’re trying to do things our own way. .
“I give our players a ton of credit. It starts with who we are; an unselfish group who has a high basketball I.Q. They understand if they all participate, they all reap the benefit of it.’’
Just like the You Know Who’s have done for years. “It’s like the younger brother following his older brother’s footsteps,’’ said Millsap, who actually does have a younger brother, Elijah, playing in his old Utah stomping grounds. “He wants to get out of that shadow.
“We feel like we’re a different team. But it’s definitely a compliment being compared to the Spurs.’’
There’s just one difference.
“We don’t have Tim Duncan,’’ laughed Brand.
They also don’t have five championships on their resume, but don’t let that make you think they’re not for real No longer a secret, it’s finally time for the Atlanta Hawks to step into the limelight.
And continue to shine, shine, shine.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writers Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.
MORE FROM JON MARKS: