After their best season since moving to Atlanta nearly 50 years ago, the Hawks have spent most of this season spurting and sputtering. They got off to a 7-1 start, which many took as a good sign considering they were a measly 7-6 out of the gate last season. There was a six-game winning streak around Christmas that looked like they had rediscovered their rhythm.
But every time the Hawks appear ready to step forward as a contender in the Eastern Conference, they take a step back. The quick start was negated by a slump including losses to Minnesota and Brooklyn. The new year brought consecutive losses to New York. A western swing included setbacks in Sacramento and Phoenix. Before the All-Star break, they dropped a home-and-home set to Orlando.
When Atlanta came out of the All-Star break by losing the first three of a five-game homestand, it was 31-27 and closer to missing the playoffs than claiming a top-four seed. All of the magic from last season was gone. Two offseason deals had not worked. There had been trade talk around center Al Horford and point guard Jeff Teague – both All-Stars a season ago – and some wondering whether this summer would be a good time to renovate the roster.
But under coach and San Antonio Spurs disciple Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks don’t play to win as much as they play to get better. They trusted the process, tweaking it along the way, riding out individual slumps and injuries, hoping to make things click again. And about three weeks ago, it did.
The Hawks have won 10 of their last 12 games, with the only losses an overtime setback at Golden State and a defeat at Toronto, two of the best home teams in the NBA. They have climbed back to the top of the Southeast Division and third in the East. And they don’t travel farther than the Central Time Zone the rest of the season.
“It feels very different,” Horford said. “I feel like we’re a much better team. We’re much more focused. Our defense is really good … and we’re starting to put it together on the offensive end.”
Some of Atlanta’s improvement has been incremental. For example, on New Year’s Day, the Hawks were 13th in defensive efficiency at 100.6. They are now second at 98.3, trailing only San Antonio. During that same time, they also have climbed from 16th to second in opponents’ shooting percentage and 23rd to fourth in opponents’ 3-point percentage.
“They are taught to protect layups, protect the paint, and they arrive on the catch on the 3-point line,” said Houston coach J.B. Bickerstaff, whose team shot 39 percent with two quarters in the teens in Saturday’s loss to Atlanta. “They flush you off the line and force you into tough shots. They were aggressive on the ball.”
Remember Kyle Korver? He was an All-Star last year, too, when he led the NBA in 3-point shooting and fell just shy of the magical 50-40-90 thresholds. On Jan. 31, Korver was shooting 37 percent from the arc for the season, which would have been the second-lowest figure for his career.
Since then, however, Korver is at a blistering .475 (48-of-101) from the arc, which would rank second in the league and is a better than Stephen Curry. When teams have to find Korver in transition and chase him around screens, they cannot help as well and the floor opens up for rim attacks.
The Hawks also have found rotation minutes for Tim Hardaway Jr., who had been a forgotten man prior to the All-Star break. He averaged double figures while shooting 35 percent from the arc in two seasons with the Knicks and was acquired on draft day for rookie Jerian Grant. But even with DeMarre Carroll gone in free agency and Thabo Sefolosha working his way back from
police brutality a broken leg, Hardaway couldn’t crack the rotation, primarily because of his defense. He was behind rookie Lamar Patterson and even spent some time in the D-League.
But Hardaway has kept working, and since the trade of Shelvin Mack at the deadline he has averaged 8.3 points while shooting 42 percent (19-of-45) from the arc. He scored 21 points Thursday vs. Denver and 20 on Saturday vs. Houston.
“It feels good,” Hardaway said. “It’s just hard work paying off right now.”
“He’s doing it with a defensive mindset,” Budenholzer said. “He’s coming out and doing the stuff he’s been doing all year since he got back into the rotation. There’s confidence on his part. There’s a confidence on our part that the offense would come. His focus is where it needs to be. His focus is on continuing to be great on the defensive end.”
The Hawks also fortified their frontcourt with the February free agency signing of Kris Humphries, who was waived by Phoenix after being acquired from Washington. Humphries has filled in nicely for the injured Tiago Splitter; his averages of 7.9 points and 4.1 rebounds grow to 17.3 and 9.0 when taken over 36 minutes. More important, the Hawks are 8-1 when he plays.
During their current five-game winning streak, the Hawks are averaging 108.2 points while allowing just 93.4 points. Horford believes there is still potential for growth, particularly on offense.
“It’s fun playing right now,” he said. “We’re putting it together as a group. I still think there’s (offensive) work there that needs to be done. I’m happy that we’ve been playing with a much better pace.”
As we already mentioned, the Hawks have had stretches like this that have been followed by descents into the doldrums. They have a home-and-home with Washington, which should be a good test given the Wizards’ current state of desperation. Saturday starts a three-game trip vs. potential playoff foes Detroit, Chicago and Toronto. And April brings two games with Cleveland, still the bellwether of the East.
But this is the closest the Hawks have come to approaching their chemistry of last season – which, if you recall, began in December and topped out in March, well before the postseason. Perhaps what they have developed over the last month will carry into the playoffs.
As Horford noted, “I think we’re just peaking at the right time as a team.”
TRIVIA: Three teams have not won a division title this century. Who are they? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Houston center Dwight Howard apparently had Stickum on his hands during Saturday’s game at Atlanta and admitted he has been using it all season, even though it is illegal and the Rockets made multiple attempts to hide it from referees.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Golden State coach Steve Kerr, responding to Dallas coach Rick Carlisle’s comparison of the Warriors to the Rolling Stones on tour:
“I was on the Beatles back in ’96, so I guess it’s fitting that I’m now with the Stones. Either way, I was just a roadie setting up the stage for both teams.”
TANKS A LOT!: With 13 games remaining in the season and a spiffy 14-55 record, Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott said over the weekend that he would no longer be benching his younger players in the fourth quarter, saying they will play “no matter what.” So up to this point, he had been trying to win?
LINE OF THE WEEK: Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn vs. Philadelphia, March 15: 37 minutes, 17-27 FGs, 4-9 3-pointers, 6-7 FTs, eight rebounds, two assists, three turnovers, 44 points in a 131-114 win. “Bogie” shattered his previous career high of 28 and scored the most points in a game by any Net since the team moved to Brooklyn in 2012.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Stephen Curry, Golden State at San Antonio, March 19: 38 minutes, 4-18 FGs, 1-12 3-pointers, 5-5 FTs, six rebounds, six assists, two steals, two turnovers, 14 points in an 87-79 loss. It was Curry’s worst shooting performance overall and from 3-point range. In the second quarter, he had a 3-pointer blocked for the first time this season – by Danny Green – and was shut out in the final period.
TRILLION WATCH: An uneventful week for the heroes of zeros. There were 2 trillions from Chicago’s Tony Snell on Wednesday, San Antonio’s Andre Miller on Thursday, Toronto teammates Delon Wright and Bruno Caboclo on Friday and Sacramento’s James Anderson on Sunday. The week’s worst were 3 trillions from Utah’s Trey Burke vs. Cleveland on Monday and San Antonio’s Kevin Martin vs. Golden State on Saturday.
GAME OF THE WEEK: San Antonio at Oklahoma City, March 26. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the host Thunder beat the Spurs in the season opener. They had ’em beat again two weeks ago in the Alamo City but gave away a fourth-quarter lead, which they have been doing all season. If they want to win this one, someone besides Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has to show up.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Philadelphia at Golden State, March 27. The 76ers were 16 1/2-point home underdogs vs. the Warriors on Jan. 30. Given that NBA home courts are worth anywhere from 3-4 points on the betting line – and Golden State is the best home team in league history – could this be a 20-point spread?
TWO MINUTES: The Pelicans aren’t making the playoffs, so sitting Anthony Davis for the rest of the season makes sense, for a couple of reasons. Certainly ownership and management understand how their franchise cornerstone keeps them relevant if he is healthy. But sitting Davis also could have the unintended bonus of saving $25 million over the next five years. Davis has played 61 games and would end up missing roughly a quarter of the season if he doesn’t suit up again. That could cost him one of the six forward spots on the All-NBA teams, which would trigger the “Derrick Rose Rule” and increase his max extension from $120 million to $145 million. You would think five of those spots are going to LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Paul George, all forwards with significant value to playoff teams. The question becomes whether the voting media values Davis ahead of Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Working in Davis’ favor is the lost season of Blake Griffin, who will miss an All-NBA selection for the first time since his 2010-11 rookie season. … In Saturday’s loss at San Antonio, Golden State managed to hold the lead on three occasions in the fourth quarter for a total of 1 minute, 46 seconds. The Spurs have now trailed in the final quarter at home for just 11:23 of a possible 408 minutes this season. … Russell Westbrook has 14 triple-doubles this season, the most since Magic Johnson had 17 in the 1988-89 campaign. But Monday’s triple-double vs. Portland was his his first without a turnover. In fact, it was his first game this season without a turnover. … If you’re looking for which team may have the inside track amid the jumble in the middle of the East playoff picture, consider this: Of the Hornets’ last 14 games, two are against Brooklyn, two are against Philadelphia and one apiece are against New York, Orlando and Milwaukee. … Nuggets guard Mike Miller could be the first player in history to play at least 40 games and not attempt a free throw. He has yet to go to the line in 337 minutes over 42 contests. … Here is the Sacramento Kings’ season in microcosm: On Monday, they swept the Lakers in the season series for the first time in franchise history, which dates to 1948 when you consider the previous incarnations for both teams. In their next game Wednesday, the Kings were swept by the Pelicans for the first time in franchise history.
Trivia Answer: Charlotte, Memphis, Washington. … Happy 41st Birthday, Fabricio Oberto. … My Final Four picks are Cleveland, Atlanta, San Antonio and Golden State.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.