In case you're not aware, the once-irrelevant Atlanta Hawks are seeing a run at the top of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta did it on the back of some excellent team play, and are regularly drawing comparisons to the San Antonio Spurs. There are soooo many ways to quantify the Hawks' recent 14 game win streak and overall success. One way is to define the success statistically, as Mark Phelps recently did for Peachtree Hoops:
1. During this streak, the Hawks are assisting on 70 percent of their makes.
2. During this streak, the Hawks are averaging 5.64 players per game with at least one three-pointer.
3. During this streak, the Hawks are averaging 5.21 players per game in double digits.
One could also talk about the culture of the NBA, and how the Hawks are still struggling to get recognized for their success. ATLpaul gives us a good nutshell of the situation in a recent fanpost:
What to do with Atlanta Hawks?
How do you sell an Atlanta Hawks with no mega stars to masses? How do you sell a team that not only doesn’t have a starter on cast of all stars, but not even a player that is close in the voting for any starting position. How do you sell a team that while leading the East, gets 1/8th of a page on SI for recognition, if you can call that recognition???
So the league ignores Atlanta Hawks. Hoping, wishing, this nightmare of marketing just goes away. Fades like those Pistons.
One could even look to the players on the team itself, and ask them what they think of the Hawks' success. Brad Rowland grabbed a great quote from a Kyle Korver ESPN Radio interview that I've copied below:
"For me, personally, in my 12 years, this is the most fun I've ever had playing basketball. We play true team basketball. We play a team game on offense, we play a team game on defense. Everyone talks about us not necessarily having the superstars, but I feel like we have a bunch of really good players who have just bought in to playing together."
Clearly, the Hawks have something special going this season. It's not as if Budenholzer, Atlanta's coach, was able to build his team around an aging superstar or championship level players. That's pretty much how the evolution of the Spurs happened. San Antonio was a really successful team built around Duncan, then built around a Big 3 of Duncan-Ginobili-Parker, and then built around the team mentality that you see today. The Hawks were built out of the shell of a mid-seeded Eastern Conference playoff team. Even crazier? I'd day that this year's Hawks are actually less talented than the mid-seeded Hawks of two to three years ago. Atlanta has simply become more specialized and focused.
Then again, Atlanta simply may also be benefiting from the loss of Josh Smith. Smith seems to be the NBA's plague right now. The Pistons recently jettisoned him, and are 12-3 since Smith's departure. Smith had been a Hawk for 9 seasons before his recent 1.3 season stint with the Pistons, so it could be argued that Smith's departure was positive for Atlanta's basketball culture. I mean, Smith's current results in Houston aren't very inspiring. The Rockets are 9-8 with J-Smoove in their lineup (as opposed to 20-6 without). And there's some great footage on YouTube of Smith ejecting himself for no reason in Wednesday night's game against the Warriors. Anyway, I'm just reporting the facts, as I can't claim to know Josh Smih's true effect on a lockerroom. But his presence can't be overlooked when discussing the current success of this Hawks team.
So, can the Thunder beat Atlanta?
When I look at this question I always like to look at a team's losses. The Hawks have lost 8 times this season, and have only lost by more than 10 points three times. Scanning over the box scores, I noticed a few things. Atlanta very rarely loses the turnover or rebounding battle, and the Hawks always shoot good percentages. Not a single loss saw Atlanta shoot under 40% as a team, which is insane. But the Hawks almost always give up a huge amount of free throws to their opponents in a loss, and can struggle to get to the line on their own. This tells me that Atlanta's achilles heel is a lack of interior protection, and the Thunder need to do all they can to attack the basket and get Atlanta to start fouling.
Another good barometer is last season's matchups. Here's what I had to write about Atlanta following OKC's win on January 28th:
"... the Hawks really seemed to stray from their traditional strategy at the end of the game. As Kevin Durant heated up and ate into their lead, they seemed to stop caring about ball movement. Instead, they became increasingly reliant on their stars, regularly dumping it off to Milsap and Williams for isolation plays. The Thunder started trapping, and Atlanta's offense stalled out. Had the Hawks been able to keep their pace going for just a few more minutes, they might have won the game."
Ha ha ha. That certainly won't be transpiring this year. But J.A. Sherman's assessment from the other win provides much more hope:
OKC did a superb job in limiting Millsap's touches in the paint, and were it not for his shooting 11-12 from the FT line, Millsap would have been only slightly more effective than his frontcourt partner, Al Horford. Horford was held to only 7 points on the night, which means that Atlanta's stout big men were held to a combined 30 points on 8-28 shooting. Since the Thunder's interior defense was so good, led in part by Kendrick Perkins (24 minutes) and Nick Collison (21 minutes), OKC did not have to cheat off the outside shooters and they held Atlanta's 3-point game, including Kyle Korver, to a 34.6% shooting night.
Korver, in the midst of a historic 3-point shooting run, managed only 1-6 on the night. Of particular note, the Thunder's defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha did not play in this game due to an injury sustained against Indiana. In his place was Andre Roberson, the rookie who had recently been assigned to Tulsa. Roberson returned to OKC and played a huge hand in shutting down Korver, contributing the exact kind of intensity that rookies can bring when they are fighting for minutes.
Those two paragraphs alone are extremely strong cases for OKC's victory tonight. I mean, it just happened to be the rare night Roberson got minutes last year, and he managed to haul the mail against one of the NBA's hottest players. Here's hoping he does so tonight. Also, since Horford and Milsap are pretty fundamental bigs, it's no surprise that the Thunder's vet bigs are good at stopping them. Expect much Perk.
Anyway, I'll address the elephant in the room: Yeah, this is the first time we'll be seeing Thabo Sefolosha in a Hawk uniform. It will be weird. I spent some time recounting Sefolosha's career with OKC over the summer, so be sure to check that out if you want to know more on that. Since his departure, Sefolosha has basically been the same old player. Baskets in transition, clanked wide open threes, tons of boards, decent court vision, and the occasional steal. So I wouldn't expect much more than a typical triple singles line from him tonight. But when he steals the ball from Waiters and dunks it in transition, I'm gonna be pretty miffed.
If you couldn't tell, I think tonight will be a relatively easy win for the Thunder. Call me crazy, but I feel like the matchup advantages and momentum are there for OKC. This is also the same Thunder team that halted Golden State's 8 game win streak, so make of that what you will.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 104, Atlanta Hawks 92.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!
|2014-15 NBA Season Game 43|
|January 23rd, 2015|
|Philips Arena, Atlanta, Georgia|
|6:30 PM Central Standard Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, SportSouth|
|Injury Report: Mitch McGary, Shelvin Mack (Out)|
|Last Season's Matchups: Dec 11 (W 101-92), Jan 27 (W 111-109)|
|Russell Westbrook||PG||Jeff Teague|
|Andre Roberson||SG||Kyle Korver|
|Kevin Durant||SF||DeMarre Carroll|
|Serge Ibaka||PF||Paul Milsap|
|Steven Adams||C||Al Horford|