In mid-November, the Hawks looked sloppy offensively and lost defensively. After suffering four losses within the team’s first seven games, Head Coach Larry Drew was faced with a myriad of questions about several of his players’ roles and concerns about the team’s health.
Less than a month later, those worries have completely dissipated.
Since losing to Golden State on Nov. 14, Atlanta has won seven of their last eight games and has seemed to develop cohesiveness on both ends of the court.
On offense, Atlanta has taken advantage of their supreme depth at the point guard position. With Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, and Lou Williams, Drew has three proven and talented veterans who all facilitate the team’s high-octane attack successfully.
Forward Josh Smith noted, “All three point guards can score the basketball extremely well. When you have point guards who command the type of respect (driving) on offense that ours do, opponents have to give them space to facilitate as well. All of our guards are unselfish, and that is what we need to be a successful team.”
The guards’ team-first attitudes have led to selfless passing and trust on the court. “When we are on the floor, we have chemistry and we are comfortable with one another,” said Teague. This chemistry is being reflected in the box scores as the Hawks rank third in the league with an average of 23.4 assists per game.
Unselfish play on the court has been accompanied by unselfish attitude off of it. While Teague, Harris and Williams are all talented enough to command significant minutes on a nightly basis, they all understand that Drew has to allocate their minutes from game to game.
Harris noted, “Coming into the season, we knew we would have to sacrifice a little bit. Still, we just go out there and play.”
Drew says his players’ comfort with their roles developed early in the season. “I talked to each player individually at the start of the season and explained what I wanted each of their roles to be.”
Drew also said that the players’ roles can fluctuate nightly based on who is playing well, “I believe in riding the hot hand, and all of my guards are on the same page as me in that regard.”
Atlanta’s teamwork and passing has not ended with the guards; Atlanta’s big men have also helped aid the team’s strong assist totals. Josh Smith and Al Horford’s combined 7.1 assists per game lead all NBA frontcourts.
Good health has also been crucial to the team’s early success. Horford, who missed the majority of last season with a torn pectoral, has completely healed and is playing the best basketball of his career.
The two-time All Star is averaging a career high in scoring with 16.6 points per game and received his first career NBA Player of the Week award in late November. Horford’s presence has been appreciated both on the floor and in the locker room. J
osh Smith noted, “(Horford) adds another element to our physicality and he is a great vocal leader. We definitely missed him last year, and it is great to have him back in the lineup.”
Entering the season, the Hawks’ biggest strength appeared to be perimeter shooting. Since then, the Hawks have only managed to exceed the expectations.
Teague, who is shooting a career high from beyond the arc at 43 percent, said, “We have some really great shooters. Our guys show up to practice every day to work on shooting.”
The payoff is evident as the Hawks are third in the league to only the Knicks and Heat with four different players shooting over 40 percent from three-point range.
While analysts knew Atlanta’s offense would be strong, many expected the team to suffer on defense. After allowing James Harden to score 45 points in the season opener, concerns were raised on how the team would contain the league’s bigger and stronger perimeter players.
Since then, however, the Hawks have seemed to dispel those concerns with overwhelming success. Since Harden’s outburst, Atlanta has contained superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul to fewer than 30 points each.
More impressive than the defensive lockdown on individual stars is the team’s collective effort in limiting easy shot opportunities for opponents. As of Dec. 6, the Hawks remain the only team in the NBA to hold every one of their opponents to shooting under 50 percent from the field.
“I think everybody is locked in defensively,” said center Zaza Pachulia. “It’s good to see our team at the top of defensive stats.”
Defensive specialist DeShawn Stevenson attributed the defensive success to Larry Drew’s planning, “We have all bought into the philosophies our coach has put out here. We have several guys who can block shots, and our speed allows us to disrupt opponents’ passing lanes.”
Most importantly, the team’s defense is translating into easy offense. Intercepting passes and forcing turnovers has led the Hawks to a league high 16.9 fast break points a game.
At 10-5 and with the third best record in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks now look exponentially more comfortable with their identity on both ends of the court than they did to start the season. With three selfless floor generals, a rejuvenated Al Horford, a plethora of sharpshooters and an extremely effective defense, Atlanta looks poised to remain near the top of the standings in the East.
— By Jacob Eisenberg