Dec 23, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) drives to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) defends during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 121-119 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks: Getting Closer to the Big Boys in the East?


It was close, but the Atlanta Hawks are still in search of a signature road win this season. It’s been three days since they were narrowly defeated by the Miami Heat in overtime, but there’s no question that it’s a result that will hurt for a while longer. In spite of 119 points, 29 assists and 17 3-pointers against a Dwyane Wade-less Heat team, the defending champions still managed to edge out the Hawks for a ninth consecutive matchup. What should the Hawks take from this game going forward though? And have they turned a corner in their pursuit of advancing beyond the second round in the East? Below are three positives that could help the Hawks in the coming months.

Dec 23, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) celebrates their 121-119 overtime win against the Atlanta Hawks at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

1. Big Game Confidence

Atlanta has made a nice start to life under their new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks find themselves at 15-13 at Christmas, as they prepare to enter into what many people refer to as the “real” start of the NBA season. Their current record is comfortably good enough for the number three seed in a poor Eastern Conference, and there is no reason why the Hawks shouldn’t be planning on making that spot their own.

If the season was to finish with the Hawks in that spot, one of the key questions would be, are the Hawks capable of upsetting either Miami or Indiana? The answer is in all probability that they are not, but Atlanta has shown some signs of late that make it something worth thinking about. The group of players that Hawks general manager Danny Ferry has assembled have already proven that they have strong character, and if the situation was to arise they wouldn’t crumble under the challenge.

Dec 18, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer calls to his team in the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Back at the start of the month, the Hawks took their annual trip to San Antonio for one of the most daunting games of the season. Add into the mix the added pressure and distraction of Budenholzer returning to face his former employers and a comfortable Hawks loss could have been excused. Instead, Atlanta took the game to the Spurs, and if they had emerged victorious no one could have argued that it was undeserved. It took a monumental 23 points and 21 rebounds, as well as a game winner from Tim Duncan to stop the Hawks on that night, much like it took 38 points from the reigning MVP LeBron James on Monday night.

Performances like those two, along with their all around good play, have led many to take the Hawks more seriously than they may have done in the past. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “I’m as impressed with them right now as any team we’ve played so far in terms of their improvement. You can see a very specific system and style of how they are trying to play and how fast that has been implemented. You know this team is going to continue to get better and they will be a much different team come springtime.” As a team so used to never being spoken about, this can only help to build confidence for the future.

2. Offensive Firepower

Atlanta is currently averaging 102.3 points per game, ranked 13th in the league, which doesn’t quite tell the full story. The Hawks have scored 100 or more points in 20 of their 28 games so far. They are ranked fourth in field goal percentage at 47 percent. They are the sixth-best 3-point shooting team at 38.4 percent. Most importantly though, they are averaging a NBA best 25.7 assists per game.

Dec 23, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague (0) gains control of the ball as Miami Heat small forward Shane Battier (31) defends the play during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Led by Jeff Teague with eight assists a night, there are seven Hawks players that are currently averaging two or more assists per game. This unselfish style of play has helped the Hawks to achieve a level of consistency that they haven’t been used to. When Josh Smith and Joe Johnson were in the ATL, the Hawks’ chances of success on any given night were directly tied in with the form of their stars. If Smith had a poor shooting night, Atlanta was odds on to lose. Now though, Coach Budenholzer has introduced a system reminiscent of the one that has been so successful in San Antonio.

Instead of a team constructed around one central, ball hogging superstar, Atlanta has opted for a team comprised of capable players from top to bottom. The success of this formula to date is best highlighted by the six different players who have led the Hawks in scoring in any particular game.

In their last 10 games, as familiarity with their new coach continues to grow, Atlanta has taken their offensive game to another level. Starting with that big performance in San Antonio, through to the battle against the Heat, the Hawks have per game averages of 108.9 points (third in the NBA, last 10 games) and 28.7 assists (first in the NBA, last 10 games).

In the last 10 games, Atlanta’s four losses have come against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, New York and Miami. Taking note of the fact that all four of those teams have at least one bona fide star on their rosters, it shows that when the Hawks get rolling offensively, it takes a Duncan, Durant, Anthony or James to even have a chance at stopping them.

3. Threat of Kyle Korver

Kyle Korver has long been known as one of the best shooters in the NBA, but as a player who’s skill set is almost completely limited to catch and shoot scenarios, the opposition often leave him with space. For years, Korver has taken advantage of his limited dribbling ability by draining shot after shot in the extra space teams so often allow him. Since the Creighton man came into the league, watching as defenders who had gone under on screens belatedly scramble to close down Korver’s shot has become a regular sight. That may be about to change though.

With Korver’s record breaking streak, now standing at 97 consecutive games with at least one made 3, the sharp shooting specialist has fallen into the national media spotlight. Having last week tweeted his congratulations to Korver on his record breaking play, LeBron James guarded the California man down the stretch on Monday night. In spite of long being an offensive weapon on a number of different teams, Korver has rarely found himself as the focus of the opposition’s best defender.

Dec 18, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver (26) shoots a three in the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 124-107. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

If this is to become a trend followed by other teams, although it will make Korver’s life more difficult, it could be a significant plus for Atlanta in the clutch. If they were trailing in a close game, deep in the fourth, the most likely Hawks lineup on the floor would be Jeff Teague, Louis Williams, Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Korver has without doubt the least dynamic offensive game of that group, and so if he was the focus of the oppositions defensive energy, it would make it much easier for the Hawks to get themselves a high percentage shot.

The fear of Korver’s long shooting prowess, can also work in the Hawks favor in regards to getting him opportunities though. Trying to extend the game into a second overtime period against Miami, Atlanta drew up a play in which Korver ran off a couple of screens as if he was in search of a 3-point opportunity. Then, with Miami worried about defending him behind the arc, Pero Antic hoisted a beautiful inbounds lob towards the rim, that Korver was just unable to get enough on to tip it in. Concerned about the long ball, the Hawks were able to pull the wool over Miami’s eyes with a beautiful play design that was unlucky not to pay off.

With a manageable upcoming schedule, Atlanta could well continue to gather momentum over the coming week. And if they can continue to rack up high scoring nights, and execute to the highest level offensively, they won’t be a team that anyone will look forward to playing in the spring.

 

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