ATLANTA – The Atlanta Hawks’ transformational season that has led them to the Eastern Conference’s best record and a 16-game winning streak after Sunday’s 112-100 victory over the Timberwolves has done what once might have been considered impossible.
It has brought thunderstick-clattering fans back to Philips Arena’s formerly lonesome corners and upper reaches.
Once seemingly among the league leaders in empty seats no matter their record, the Hawks have busted out of perpetual mediocrity and delivered an unexpected season. They haven’t lost since the day after Christmas. They are 30-2 since Thanksgiving.
Using last spring’s seven-game playoff loss to Indiana as a springboard, the Hawks have grown both healthy and whole with the kind of players and philosophies that have, in some circles, given them the nickname “Spurs East.”
That’s because second-year coach Mike Budenholzer spent 17 seasons as a San Antonio assistant coach and because of the efficiency with which the Hawks move the basketball and, yes, win.
“If it’s good, solid fundamental basketball and if it’s good, solid fundamental players and they’re making good decisions at both ends of the court, that’s what we want to do,” Budenholzer said. “I think the Spurs have done it at a really high level for a really long time. We all have a ton of respect, the whole league has a ton of respect for the Spurs. I’ve seen firsthand the kind of success, a lot of the things that were done there.
“But we’re trying to do things our own way, with our own players. But if it’s solid and fundamental, I think everybody is trying to do those things.”
The Hawks have built a 37-8 record — second only to Golden State’s 35-6 — because of likely All-Star Game selections Al Horford and Paul Millsap, a deserved third in point guard Jeff Teague and a collection of role players, most of whom (Kyle Korver foremost) can also really shoot.
Six Hawks, including all five starters, scored in double digits on Sunday. They led by as many as 18 points and repelled the Wolves’ obligatory late comeback by making consecutive three-pointers after the visitors closed within six points with three minutes left.
“They’re real good,” said Wolves guard Mo Williams, whose team has lost 25 of its past 28 games. “They play the right way. They do what winning teams do. I wouldn’t say everybody is playing above themselves, but their game is being enhanced by the unselfish play of the next person.”
The Hawks’ success has come just months after separate incidences of racist comments made in the team’s front office or by ownership caused the team’s current owners to say they’ll sell the team.
Wolves coach Flip Saunders calls these Hawks a product of their environment. He terms it a “melting-pot type team” with players from the Dominican Republic, Macedonia, Germany and Switzerland in “very much a melting-pot type city” where Knicks visits bring out transplanted New Yorkers, Celtics visits bring out transplanted Bostonians, etc.
Now those fans born and raised in Atlanta have a reason to attend and something to cheer all their own.
Horford attributes this turnabout season to last spring’s playoff loss and both the encouragement and bitter motivation it provided.
“Whenever you get knocked out of the playoffs, it hurts and you kind of carry it with you all summer,” Budenholzer said. “But individually a lot of guys stepped up and played well and the team understood better how we could play.”
Saunders dismisses the Spurs East nickname and said the Hawks remind him of the team Saunders coached his first year in Detroit nearly a decade ago.
“That’s not fair to them,” he said of the simplistic label. “They play their own different way. You call ’em Spurs East because they play the way every coach wants to play: team basketball, ball movement, very unselfish. That’s one thing they do do.”
Saunders’ 2005-06 Pistons started that season 39-6 on their way to a 64-18 record. Those Pistons had four players who averaged double-digit scoring that season, but none more than Richard Hamilton’s 20.1-point average. Five Hawks average between DeMarre Carroll’s 11.8 points and Teague’s 17.1.
“We had a great bench with great camaraderie, and we played unselfish basketball,” Saunders said.
“That’s the way Atlanta plays.”
The Hawks have won at Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago and beaten Cleveland, Memphis, Washington and Oklahoma City at home during this now 16-game streak. Asked if he has been able to enjoy the ride, Budenholzer said: “No, we just kind of come to work each day and prepare. You want to have a glass of wine or beer or Coke or whatever after the game and enjoy it, but the next morning you come back and you’re ready to start working at getting better.”
If he and his players haven’t yet reveled in it, the Hawks’ young and noisy fans who have returned to Philips Arena’s corners and mezzanines have. Sunday’s crowd was announced as 18,049, the eighth sellout this season.
“It’s like every NBA team: You win, they come,” Saunders said. “If you don’t win, they don’t come. That’s just how it is.”