TrueHoop: Atlanta Hawks

While Atlanta goes crazy, Hawks are chill

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
2:11
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Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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ATLANTA -- There's no fire drill more absurd than the metro Atlanta area bracing for winter precipitation. The region, which has grown exponentially since the Hawks moved to town, has little regard for tradition, so it's almost quaint to see that the afternoon before a forecasted dusting the scene at the Kroger hasn't changed in three decades. Grown adults storm the frozen-food aisle like it's the last chopper out of Saigon. The Storm Team from the local television affiliates are out in full force. By 3 p.m., major thoroughfares typically choking on traffic are deserted.

About that time on Wednesday, Hawks players were told the team's game against the Dallas Mavericks at 7:30 p.m. was off. The governor of Georgia had declared a state of emergency for 50 counties in North Georgia. And beyond any official order, Atlanta is still spooked by last January's Snowpocalypse, which snuck up on the city, stranded tens of thousands and became "Daily Show" gold. Unamused at being a national laughingstock, Atlantans have decided to play it safe this winter.

The city of Atlanta's paranoia notwithstanding, an NBA game isn't cancelled lightly, and about an hour later, Hawks players who were hunkering in to wait out the storm received word that the ball would be tipped, as scheduled. After a rough first quarter, the Hawks played some of their best basketball since January and pummeled the Mavericks 104-87.

Like any honest-to-goodness Atlantan, Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll went to the grocery store with his family when he learned that he needed to return to work.

"We thought we were going to get snowed in, and I was on Aisle 7 when I looked at my phone," Carroll said. "I told my fiancee, 'The game is back on.' So we had to rush, hurry up, get back and get here. I think that had a lot to do with it."

[+] EnlargeAtlanta Hawks leaky roof
AP Photo/John BazemoreA leaky roof delayed Hawks-Mavs for five minutes on Wednesday night at Philips Arena.
The "it" Carroll referred to was the Hawks' ragged start, during which they fell behind 14 to the Mavericks in the first quarter and finished the period down 34-22. Though coach Mike Budenholzer was quick to point out that Dallas was also waiting in basketball purgatory to see if the game was a go, Hawks center Al Horford allowed for the idea that the indecision didn't help the Hawks out of the gate.

"It's hard mentally," Horford said. "You're preparing, then they tell you it's not, so you kind of let your guard down. Then, it's like, 'Wait. We are playing.' It definitely affected me. I'm not going to lie."

Truth be told, the defense wasn't as atrocious as Dallas' 34 points would suggest. Monta Ellis and J.J. Barea combined to shoot 7-for-8 in the quarter without a trip to the line, but six of those seven shots were long 2s off the dribble, largely contested. Yet, the Hawks felt like the Mavericks' backcourt was getting off a little too easy.

"We changed a few coverages," Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. "We were showing out, but we were focused in too much on Dirk [Nowitzki] and the bigs, and the guards were giving us problems, finding shots."

The Hawks' on-court personnel was just one piece of the dysfunction in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Toward the end of the quarter, a small leak in the arena's roof caused a five-minute delay. Three times in the period the official game clock froze, causing a stoppage in play as the hamster required resuscitation before being reinserted onto its wheel.

Out in the stands and up in the concourse, the Hawks and Philips Arena were working short-staffed, as the organization advised game-night staff with travel or family issues to stay at home. All but a couple of concession stands were open for business, and the Hawks' chief revenue officer was pouring beer.

Problem solving has been a Hawks trademark this season, and as the second quarter got underway, the defense addressed the first-quarter hemorrhaging. Hawks defenders didn't exactly neglect Nowitzki, who finished with only four points, but they refocused their efforts of their pick-and-roll coverage onto the Mavericks' platoon of quick guards, which did not include Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.

"They're a pretty good defensive team," Nowitzki said. "Their bigs are very mobile. They show on the pick-and-rolls hard. They corral our ball handlers. They rotate around on the perimeter. They have quick hands."

After notching 34 points in the first quarter, the Mavericks managed only 67 over the 53 possessions of the final three quarters -- an anemic 79.1 offensive efficiency rating. On the other end, it was the usual Hawks blueprint: Six players in double digits but none with more than 17.

The Mavericks were also under the impression the game would likely be canceled. They were loading up their luggage in an effort to try to beat the weather out of town when they learned they'd need to be in uniform for the national anthem at 7:30 p.m.

"The afternoon was weird," Nowitzki said. "I don't think the NBA handled it pretty good. They screwed this one up pretty good. They kept telling us, 'We're waiting to hear from the NBA.' The next thing you know, we're all kind of sitting around. We didn't know if we should go to our meeting or not, so I thought they played that pretty poorly. We fought through it and I thought we were ready to play."

Carroll ultimately left Aisle 7, but not before loading up on Little Debbie cakes in the event the Atlanta storm obliterated glucose from the area.

"That's my aisle," Carroll said.

As of publication, the temperature had not yet dropped below freezing at Philips Arena.

The Hawks' defensive Muppet Show

February, 22, 2015
Feb 22
8:02
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Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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MILWAUKEE -- Everything you’ve heard about the Atlanta Hawks’ appealing style of play -- the elegant motion, the silky shooting touch, the sharing of the basketball, the beautiful choreography -- not much of that was on display the first three quarters on Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. What’s been less discussed this season, though, is the Hawks’ solid No. 6-ranked defense, behind which they locked down the Bucks for a 97-86 win.

“It was a complete turnaround [defensively], a lot better than the past few games,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “The aggression was there. The discipline was there.”

Millsap made a distinction between effort and discipline, a variation on the old John Wooden trope, “Never mistake activity and achievement.” The Hawks aren’t a team predisposed to phoning it in. But in their recent spate of ugly losses, there’s been a lack of precision, which is death for a scheme that relies on being in the right place at the right time, Exhibit A being their 105-80 hemorrhaging at the hands of Toronto on Friday night.

“Last game we felt like there was no discipline,” Millsap said. “We have to have help. We have to have our big -- he’s got to be back there. We got to have guys rotating. We have to have guys boxing out.”

[+] EnlargeAl Horford
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesAl Horford and the Hawks applied enough defense to keep the East front-runners 6 1/2 games in the lead.
The Hawks nailed their coverages on Sunday and, even better, applied their smarts to shore up what could’ve been some real vulnerabilities. Case in point: One of the better defensive sequences of the night for Atlanta came in the second quarter when the Hawks left Dennis Schroder out on the floor to guard the bigger O.J. Mayo.

Sniffing the mismatch, the Bucks dumped the ball in to Mayo in the post against Schroder. In an instant, Hawks center Al Horford blitzed Mayo, pinning the Bucks guard against the end line. The Bucks aren’t dummies, and they did what any team worth its salt would do in that situation -- send the guy Horford was guarding, in this case beloved former Hawk Zaza Pachulia, on a basket cut.

But there was Mike Scott, hardly a nominee for defensive player of the year, sliding over from his assignment on the weak side to wedge himself between Pachulia and the rim. After Mayo kicked the ball out of the double-team to the perimeter, the grenade landed back in his hands with the shot clock expiring. Another Horford trap, with Mayo losing the ball out of bounds against the pressure.

The Hawks don’t run a lot of traps, which is why I asked Horford if that was a new coverage scheme triggered when Schroder was matched up against a bigger shooting guard. Turns out that was entirely Horford’s call.

“I saw an opportunity, and we can do that because I know my teammates will cover for me,” Horford said. “There’s a lot of trust.”

Just as the Hawks run a good amount of read-and-react offense, they're given the same kind of freedom to make intuitive, opportunistic decisions on the defensive end as they are in their vaunted offense. Most coaching staffs in the league won’t vest that kind of trust in their team, either because the sense is there isn’t a collective wherewithal to manage those kinds of decisions, or because they’re control freaks who prefer schemes with no room for errors in interpretation. Not so with the Hawks.

“That’s the beauty of our team -- trusting each other, not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end,” Hawks defensive stopper DeMarre Carroll said. “Our defense is just like our offense. Coach allows freedom.”

With freedom comes responsibility, and for the first time in a good while on Sunday, the Hawks played on a string -- “like Muppets,” said Carroll -- and accountability is fundamental to that process. Otherwise, for example, Pachulia is left alone under the basket, where Mayo finds him for an easy two. Therein lies the difference between good and bad defensive teams.

Even at 44-12, the Hawks aren’t without weaknesses. They struggle on the boards, ranking dead last in offensive rebounding percentage -- though, admittedly, Mike Budenholzer subscribes to the coaching school that preaches transition defense, even at the expense of the second-chance opportunities. But the Hawks rank only 23rd on the defensive glass, which is a cause for concern.

On Sunday, the Muppet Show cleaned up, collecting 77 percent of the Bucks’ misses and gobbling up more than a third of its own. In a game in which Atlanta was outshot from the field and equaled at the free throw line, the margin was crucial, as were the 24 Milwaukee turnovers the Hawks forced with plays like the Horford-Schroder trap.

After the game, the visitors locker room at the Bradley Center was cheery, as the Hawks rushed to catch a flight back to Atlanta, where they’ll take on Dallas on Wednesday night. In front of the locker of Kyle Korver, whose three 3-pointers during the first 150 seconds of the fourth quarter stretched a 2-point lead to 11, sat a large pizza. This for a fitness freak who carries boulders across the floor of the ocean during the offseason?

“Sometimes you just need the calories,” Korver said.

Another hiccup for the East-leading Hawks

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
11:53
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Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
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ATLANTA -- The fear with any streak is that it’s nothing more than an outlier, a torrid affair that doesn’t represent reality so much as an idealized version of it. This is the worry that’s threatening to creep into Atlanta, where the Hawks dropped their fourth game in seven outings since their historic 19-game run with a 105-80 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday.

It’s not in the Hawks’ character to panic, nor should they. Stinkbombs are inevitable over an 82-game season and there’s no shame in falling to a Raptors team that may have played its most complete defensive performance of the season. The Raptors wanted to neutralize the Hawks by accelerating their perimeter rotations and chasing the Hawks off the 3-point line. Mission accomplished.

“You have to give Toronto a lot of credit,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They gave it to us good tonight. There are a lot of reason we didn’t play well. They were a big part of that.”

Another reason: crisp Raptors rotations aside, the Hawks shot horrendously. Kyle Korver missed 9 of 11 from beyond the arc, far and away his most missed attempts of the season. Only Shelvin Mack shot better than 50 percent from the field for Atlanta, and those buckets were firmly in the time o’ garbage. There’s a certain comfort in the ugliness because nobody in the Hawks' locker room believes for an instant that these numbers are any more sustainable than the ungodly shot charts they posted during January.

[+] EnlargePero Antic
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPero Antic and the Hawks came out of the All-Star break with a thud against the visiting Raptors.
“Missing shots, you can’t [be concerned],” Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said. “The shots we took were good shots. We just missed them. We had a week off. We just have to get back in the lab, get to the film.”

This is a team of basketball cinephiles, as film study was cited by Budenholzer, Carroll, Korver and Al Horford as required viewing Saturday before the Hawks take off for Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Sunday afternoon. Though nobody would explicitly lay the loss on the Hawks’ heavy presence at All-Star weekend in New York, Korver allowed for the possibility that a group so reliant on rhythm, timing and routine probably didn’t benefit from the disruption and demands of the festivities.

Still, the Hawks now face realities they knew to be true but until recently hadn’t had to confront. As selfless and appealing as they play on both ends of the floor, those systems have vulnerabilities. For one, pass-happy teams produce beautiful basketball, but passes present a greater risk of turnovers than dull iso sets. On Friday, their classical ballet turned into a game of Twister. The Hawks turned the ball over on almost a quarter of their possessions, which netted the Raps 30 points.

“We were just sloppy,” Horford said. “We were throwing the ball all over the place. Bad turnovers.”

On the other end, the Hawks rely on smart, situational coverages that require trust and decisiveness. Apart from Carroll and possibly Horford (who routinely has to match up against larger centers), they lack the personnel to fall back on lockdown, one-on-one defense. And on Friday, they suffered an unusual number of breakdowns.

“You have to rely on defense when you don’t make shots, and I don’t think we were good on the defensive end of the court,” Budenholzer said. “I’m more concerned with the shots [the Raptors] were getting.”

There’s a popular perception that the Atlanta’s Achilles' heel resides in its lack of a volume scorer, but that’s not really it. The Hawks didn’t fail on Friday night -- or in their excruciating loss at Boston just before the break -- because there wasn’t a superstar to take over. They lost because when you operate a system, you commit to a process, and right now that process looks gummed up.

Fortunately for the Hawks, an exquisite version of that system won them 19 games in a row and bought them some breathing room at the top of the Eastern Conference. Let the FilmFest begin.

Jeff Teague style

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
12:27
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The Hawk says of he's wearing something cutting edge it's because his girlfriend told him to.

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Unstoppable guards

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
3:38
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Hawks guard Jeff Teague on the point guards he hates to defend.

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Tough to guard Jeff Teague

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
3:32
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The Hawks guard is thriving in the space created by Atlanta's sweet shooting lineup.

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Hawks hit another high note in low-key style

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
1:22
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Wallace By Michael Wallace
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ATLANTA -- Jeff Teague wants to let the basketball world in on a secret about his coach.

"He never smiles," the Atlanta Hawks point guard said of coach Mike Budenholzer. "I mean, never. He's really hard to impress. He’s never really satisfied. I think a lot of that has rubbed off on us."

That pretty much explains the Hawks' demeanor after they set a franchise record by extending their winning streak to 15 games with Friday's 103-93 overwhelming of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. As the impressive and dominant wins pile up for the Hawks, the reaction rarely changes.

First come the postgame showers, then the polite shoulder shrugs when asked to put the streak into perspective and, inevitably, there's a comment or two looking ahead to the next opponent on the schedule. That's typically been the low-key Atlanta way for the Hawks this amazing season.

But something was different Friday.

Teague sat in his corner locker a bit stunned by the latest developments.

"I've never seen anything like this here before," Teague whispered as he hurried to get dressed before the crowd came his way. "We must be winning. This is bigger than what we see in the playoffs."

As nearly two dozen reporters entered the locker room, at least one thing became clear: For all of the Hawks' accomplishments so far, flying under the national radar is no longer an option they can execute. Atlanta is no longer a fun little story in the NBA.

[+] EnlargeJeff Teague
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe hot roll of Jeff Teague and the Hawks couldn't be slowed by Russell Westbrook and OKC.

This team -- and it is truly a team in every sense of the word -- is on an absolute tear. The Hawks have led by double figures in every game during their winning streak and improved to 31-1 overall this season when they've gone ahead by at least 10 at some point in a game. The recent list of victims features a who's who of playoff contenders, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and now OKC.

Before Friday's game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked which Hawks player is toughest to defend. His initial hesitation to answer not only spoke volumes but proved prophetic. The 19 turnovers committed by Atlanta insured Budenholzer wouldn't quite be in a smiling mood afterward, but the rest of his team's stat sheet was a thing of basketball balance and beauty.

The Hawks defense left OKC scrambling and settling for jump shots on the way to shooting just 41.4 percent from the field. Atlanta shook off a sluggish start and grew stronger as the game wore on, while Durant and Russell Westbrook seemed to wear down as the Thunder looked every bit like a team that was playing its third road game in four days.

Atlanta won the inside battle, with Paul Millsap and Al Horford both finishing with double-doubles and combining for 36 points and 22 rebounds. And Teague was never rattled by Westbrook on his way to collecting 17 points and nine assists against just two turnovers.

Teague capped his night by swiping the ball from Westbrook near midcourt and racing in for an uncontested dunk in the final minute of the game. It was a fitting end to a performance in which the Hawks scored 54 points in the paint, another 30 from 3-point range, accumulated 27 assists and made all 13 of their free throws. It culminated in a 10th straight win against a Western Conference team.

In other words, the next team that exposes a weakness in the East-leading Hawks (36-8) will be the first team to do so. That Atlanta team that was 7-6 back in November has since won 29 of its past 31 games. While the players and coaches will insist their approach hasn't changed during the streak, the reaction to their success has over the past two months.

On Thursday, Budenholzer was named the Eastern Conference coach of next month's All-Star Game, and early Friday, the team announced the game against OKC was Atlanta's sixth sellout in the past eight home games. That followed the release of last week's numbers that showed crowds at Philips Arena have increased by 2,200 fans per game over last season and ratings are up 61 percent on local TV broadcasts.

Perhaps the biggest sign of progress is that, aside from a couple of loud cheers after ferocious dunks by Westbrook and Durant, the fan support was overwhelmingly in favor of the Hawks. That hasn't routinely been the case in this town, which for decades has supported star players from opposing teams.

"Their home crowd has gotten better," Durant said. "I guess they've jumped on the bandwagon."

A fifth-year veteran, Teague has been around long enough to appreciate the attention and support.

"It's a beautiful thing, man," Teague said. "I always said if you put a good product on the floor, they'd come out and support you. That's what we're doing right now, and they're coming out in full throttle."

There's been more of a homecoming atmosphere in the building lately. The corridors and hallways outside the locker rooms Friday seemed more like a scene from the Staples Center, TD Garden or AmericanAirlines Arena from big games during the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat runs to championships.

Down one hallway, Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and other former Hawks were laughing and sharing stories from their days in the league. In another hallway, local and national politicians mingled with performing artists and NFL stars who hung out near a room for team family members.

That was the type of crowd Budenholzer had to push through to get to the standing-room-only space where he held his postgame news conference. Facing the largest media contingent the Hawks have had all season, Budenholzer said he's confident his team won't get distracted by the additional spotlight.

"Our guys have a great focus every day," Budenholzer said. "They come to work and enjoy being with each other, enjoy competing. I just kind of think their minds and their priorities are on the right thing. So hopefully, I'm not naive, but that's what we'll just keep doing."

Those priorities have been in the right place since the Hawks began the season and tried to distance themselves from a controversial offseason that included racist comments and emails that left general manager Danny Ferry exiled and ownership putting the team up for sale.

Those dark moments have given way to the best start in franchise history, with the Hawks flooded with nothing but positive attention and energy these days. It's developed into a breakout season that has felt too much of a blessing to make maintaining this streak feel like any sort of burden.

"You can't have a burden winning," Horford said of handling the pressures of success. "We'll see. We've never been through this. It will be interesting to see. We have a tight group here, and as long as we stay together, we'll see where this goes."

One place the Hawks success obviously hasn't gone is to their heads.

On MLK Day, choir sings Hawks' lineup

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
11:36
AM ET
By Matt Walks
ESPN.com
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Is any team having more fun than the Atlanta Hawks right now?

Behind the NBA's best defense -- and at least one unsung hero -- Atlanta has won 13 straight and owns a five-game lead over the rest of the Eastern Conference. Off the court, the Hawks are bonding with the city of Atlanta in some unique ways, including their Tinder "Swipe Right Night" and CEO and part-owner Steve Koonin's excuse note for employees who stay up late to watch the team on West Coast swings.

On MLK Day, they did it their own way again by letting an ensemble choir led by former Hawks guard and current pastor John Battle announce the starting lineup.


The Hawks beat the Pistons 93-82 to get their NBA-best 34th win.

How unsung Antic helps the Hawks

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
11:00
AM ET
By Bo Churney and Buddy Grizzard
Special to ESPN.com
Pero AnticAP Photo/Darron CummingsAll the little things that Pero Antic does are helping to take the Hawks to new heights this season.
The Atlanta Hawks were a couple of missed shots away from upsetting the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Pero Antic was a big reason why.

Antic, inserted into the starting lineup having just returned from a stress fracture, shot only 16.7 percent from the field in the series and didn't have a made 3-pointer after Game 2. But the Hawks outscored the Pacers by 29 points for the series with Antic on the floor, a team high.

"He's so unique," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. "He does things, you just go back and watch film and usually it's brilliant. It's not necessarily anything that we've told him. He's just a really, really smart, instinctive player, including the defensive end. You go back and watch tape of him and learn a lot."

One of the techniques Antic uses on defense is “pulling the chair.” Antic -- a 6-foot-11, 260-pound Hulk of a player -- has the body and strength to match opposing players in the post. Knowing this, he often takes advantage of an offensive player trying to overpower him.

Pulls the chair out. NBA / Hawks
Here, Antic allows Kevin Seraphin of the Wizards to body him up. But once Seraphin attempts a second move to power into the paint, Antic backs out of the way and Seraphin’s momentum forces him to travel.

Pulls the chair.NBA / Hawks
Antic uses the same technique on forward LaMarcus Aldridge, but instead of waiting until he’s deep post, with the opponent’s back to the basket, Antic bails out in the high post with Aldridge facing the basket and attempting to drive into the lane.

On the offensive end, it’s Antic’s screens that do the trick for the Hawks.

"Offensively, I think people probably pick up and see the stuff he does on that end of the court with the passing and the screening," said Budenholzer. "He's a great screen setter. I think people probably don't appreciate that when guys come open, it took a great screen to get that guy open.”

Antic is instrumental in getting his teammates open by setting solid screens.Hawks / NBA
The Hawks’ screens aren't all about springing Kyle Korver for an open look, either. With Jeff Teague as the ball handler, Antic slips the screen and rolls toward the basket. The maneuver allows Teague to get around LeBron James and go past Chris Bosh, whom Antic has sealed off from defending Teague’s layup attempt.

"[Screening] is everything," Teague said. "Al [Horford], Paul [Millsap] and Pero and those guys do a great job of making it easy for me to get open looks. It's something we take pride in -- setting great screens -- and I think they do a great job of it."

Of course, there’s also the move that helped Antic make a name for himself last season as a 31-year-old rookie: his devastating pump-fake.

Pump fake.NBA / Hawks
The slow, methodical form on his jump shot is easy to mime and draw defenders into the air. It often looks silly, but Antic has used the fake to make some pretty important shots.

“Driving it and passing it and pump-fakes,” Budenholzer said, “there's so many small things that I think when you add them up, they may not be in the box score, but I know his teammates appreciate it and most of the time I appreciate it. Sometimes I get frustrated with it [laughs]. I have to remind myself he's brilliant."

The stats back it up. Among players with at least 400 minutes this season, Antic has the league's best per-minute plus-minus of any player not on the Golden State Warriors (per Basketball-Reference).

When told of the compliments from his coach, Antic, a native of Macedonia, demurred, chalking it up to a basketball upbringing in Europe.

"It's just the fundamental basketball that they teach me from kids' ball," Antic said. "I recognize some situations where I'm not supposed to go, but it's a team game. You have to help just by instinct. I'm not thinking. My body goes by himself, so I follow him."

Thanks to Antic, every other Eastern Conference team is now following the Hawks in the standings.

GIFs compiled by Jake Martinsek. Follow @BoChurney, @BuddyGrizzard and @IAmMartinsek on Twitter.

Basketball back in the lost city of Atlanta

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
10:00
AM ET
By Charles Bethea
Special to ESPN.com
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Harry the HawkKevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAfter decades of indifference, the Hawks have pushed basketball back to the forefront in Atlanta.
Once, six years ago, when the Hawks showed a glimmer of hope by starting the season 21-10, I made it my goal to find and attend a Hawks fan club in Atlanta, whatever that might mean. A deep Internet dive led me to a guy called "Bee Moe" who said he was starting one. I wrote him an impassioned email expressing interest from a like soul. He replied: "Well, you would be the first. Let's see what kind of response we get. I will follow up." He never did, despite numerous follow-ups of my own.

This is what it's been like to be an Atlanta Hawks fan in the late 20th and early 21st century: lonely.

Decades ago, during the civil rights movement, it was called "the city too busy to hate." But for years Atlanta felt more like "the city too busy to root." Fans arrived incredibly late to games, if they came at all. And when they did come, they were most often presented, over the past two decades, with an unattractive, isolation-heavy style of basketball that -- the thinking went -- befit the few real stars (Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone) and the many pretenders we've seen here (Joe Johnson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Steve Smith: bless their long-dribbling hearts). Meanwhile, homegrown hoops prodigies like Dwight Howard wouldn't touch "Hotlanta" with a 10-foot pole.

Seven straight playoff berths and hasty, hope-snuffing exits couldn't remedy any of this.

But now, I can say for the first time in my 33 years of being alive and a Hawks fan, we've got a team of non-stars who form a beautiful basketball constellation. DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap: these are not household names or All-Star shoo-ins. But thanks to their sharing and scrappy intelligence, these Hawks are now being called "Spurs of the East." It's as if the bird itself must be abandoned in order to believe what's being seen: two separate winning streaks (one still going) of nine games or more before the All-Star break; a 28-game stretch with just two losses; the best record in the Eastern Conference (33-8). Yes, it's the weaker conference, but there's this, too: They’ve beaten nearly every top Western team already this season.

But it's also the way the wins have come, through the collective efforts of an unlikely cast of characters sprung from a Tom Robbins novel. We've got a Macedonian hit man draining off-balance 3s; a little German backup point guard with a blond striped head and a skateboard back home jamming over 7-footers; a 33-year-old pure shooter who runs rocks underwater in the offseason and could become the first 50-50-90 player ever; a forward/center who reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez and does yoga when he's not getting triple-doubles; a coach who seems to have downloaded Gregg Popovich's brain, without the mean part; and a bench that goes moose-goggle nuts supporting the team, like every game is the Final Four.

Still, nationally, the Hawks are doubted.

It's not just the team that has historically struggled for legitimacy on the large stage. It's the city, too. And for good reason: In the past 20 years we've had a mayor who went to jail for tax evasion; an Olympics that was both aesthetically and functionally inadequate to visitors and residents alike; a "snowpocalypse" that, most of all, revealed the city's woefully inadequate transit system. We've even given birth to the televised plague of “Honey Boo Boo” and the abortive campaign of the pizza baron turned presidential meteor, Herman Cain. (OK, places just outside of Atlanta led to those last two. But we still get the "credit.")

Atlanta is home to Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta and the busiest airport in the world, yes. But a half dozen blue chips and a bunch of airplanes does not a city make. So now, just as the Hawks are finally finding their wings, it's doubly satisfying to see that Atlanta is making progressive moves worthy of its longtime moniker, "Capital of the South."

To name just a few: We finally have an outstanding Civil and Human Rights center worthy of the struggle; we've opened an urban pathway called the BeltLine -- one of the largest urban redevelopment programs underway in the country -- allowing Atlantans to, gasp, walk and bike an old railroad corridor through the famously car-centric city; nationally noteworthy restaurants are popping up right and left, along with craft breweries; long-abandoned or under-utilized buildings are becoming beautiful, multi-functional spaces like Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market; we've got a nice-looking (if expensive) streetcar in place. We've even earned the title of "Hollywood of the South," as tax incentives have made Georgia one of the best states to film in the country. Oh, and our river water and air have gotten cleaner … which won't hurt if we want to see more of those hawks with feathers flying around.

There are, of course, never steps forward without steps back, and we've seen that with both the team -- general manager Danny Ferry's indefinite leave of absence for making racially charged comments last year -- and the city: a massive 2011 public school cheating scandal led to the indictment of the former schools superintendent and is still being addressed. But Atlanta and its basketball team are moving in the right direction. I just emailed Bee Moe, and it sounds like he's finally getting that fan club off the ground.

A writer-at-large at Atlanta, Charles Bethea (@charlesbethea) writes for the New York Times, Outside, Esquire, and The New Republic, among others.

Are these Hawks just getting started?

January, 18, 2015
Jan 18
12:19
AM ET
Doolittle By Bradford Doolittle
ESPN.com
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video
CHICAGO -- Does anybody really still doubt whether the Atlanta Hawks are bona fide contenders in the Eastern Conference? If you do, you haven't been paying attention to the NBA over the last week. A more pertinent question may be whether Atlanta is a serious threat to win it all.

Atlanta's 107-99 win over the Chicago Bulls was remarkable for its banality. The Hawks raced out to an early lead, kept the Bulls down by double digits for most of the game, then coolly held on down the stretch even after Derrick Rose ignited the United Center in the final quarter with some vintage whirling dervish moves. It was the type of situation that should have put the upstart Hawks to the test. But they answered with yet another display of execution and togetherness.

The win capped a week in which the Hawks stomped all three of the teams lurking behind them in the standings. They beat the Wizards by 31 on Sunday, the Raptors by 21 on Friday and now the Bulls.

"They're a great team with the way they move the ball and the way they play defense," Bulls star Derrick Rose said. "They don't have any super, superstars, but they have very good players and they love playing with each other. It shows."

Atlanta has now won 12 straight games for the first time since LBJ was in the White House. The Hawks have won a surreal 26 of 28 since Thanksgiving. Saturday's game marked the halfway point of Atlanta's schedule with a 33rd win. Last year's playoff team won 38 all season. You could go on all night trying to put all this into perspective.

[+] EnlargeKirk Hinrich
Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via GettyWhen former Bull Kyle Korver wasn't guarding former Hawk Kirk Hinrich, he was sinking 7 treys.
Now, and here's the really scary thing, the Hawks head back to Atlanta to finish the month with seven-game homestand.

Only Golden State can rival the collective shooting ability of these Hawks. Kyle Korver is the poster child for that, and he lit up the Bulls for 24 points on just 10 shots. Chicago could not keep track of Korver in transition, and when he's stepping into an unguarded shot, it's a 3-point layup. All seven of Korver's field goals on Saturday came from behind the arc.

Yet, the things that really elevate the Hawks are beyond their bevy of long-range gunners: Unselfishness, and team defense.

The Hawks had 31 assists on 40 field goals on Saturday in what has become almost a matter of course. During the Hawks' just-completed 5-0 week, they topped 30 assists four times. The assists come from all over. Jeff Teague paced the club with 11 in Chicago, but big men Paul Millsap and Al Horford combined for 10, and seven Hawks had at least two.

"It's the unselfishness of these players," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "They have a high basketball IQ and high character."

Korver, who said this Atlanta team reminds him of the "hungry" bunch from his first year in Chicago, appears to be enjoying himself immensely.

"It's just fun basketball," Korver said. "To me, it's the best kind of basketball. I think a lot of the guys feel that way too."

As for the defense, Atlanta leads the league in defensive efficiency during its 28-game surge despite the lack of the classic, shot-blocking rim defender everyone seems to think they need.

"It's team defense," Korver said. "We have really mobile bigs. They can really move and are intelligent. We can switch up coverages because we have guys who can do that."

The Hawks join Golden State as the only teams to rank in the top five in efficiency on both ends of the court and yet continue to fly under the radar. The most recent Hollinger Playoff Odds give Atlanta an NBA-high 38 percent chance of winning it all, something the Hawks franchise hasn't done since Bob Pettit was their star, and the team played in St. Louis. Heady times indeed.

With the team headed home for the next two weeks, who knows how long this streak will go? Could the starless Hawks really stretch the run to 19? Could the post-Thanksgiving spree run to 33-2? According to Korver, the juggernaut no one is following is only getting started.

"We all truly know we haven't accomplished anything yet," Korver said. "But we feel like we have really good pieces that fit together, and we understand that we have to play together to have success."

The other early MVP candidates

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
4:57
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Marc Gasol, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Kyle Korver are all possible MVPs this season, says David Thorpe.



Revealing map of North America's NBA fans

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
7:23
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Twitter has produced an interactive map of NBA fandom based on the locations of people following official team accounts. The results give some insight into the predilections of NBA fans who use social media, if not fans in general. Here’s a rundown of interesting facts in the info.

1. Los Angeles is not Lob City
Check out Los Angeles County, home of your Clippers of Los Angeles. Actually, "your" might be stretching it because so few claim this team on Twitter. The Clips have a meager 6.79 percent following to the Lakers' 50.32 percent. In their own backyard, the Clippers have about as much traction as they have in certain Canadian regions (They’re at 5.35 percent in Queens, New Brunswick). Put another way, the Lakers are far more Twitter popular in Quebec (17.71 percent in Montreal!) than the Clippers are in Los Angeles.

2. Nobody cares where you played in college
The NBA likes its rookies to spend time playing college ball under the logic that it boosts league branding.
[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesNo matter which way Kobe Bryant points, chances are he will find a heavy concentration of Lakers fans.
Perhaps this is so, but we don't see college affiliation mattering much in these numbers. This is true for a few players, but Stephen Curry is a good example. Back in 2007 and 2008, he gained renown for elevating a plucky Davidson team. Despite that history and despite Curry leading all West players in All-Star votes, the Warriors register only 1.66 percent fandom in Davidson's home county of Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

3. The Great Purple North
Yes, the Raptors are the most popular team in Canada. The Lakers aren't far behind, though, claiming a fan majority in British Columbia and various counties scattered across the vast nation. Canada has yet to purge the Laker menace.

4. The Thunder Run Wade Hampton County, Alaska
Thunder fandom is largely confined to Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, but they do have a far-flung outpost. OKC is the favorite team (10.56 percent) of Wade Hampton County, Alaska. Sure it has only 8,000 people, but still, way to spread the word.

5. The Hawks don't fly at home
Hopefully, this recent Hawks on-court success can woo some fans. In Fulton County, where the Hawks hail from, we see slightly more Lakers followers (15.52 percent) than Hawks followers (15.42 percent). You'd think having an entire state to yourself would give you a hold on a local audience. Not so much -- yet.

The ever-underrated Atlanta Hawks

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
1:35
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Zach Lowe stops by to talk about the thrilling, under-appreciated Atlanta Hawks.

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Late for work? Hawks CEO has you covered

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6
2:31
PM ET
Merritt By Jim Merritt
ESPN.com
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The Atlanta Hawks cruised past the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night at Staples Center, and fans of the Eastern Conference leader surely stayed up well past their bedtimes to catch their team taking it to one of the West's top contenders.

While loss of sleep might be an acceptable trade-off for the win, it may have caused some Atlanta-area fans to stroll into work a bit late.

In case their bosses weren't hoops fans, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin came to the rescue with the perfect excuse ... and free tickets!

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