TrueHoop: Atlanta Hawks

Hawks hit another high note in low-key style

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
1:22
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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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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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!

Hawks' Culture Change

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6
12:54
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Talking with Atlanta Hawks Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nzinga Shaw.

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The Atlanta Hawks fly under the radar

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6
3:52
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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HawksAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe camaraderie is authentic for the East-leading Hawks, who finished a 3-0 road trip out West.
LOS ANGELES -- A few moments after the Atlanta Hawks dispatched the Los Angeles Clippers 107-98 to complete a 3-0 Western swing, coach Mike Budenholzer beelined to the locker of DeMarre Carroll.

As the stampede of foreign press filed in (no one from Atlanta’s media outlets made the trip to cover the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks), Budenholzer stood over the seated Carroll and delivered a kind message to his lockdown defender. As Budenholzer finished, he laid his hands on either side of Carroll’s head, as an emotional punctuation mark, then disappeared into the visiting coach’s office.

Carroll was clearly moved by his coach's gesture. When asked what Budenholzer had told him, Carroll demured. It’s just not in the DNA of the Hawks to share a private moment between player and coach, even after said player racked up 17 points on eight shots from the field, collected eight rebounds, dished out with four assists, performed his usual custodial work on the defensive end of the floor and took a nasty spill in the second half that kept him on the ground well into a timeout.

These are the Atlanta Hawks, who are every bit as measured off the court as they are on it. These are grown men who go about the business of surgically dissecting two Western Conference contenders, then go en masse to a non-mandatory team dinner, something they do routinely after both wins and losses. The camaraderie is authentic, even if the personalities are, with a few exceptions, pretty mellow.

“The reason it’s authentic is that everyone has bought in,” Al Horford said. “We enjoy working with each other.”

Working isn't an idle word choice. Locker rooms come in any number of shapes and sizes. A giddy one doesn’t mean the players inside aren't serious about winning basketball games, but spend time with the Hawks and there’s a distinct air of buttoned-up professionalism -- an office populated by mature adults who understand work-life balance and the division of labor.

“We have guys who don’t play, who have guaranteed contracts beyond this year and they work their asses off because they want us to be better and want to contribute,” veteran big man Elton Brand said.

One thing that often gets lost in the discussion about culture and chemistry -- the system installed in Atlanta by way of San Antonio demands a strict selflessness. Break off from the sequence of actions in the half court and the stuff falls apart. Everyone on the floor devotes himself to the idea that if you stay in motion, the ball will work its way to the logical recipient before the shot clock expires.

So when guys spend practices, shootarounds, walk-throughs and film sessions preaching the gospel of sharing the ball, it’s not at all weird or cultish to spend time together around a dinner table: “Breaking bread is what coach calls it,” Carroll said.

In his 17th season now, Brand has a counterintuitive theory for the Hawks’ success -- namely, that it’s the absence of superstars that makes the enterprise work in Atlanta, which is now 26-8.

“Not to dump on any specific team, but when you play against a superstar, you know exactly where the ball is going,” Brand said. “Certain guys are going to get the ball at certain times at certain spots. They're running their sets.”

It’s not as if the Hawks don’t have a well-formed foundation -- just about every player in the league who has read a scouting report has been versed in the choreography of the Spurs-style motion deployed by Atlanta, but the system is predicated on intelligent players making intelligent decisions based largely on the behavior of the defense. So when opponents show out Kyle Korver as he comes off a pin-down, Korver can dish the ball to Horford or Pero Antic, who after pinning Korver’s guy has slipped to the basket.

This works on the other end of the floor too, where the Hawks have climbed from the bottom half of the league to No. 6 overall in defensive efficiency. Though it’s not an extraordinarily gifted group of individual defenders, the Hawks are versatile and, more than that, heady. They've made a habit of switching up coverages multiple times per night, as they did in their win over Portland on Saturday, keeping the Trail Blazers off balance. Sounds obvious, but asking a team to master multiple coverages for a single matchup is a difficult proposition … unless the team has the collective smarts and trust to make guerrilla warfare its overriding strategy.

Absent a dynamic creator, the Hawks are banking on their intelligence to carry them out of the Eastern Conference, which they currently lead by 1½ games. Rather than fly home to Atlanta on a red-eye charter, the Hawks opted to stay in Los Angeles for the night, where a majority of the team broke bread at the quaint Italian joint Piccolo, just off Venice Beach.

Leave it to the Hawks to choose the one restaurant in town that begged to be left out of the encyclopedic Zagat restaurant guide, even though it received quality reviews.

The Toronto Raptors: Simply winning

November, 27, 2014
11/27/14
12:31
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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ATLANTA -- The Toronto Raptors won’t accept your compliments. Marvel at the 126 points they dropped on the Atlanta Hawks on Thanksgiving eve, and they’ll squawk about the 115 they gave up at the other end. There’s even a cognitive dissonance to the Raptors’ language, as head coach Dwane Casey twice said after the game that his team “kept grinding it out.”

Coach Casey, we just witnessed your team leave burn marks on the floor at Philips Arena. There was nothing remotely grind-ish about it. Your guys got whatever they wanted on the night. They produced clean looks out of thin air and looked great doing it. Overall, your Raps have posted nearly five points more per 100 possessions than the second-ranked offense in the East. So when you say “grind” -- twice! -- I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Raptors’ reluctance to bask in the glow of their gaudy offensive numbers is understandable. This core in Toronto has come of age with team defense as its hallmark. During his decades in the coaching ranks, Casey has developed a reputation as one of the most imaginative defensive minds in the game. In Dallas, he fashioned a scheme in which the Mavs floated from man-to-man and zone in the same possession. In Toronto, his team goes against the grain, as defenders force ball handlers to help rather than pushing them sideline and down, the prevailing trend in the league.

It’s not as if Toronto wasn’t offense oriented -- we’re talking about a team whose primary threats in recent years were Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan -- but the Raptors never won many style points when they had the ball. Kyle Lowry bowled his way to the rim, or a wing found a mismatch and went to work -- low-risk, low-turnover and, yes, grind-it-out offensive basketball.

[+] EnlargeToronto Raptors
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Amir Johnson,Kyle Lowry and guard Lou Williams celebrate their team's sixth straight win.
Know what? The Raptors still run a guard-oriented offense that’s programmed to get good looks for their perimeter guys, with the ball in Lowry’s hands for the bulk of the possession. Sure, they’ll put the blossoming 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas or backup forward Patrick Patterson on the move to run interference, but this is still a straightforward scheme. But, man, it runs like clockwork.

Wanting to better understand how the Raptors have built one of the league’s most prolific offenses, I hit up Raptors reserve othersized big man Chuck Hayes after the game. A longtime Rocket whose first two coaches in the league were Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman, Hayes typically has interesting stuff to share about the inner workings of a team.

“It’s nothing like what we ran under [Adelman] and it’s nothing like what we ran under Jeff Van Gundy, a lot of left-right, work both sides of the floor,” Hayes said. “We’re going to run sets where our guys can get to their sweet spots for high-percentage shots. We’re going to get DeMar a shot he works on constantly -- he’s a killer from 17 or 18 feet. His footwork is unbelievable, so we get him the ball in space.”

To better illustrate this the-right-shot-at-the-right-spot-for-the-right-guy offense, Hayes cited a moment when Toronto led by 10 with a little more than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. With their reserves on the floor, the Raptors ran a pick-and-roll -- the kind of action you see a few dozen times a game from each side, but this one served a specific purpose.

“This gentleman didn’t score all game, but then we run a play for him,” Hayes said, intentionally withholding the name of the player in question. “It was James Johnson. He had Kyle Korver on him. So we play to [Johnson’s] strengths. At his size, he gets the ball at the free throw line. Our spacing allowed him to make that Eurostep and beat the help. He hadn’t scored the entire game until we called that play. He’s not in rhythm, he’s got the flu, he hasn’t put up many shots. But we’re going to give him a shot at his sweet spot. That’s a high-percentage shot for us.”

This play call doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. The Raptors had examined the matchups on the floor and made note of what was available. Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams were both unconscious, which had prompted the Hawks to tighten up their perimeter defense. They threw a trap at Vasquez and, just like Hayes said, the Raps leveraged the coverage.

There’s nothing specifically novel about this strategy. If a defense moves outside, then you move inside. If it pressures one side of the floor, you reverse the ball to the other. This is what NBA teams do on a nightly basis.

But as the first month of the season comes to a close, the Raptors have elevated pragmatism to an art form. They’ve taken several imperfect offensive pieces, identified what each one does best, and tripled-down on that skill. “Everyone stays in their lane,” as Casey likes to say. That might lack the flair of his innovative defenses, but discipline is its own kind of creativity. And right now, the Raptors have created something beautiful in its simplicity.

Ujiri writes column about Ferry comments

September, 11, 2014
9/11/14
7:34
PM ET
By Staff
ESPN.com
Toronto Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri has penned a column for the Globe and Mail in regard to the comments made by Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry. Ujiri, from Nigeria, was stung to hear that Ferry had said Luol Deng, of South Sudan, "has a little African in him."
When I first heard it, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I am an African from Nigeria. Luol is an African from South Sudan. We’ve worked together across our home continent, holding our own basketball camps, as well as in those organized by the NBA.

I remember an instance, in Kigali, Rwanda, when Luol honoured a commitment to show up despite being seriously ill. He didn’t want to disappoint any of the children who were expecting him.
Is that “a little bit of African”?

His fellow NBA players have named him the NBA’s top sportsman. Last year, his work for charity earned him the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award.

Is that the “African” he means?

Luol has made two all-star teams. A couple of years ago, he had a terrible reaction to a spinal tap. He lost 15 pounds in the hospital. I was texting with him during that ordeal, which was very serious. He always remained humble and full of personality. When he got out, he still tried to play for his team during a playoff series.

Is that “African”?

Ujiri goes on to say explain why he can bring himself to forgive Ferry.

The Atlanta Dilemma

September, 10, 2014
9/10/14
4:04
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Bomani Jones stops by to unpack this Atlanta Hawks scandal and what it means in the broader NBA picture.

The other side of NBA free agency

July, 16, 2014
7/16/14
10:00
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Kent BazemoreNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images While NBA superstars mulled their decisions, free agents like Kent Bazemore had to sit and wait.
You’d think NBA players would get stressed about free agency. So many decisions, the potential of living in disparate locations, and a constant stream of social media information with updates on the movements of potential co-workers.

When I sat down with Kent Bazemore a few days before he signed with the Atlanta Hawks for two years, $4 million, I assumed he’d be caught up in the frenzy like so many of us NBA news addicts. I figured Bazemore’s fingerprints would be callused from keeping up with news on Twitter all week. He’s no LeBron James, but I’d seen Bazemore mentioned in so many free-agency rumors that I’d just believed his entire existence had been reduced to a swirl of confusing speculation. The rangy, athletic guard probably couldn’t get his arms around all the rumors, even with a 6-foot-11 wingspan.

Not quite. Bazemore wasn’t checking Twitter -- he says he glances at it roughly once a day, usually in the afternoon. “You can’t control it,” was his succinct answer for why he doesn’t obsess over the transaction game. Also, he has people to do that for him.

"We got a group chat, me and my roommate, my little brother, my agent, financial advisor, two of my other best friends,” Bazemore said. “They just rant on about that stuff all day. I just watch the Tour de France, I play 'FIFA' downstairs. I actually won the Scottish Premier Cup with my team just now right before you got here."

It’s easy to forget athletes are more than skill sets on the court. They get approached by fans who know them only from their games, so even the redundancy of idle compliments can get annoying. Though a bench player for most of his career, Bazemore gets recognized. Sadly, that recognition doesn’t come with praise of his stellar FIFA play, his golf game, or his recent painting of an eye-shaped sun setting itself over an ocean.

Paintings aside, Bazemore’s Bay Area apartment was something more spartan than you’d expect from an NBA player, which makes sense when you consider his transient lifestyle. After getting traded to Los Angeles, he’d been living out of a hotel near the Lakers practice facility. Though he maintains strong ties with the Warriors organization, he wasn’t expecting the kind of offer from Golden State that would keep him in this Oakland-area apartment.

Bazemore had gotten back from Atlanta the night before, where he’d met with Danny Ferry, Darvin Ham and others in the Hawks organization. It was more like a classic job interview than anything we associate with the NBA, but he enjoyed what can be a nerve-wracking process for others. Unlike what happens on Twitter, there’s a degree of control in a face-to-face meeting. “A lot of guys can’t hold a conversation,” Bazemore said. He knows he can, and appreciates the chance to set himself apart.

What becomes apparent with Bazemore is that he has more energy than you. It’s not a coincidence that his sideline celebrations were known as the league’s most elaborate. Though he’s coming off foot surgery, his days include 20-mile bike rides. On weekends, he tends to go over 40 miles when biking with his girlfriend in the East Bay Hills.

He’s drawn to the fatigue, addicted to the point at which a body no longer functions. "You'll be in the middle of a bike ride and you're just like, man, I don't know if I can turn another rep."

"Do you like that, though?" I ask. A Tour de France race is on TV, and it looks like torture with consent.

The response is fast and unambiguous. "I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.”

His attention turns to the cyclists suffering at the craggy hands of a French mountain. He’s updating me, filling me in on which guys are running on fumes, which guys are about to fall from the pack. He’s keyed in on the process of exhaustion, interested in how effort takes you to a place where even effort ultimately lets you down.

He might be a little jealous. Bazemore said he wished he’d gotten to run in even more unglamorous D-League games last season. He just wanted to play. He always wants to play.

Bazemore believes it's what carried him to the NBA. In the beginning, his skills didn’t seem to presage an NBA career. "I sucked,” he said. “I was terrible all the way up until eighth grade. When it was time to go to AAU camps, I would score, like, six points in a weekend."

But his mom kept bringing him, and he kept improving. "I've been a pretty optimistic guy my entire life,” he said. “Especially where I come from, optimism really helps you." Bazemore grew up in Kelford, North Carolina, a tiny town where the per capita income is less than $10,000 per year. His family struggled. "No heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, food gets scarce. Four people in the house and my dad got laid off and my mom was the only one making any money."

The desperation of that situation was integral to getting him here, to a point where multiple NBA teams call for his services. "That's why I applaud people like Steph [Curry],” Bazemore explains. He doesn’t understand how anyone gets here without the hunger of poverty. So in some ways his good friend Stephen Curry, a man from comfortable means, is a mystery.

Bazemore used that hunger to get here, but there’s a downside to the trait he trusts. All that gnawing energy took him to a place where energy couldn’t help him: the bench. At times, he was miserable riding pine. People loved his sideline celebrations, but those were as much expressions of frustration as they were of joy. He was antsy in his seat. “I went to a dark place,” Bazemore recalled of all his DNPs. “You only can contain the tiger in the cage for so long.”

There’s a cruelty to how a lifetime of physical preparation can lead to hours and hours of spectating, eons of interminable waiting. It’s the plight of the many players we don’t see in commercials or All-Star Games. Bazemore has an intense desire to use what got him to the top of his profession. Maybe he'll get that opportunity with a fun, floor-spacing Hawks team. His success would be as much about achieving a dream as it would be quelling what made the achievement possible.

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