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The Atlanta Hawks fly under the radar

1/8/2015
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

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.