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Atlanta's magic trick

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Horford, Hardaway lead Hawks past Rockets (1:06)

Al Horford records 22 points and nine rebounds while Tim Hardaway Jr. adds 20 points off the bench in Atlanta's 109-97 win over Houston. (1:06)

It must be a strange thing to discover magic, and then lose it -- an absence you can feel, but not explain or understand. It's a transition the Atlanta Hawks are living through, and it has competing impulses roiling within them: the urge to recapture the collective mind-meld of last season's 60-win symphony, set against a more rational push to leave it behind and allow this team to form its own identity.

The NBA calendar creates natural delineations between seasons, but the human mind doesn't compartmentalize so easily. Every time the Hawks get hot, some of them give into the temptation. Maybe, just maybe, they've found it -- whatever it is -- again. Mike Budenholzer, the team's coach, is cautious about letting his mind wander there, even as the Hawks have reeled off eight wins in 10 games.

"I've felt it a couple of other times this year," Budenholzer told ESPN.com, "and it hasn't played out."

The beautiful scoring machine that gob-smacked the league last season just hasn't hummed this time around. The Hawks are 15th in points per possession after finishing sixth last season, and they've had to accept the reality that the league has figured out how to guard them.

"We snuck up on teams last year," Kent Bazemore told ESPN.com. "I don't think people took us seriously."

The Nets, Cavs and Wizards unveiled some special anti-Hawks tactics in the playoffs last season, including expert ball denial on the weak side, and the rest of the league noticed.

"It has been frustrating," Kyle Korver told ESPN.com. "Teams weren't sure how to guard us last year. But they've adjusted."

It wasn't just the league catching up. DeMarre Carroll bolted to Toronto, a casualty of Atlanta's weird cap situation; Jeff Teague got off to a ragged start; the New York Police Department broke Thabo Sefolosha's leg; Tiago Splitter never really got integrated; and Korver lurched around after two offseason surgeries. Atlanta could have obsessed over repairing its gummy offense, but it made a different choice: become a defensive juggernaut, and hope the offense reanimates in time.

Budenholzer devoted 90 percent of practice time to defense, players and coaches say. Atlanta tightened its foundational scheme, and got more adventurous scripting opponent-specific tweaks. The team beloved among hard-core fans for its gorgeous offense breaks every huddle with a chant of "Defense!"

It has worked. The Hawks rank second overall in points allowed per possession, trailing only the Spurs, and they've been No. 1 by a wide margin since the calendar flipped to 2016. If each season really tells its own story, maybe this is the story of the 2015-16 Hawks: encounter failure in one area, dig deep in another, and come out a more complete team at the right time.

"Our offense hasn't been there, so our defense has had to be better," Korver said. "There has been growth in the team because of that realization. And now we're starting to figure some things out offensively. I think we peaked too early last year. Hopefully this year, our best basketball is ahead of us."


The Hawks don't look the part a defense that could go stop-for-stop with San Antonio: no mammoth rim protector; a point guard with a flitty attention span; two aging wings coming off devastating injuries; and a would-be stopper who looks too skinny for the job.

But they have perhaps the best power forward-center duo in the league in Al Horford and Paul Millsap, and Budenholzer reconfigured his Popovichian defensive system around their speed. Atlanta unleashes its big men to trap ball handlers around the 3-point arc on the pick-and-roll, confident Horford and Millsap can corral those little guys -- and then scamper back toward their original assignments.

The goal: Pin those dudes along the sidelines, force them to pick up their dribble, and let the three Hawks behind the play lay in wait to steal the coming pass.

Atlanta's perimeter guys are experts at forcing ball handlers away from screens -- and right into their death trap. They dictate the terms of engagement. If opponents flip the screen around, so that it directs their point guards toward the sidelines, the Hawks are happy to let the play unfold toward that non-human extra defender.

The Hawks rank second in forcing turnovers, unthinkable for a coach who lives the Spurs ethos of caution: play two big men, force midrange jumpers, don't gamble, and clean the defensive glass. "The turnover thing is weird for me," Budenholzer says. "I didn't dream for 20 years about coaching a team that would create turnovers."

That's the catch: Atlanta swarms without gambling, or swiping its way into foul trouble. Only five teams allow fewer free throws per shot attempt, putting the Hawks in a small historic circle of teams that force heaps of turnovers without fouling.

Things have to be airtight at the top. If an opposing point guard scoots around that trap, or sneaks a pocket pass through it, his team is going downhill into a deadly four-on-three. Atlanta seals those holes in the simplest way: by spreading arms wide, and keeping hands high. Good luck navigating a four-armed forest of Horford and Dennis Schroder.

It sounds dumb, but using your arms as barriers takes commitment most teams can't sustain over 48 minutes. "The basic stuff becomes critical," Budenholzer says.

Being smart helps, too. Horford and Millsap have quick hands, and good instincts for those millisecond openings when they might reach in for a steal. Millsap is one of the great big man thieves in NBA history. "Paul has [expletive] amazing hands," Budenholzer said. "Just amazing."

"Best hands in the league for a big," Bazemore said.

Horford and Millsap do a better job than you'd expect, given their height, patrolling the basket. They are the best-of-both-worlds frontcourt: enough shooting to spread the floor on offense, enough beef to anchor a top-flight defense. And against teams with shaky-shooting point guards, Budenholzer is happy to let them sit further back -- or even switch more often if the assignments fit.

Teague, Bazemore, Schroder and Sefolosha are on their toes away from the ball, reading the point guard like NFL safeties, ready to jump into the next passing lane. The Hawks get a ton of mileage from playing hard and being smart. "You can teach the scheme all you want," Korver said, "but we have a lot of guys who just have great feel."

They play on a string, and Horford is an expert at sagging off non-shooting big men to cut off passing lanes at exactly the right moment.

There are costs to playing this hyper style. Trapping the pick-and-roll up top leaves a big man free to roll down the lane, and that in turn forces the Hawks to send at least one help defender into the paint early from the weak side. When the Hawks fly, that weak side can look naked.

Teams with the right personnel can pass over and around those traps and into tasty open 3s. Atlanta allowed the most 3-point attempts in the league last season. They've done a better job limiting triples this season, but they know the risks -- especially against teams with tall point guards who can peek over traps, and the kind of shooting across four positions that makes rotations longer.

"We did not like giving up all those 3s," Budenholzer said. "It's a constant battle: You can't put pressure on the ball like we do without exposing yourselves a bit."

But skip passes to the weak side are baked into the Hawks' system. String that first pick-and-roll out far enough, and those passes become long-distance lobs. The Hawks bet on their ability to help in the paint, change directions, and outrun the ball. Do that once, and the shot clock is in single digits. Do it twice, and it's heave time.

Smart defenses don't just play their opponents. They play the shot clock, too. The two main participants in a pick-and-roll rarely finish a play against the Hawks, and only five teams force a larger share of opponent attempts within the last five seconds of the shot clock, per STATS SportVU data provided to ESPN.com.

That last stat is remarkable, considering the Hawks are a dismal rebounding team, and dismal rebounding teams allow a ton of quick-hitting second-chance points. Atlanta is 26th in defensive rebounding rate, and on pace for the lowest offensive rebounding rate in league history. The latter reflects Budenholzer's preference for transition defense, though Kris Humphries, fitting in well as (basically) a center, should nab at least a few boards. The former is a gaping weakness in Atlanta's postseason armor, perhaps exacerbated by demanding Horford and Millsap stray so far from the rim.

"It's amazing that we give up so many rebounds, and still rank so high on defense," Korver said.

Atlanta's style is also taxing. Those help defenders cover a ton of ground, and they cannot afford a moment of relaxation. They have to be in the paint early, so that they can stop, regain their footing, and be ready to dart back in the opposite direction right when that skip pass gets launched. If they're leaning the wrong way, they're toast.

"That's the challenge: How do you take away that pass in the lane, and still get out on a corner 3?" Korver said. "An extra split-second can mean everything."

Only the Magic have covered more distance on defense this season, per SportVU data, and the Hawks sprint a lot.

The real pain comes when opponents bust the initial trap and earn something better than that cross-court pass. Turn the corner, and Atlanta's tendency to flood the rim can get it in trouble:

Smart teams will cut off the trap before it starts by slamming Atlanta's big men with an extra screen, set lower on the floor, ahead of the real pick-and-roll:

Teams have discovered other ways to use Atlanta's pressure against it, just as the league adjusted to Milwaukee's frenetic scheme this season. Good teams with stud talent and time to gameplan will poke more holes in the Hawks' scheme.

But the Hawks are winning way more possessions than they're losing, at least so far. Atlanta has enjoyed an easy schedule in 2016, and it's about to turn, with four combined games left against Toronto and Cleveland. Good teams will prod that defense, duck under picks on Teague -- still shooting just 30 percent on long 2-pointers -- and test whether this offensive surge is real.

The Hawks are confident it is. They still lead the league in catch-and-shoot jumpers, a Budenholzer staple, and they're actually generating more wide-open 3s this season, per NBA.com. They say the energy fueling their defense is carrying over to the other end, and that they've found antidotes to some of the strategies that have stifled them over the past eight months. The Wiz short-circuited a bunch of Atlanta possessions in last season's conference semis by smothering that first pass.

Do that now, and Atlanta shifts right into some Golden State-style cutting-and-screening ballet to throw off your defense and open some backdoor lanes.

"More teams are doing it, but we're getting so much better at our counters," Budenholzer says. More backdoor jaunts and random, unscripted cutting can help free Korver -- finding his shot again -- when teams try to switch every action against him, and inject even more unpredictability.


Making those reads requires the sort of chemistry players develop only after spending years together, which is why it's so interesting the Hawks allegedly looked into busting up their team at the trade deadline.

The Hawks at their peak aren't good enough to beat Cleveland without some breaks, and they're miles behind Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The perimeter talent around the Horford-Millsap front line just doesn't quite stack up night-to-night, and the wing rotation is the biggest long-term question facing the team -- even though Tim Hardaway Jr. suddenly looks like a real player. They don't have LeBron, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook or Kawhi Leonard.

With Horford, who turns 30 in June, about to hit free agency and Schroder readying to succeed Teague, you can understand why the Hawks nearly hit the reset button. Some rival executives view everything through the lens of Horford's next contract: Re-sign him as he ages, and you're tethering yourselves to long-term mediocrity.

But that Horford-Millsap front line is dynamite; the Hawks may not have a top-10 player, but they have two top-20 guys at valuable positions. Horford's game should age well, and the Hawks might be able to coax some discount out of him if they dangle that fifth season only they can offer -- the carrot that differentiates them from all the suitors that will chase Horford.

Blow it up, and they still won't have enough in the war chest to outbid Boston for the next traded star. If they let Bazemore walk in free agency, they could have nearly $20 million in cap room -- enough to bring in a couple of young-ish wing players to replace Bazemore, just as Bazemore stepped into Carroll's role. If San Antonio and Milwaukee parlayed a winning and healthy culture into free agency cachet, why can't the Hawks?

Bring Horford back, spend wisely -- on Bazemore, or other guys -- draft well, maybe flip Teague for a couple of pieces, and you've got an easy path to 50-ish wins every season. If Schroder, still just 22, makes a leap, maybe you've got something more. The NBA isn't healthy if everyone either has a superstar, or is bottoming out to get one. And are the Cavs really invincible, the way they're playing now? Do we know who is going to be in Cleveland next season?

Even if the Hawks re-sign Horford and disappoint next season, they have an easy path to tanking in 2017-18: let Millsap walk, dump Horford into someone's copious cap space while he's still on the outer edges of his prime, and plunge down the standings. But for now, there's no urgent reason to break up the team.

The Bazemore dilemma, like the Carroll choice, is interesting for a team that talks a lot about the power of shared time. The develop-and-dump cycle undermines continuity, but Bazemore is a lock to get overpaid this summer.

The long-term picture is uncertain in Atlanta, just as it is in almost every other NBA city. The short-term picture is getting brighter by the day. Admit it, you forgot about these guys while we were slobbering over Toronto and Boston. It's time to remember them. They may not have enough juice to topple a superpower, but they're damn good, and looking more like themselves.

"The energy right now is amazing," Bazemore said. "It's like we're remembering what it took last season. We are starting to find that rhythm."

10 Things I Like And Don't Like

1. The Miami Speed Machine

These Heat contain many versions, but my favorite might be the frantic, physical, pace-pushing crew of Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside -- a new-ish group that has plastered opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions in just more than 100 minutes together.

They play faster than Miami's normal pace, and when Dragic can't find running mates, they settle in around Whiteside's thundering rolls. Richardson, Deng and Winslow form a switchy, ferocious defensive trio across the middle three positions; Richardson and Winslow defend inside your jerseys, and Richardson has been unconscious from 3-point range lately.

Remember how we all went gaga when Kawhi Leonard trailed Kevin Durant around a pick, jumped around Durant's body as Durant wound up for a jumper, and appeared beside him to block the shot in mid-air? Winslow pulled that same trick against Nicolas Batum last week.

It's not a coincidence this lineup features neither Dwyane Wade nor Joe Johnson to slow it down, but Wade's veteran guile provides a different sort of watchability when he's on the floor.

2. That sweet, sweet vintage Cavs logo

The Cavs' current art is both dull and self-serious, with curving flourishes in the word mark and a sword meant to evoke old-school bravery. Bring back the simpler mark the team uses on some throwback nights, and that delightful "V" rendered as a hoop. It's clean, with just the right amount of kitsch. Bonus points if they work in the lighter shade of blue the Cavs used to feature.

3. Sean Kilpatrick, running into the ball

The Sean Marks era is off to a rip-roaring start. The Nets picked Sean Kilpatrick off the scrap heap, watched him infuse the team with a boppy new energy, and inked him right away to a multiyear contract. It's almost jarring to watch young guys like Kilpatrick, Shane Larkin and Markel Brown zip around with enthusiasm in the same arena that has hosted borderline comatose basketball the past four seasons. Oh, right. That's what fun looks like!

Kilpatrick has been gunning from all over the floor, and he has that forceful -- and effective -- habit of running into the ball when he catches a pass on the wing.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. and (shocker) Manu Ginobili are masters at this all-in-one-motion catch-and-drive, and it's a little burst that makes wing players more unpredictable to guard.

4. The Second Annual Victor Oladipo End-of-Year Surge

For the second straight year, Oladipo has caught fire during a meaningless late-season stretch. He's shooting 54 percent in March, and he's blazing from everywhere -- including from 3-point range and around the rim, crucial spots where he hasn't managed quite as well as Orlando hoped.

Oladipo can get trigger-happy from midrange early in the shot clock, even with simple kick-out passes staring him in the face, but his stroke looks smooth. Oladipo did this last season, and then kicked off this one in a bricky slump. The Magic have to cross their fingers that this isn't a garbage time mirage.

5. The Grizzlies, beasting old-school style

The Grizzlies have a dude called Xavier Munford on their team. They are just making guys up at this point. Their anonymous M*A*S*H unit has somehow clawed out enough wins, including that landmark victory in Cleveland, to guarantee a playoff spot -- and ensure they don't cough up a lottery pick to Denver in June's draft.

That may not end up a good thing, since the pick obligation carries over to 2017 and beyond with lighter protections, but the Grizz deserve credit for finding unconventional paths to scoring amid a crazy hail of injuries. One such path: throwing off any anxiety about transition defense, and crashing the absolute hell out of the offensive glass.

Since the first week of March, Memphis has rebounded nearly 35 percent of its own misses, a mark that would lead the league by a mile. JaMychal Green is a maniac -- and a real find. Ryan Hollins can't do many NBA things, but he can leap and flail wildly at the ball while it's in the air. Jarell Martin is involved. Lance Stephenson and Tony Allen have long been among the league's best rebounding guards, and they don't exactly fear physical confrontation. Matt Barnes is a walking physical confrontation.

In the long run, sending an army to the boards may be a losing strategy. But individual games are only 48 minutes long, and in that finite span, you can tilt the risk-reward in your favor if you snare enough rebounds.

6. The Lakers' fake lineups

I get it: Anthony Brown is hurt, Kobe Bryant only plays when he wants because the entire organization kowtows to his whims, and Nick Young is Nick Young. But, oh my God, an NBA team in 2016 cannot be trotting out lineups with Metta World Peace and Ryan Kelly at small forward. Kelly is a power forward, if he's anything at all, and World Peace is no longer an NBA player.

Larry Nance Jr. shouldn't be playing on the wing, either, but he's one of the few guys on this roster who matters beyond this season, and I've reached the point where I don't really care how Byron Scott finds those guys appropriate time.

World Peace is shooting 29 percent -- not a typo -- and the Lakers' offense looks more confused than usual when he's out there. Blame injuries and the roster crunch, but there are a dozen D-League guys who should be getting these minutes.

7. Jeff Green, lost in space

World-famous gambler and NBA maven Haralabos Voulgaris put it best on Twitter: Those who think Jeff Green looks amazing under the "eye test" have eyes that don't see space-outs like this:

Green can change small snippets of games with his energy -- his straight-line drives, transition attacks and occasional put-back jams. But over extended time, his lack of reliable shooting, defense and playmaking undermines the highlights.

8. That weird Shaun Livingston-Stephen Curry foul

In case you missed the Matchup of the Year, Part II: Late in the second quarter, Stephen Curry lost Tony Parker scooting around a Shaun Livingston pick. As Curry rose to rain death, Parker, trapped behind Livingston and desperate for a solution, shoved Livingston into Curry. Parker fouled Livingston, but the referees -- correctly, as it turns out -- awarded Curry three free throws after his 3-point attempt rimmed out.

Jeff Van Gundy was confused on the broadcast, and it is strange that Livingston would have shot a single and-1 free throw had Curry drained his 3-pointer.

But I like this rule. The shove is meant to manufacture a collision with a shooter, and that shooter should get the free throws. Parker really committed an indirect foul on Curry, only it wasn't even indirect, since Livingston made at least some contact with Curry's lower body.

That's a dangerous play, and the NBA should discourage any scenario in which defenses benefit from shoving a less threatening shooter into a more threatening one. This interpretation could bring some unintended consequences, including teammate-on-teammate flopping, but that kind of thing is hard to orchestrate -- and probably riskier than it's worth.

9. The Shelvin Mack experience

I honestly don't know whether this qualifies as a "like" or "dislike," but there is a preposterous amount of Shelvin Mack happening in Utah. On the one hand, Mack is shooting 47 percent from deep as a Jazz man, and Utah's new starting lineup with Mack at the controls is blitzing opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions.

On the other hand, we're talking about Shelvin freaking Mack. There are games, and segments of crunch-time, in which it feels like Quin Snyder's soft spot for Mack is almost obsessive.

The Mack Attack is also a depressing recognition of how bad Trey Burke has been, and that Utah's draft-day gamble for him failed. You know your incumbent point guards are bad when you find yourself saying, "You know what would really help us? Playing Shelvin Mack 30 minutes a game."

By all accounts, trade talks for Jeff Teague and Jrue Holiday went nowhere; the asking prices were too high, and the Jazz are confident with Dante Exum ready to resume his career next season. But this team is a decent point guard away from being really good. Expect Utah to sniff around again in June, perhaps dangling its draft pick as bait. Even with Mack, Burke and Raul Neto under contract for next season, Utah needs a quality veteran presence to hedge against the fact that Exum is 20, massively inexperienced and coming off knee surgery.

10. Detroit, struggling to double-team

It's a minor pet peeve, but, holy hell, Detroit cannot double-team anywhere on the floor without springing a leak someplace else. Rule No. 1 of doubling the post: Don't let the helper's man cut free to the hoop.

Whoops.

This happens to the Pistons more than it should. A different sort of botched double-team cost Detroit a December game against the Clippers, one of several bizarro heartbreakers the Pistons will regret if they barely miss the playoffs.