Those Atlanta Hawks have been so good that it’s been over a month since we’ve been asking the question: When will they lose again? Well that question has been answered on Monday night when the New Orleans Pelicans stunned the soaring Hawks 115-110 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
In a battle between streaking bird-named teams, the Pelicans upended the Hawks, the best team in the NBA, and halted the longest winning streak in Atlanta franchise history at 19 games. The Pelicans entered the game having won six of their last nine games and five of their last six. On the other hand, the Hawks had not lost since December 26, when they lost by 30 points to the Milwaukee Bucks at home. But perhaps because the Pelicans needed the win more badly in order to keep their playoff chances alive (they are 1.5 games behind #8 Phoenix out West), they proved to be the hungrier bird on Monday night.
Yes, the Hawks lost to the Pelicans on Monday night and yes, the 19 game winning streak is over. But the Hawks have established themselves as real predators who are legitimate title contenders this season. Here’s why: Since December 27, the Hawks were the #3 team in the NBA in both defensive and offensive efficiency, meaning they were doing it on both sides of the basketball court. During that stretch, the Hawks went 10-0 against teams with at least a .500 win-loss record. The Hawks were so dominating during their winning run that they never trailed in the final 8 minutes of any game, except the January 31 game against the 76ers (which proved to be their last win of the streak).
Beast of the East
Before the streak started, the Hawks were the #2 team in the East and were one game behind the Toronto Raptors in the standings. As of February 2, the 40-9 Hawks sit comfortably on top of the Eastern Conference with a seven game lead over the Raptors (33-16). And with the way things are playing out in the Eastern conference, that lead is almost insurmountable. ESPN’s daily Playoff Odds (as of Feb 2) are saying that the Hawks have a 96% chance of topping the Eastern Conference. That probability is seconded by Numberfire.com who is giving the Hawks a higher 97% chance of getting the number one seed in the East (they had the Hawks at 13% before the streak). With those high percentages from very calculated seers, it’s safe to say that the Hawks (not the Cavs, not the Bulls) are currently the top pick to represent the East in June’s NBA Finals.
Balance is Key
The Hawks don’t have a superstar in the mold of a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Anthony Davis or Stephen Curry. But they have a balanced team that makes them look like the San Antonio Spurs of the East. And why not? Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer was a long-time disciple of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. The Hawks’ leading scorer is Paul Millsap who averages just 17.3 points per game. That scoring average is good for #31 in the entire league and the 21st among team leading scorers. But if we take a look at leading scorer numbers two up to five, the rest of the Hawks’ starting unit in Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll are among the Top 4 versus their counterparts both in scoring and Wins Above Replacement Player. That unparalleled balance in their starting unit plus a bench that complements the first five makes the Hawks difficult to defend and predict. Throw in Budenholzer’s unselfish system that highlights the strengths of the five players on the court and you have a winning machined called the Atlanta Hawks.
Sky is The Limit
The Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference right now and are neck-to-neck with the Golden State Warriors for the best slate in the entire league. Three of their starters are going to the All-Star game (although not one is a starter) while Budenholzer is coaching the East All-Stars. It would have been sweeter had Kyle Korver made the All-Star squad too because he is having one of the most efficient offensive seasons in NBA history. But then again, the Hawks can’t have it all just as they couldn’t get win #20 in their just-ended streak. There have only been four teams in the history of the NBA to hit a winning streak of at least 20 games. These were the 1971 Bucks (20 games), 2008 Rockets (22 games), 2013 Miami Heat (27 games) and 1972 L.A. Lakers (33 games). Of those teams, only the Rockets did not win the NBA title. The Hawks barely missed making that elite group but one thing is sure after this magical run, the Hawks have served notice and sky is their limit.