While this NBA season has seen more dramatic finishes and greater individual performances, Atlanta's home triumph over Golden State on Friday is a strong candidate for the title of best overall game, from top to bottom and tip to buzzer. The Hawks prevailed in the showdown of conference leaders 124-116, a contest that seemed to carry the importance of a World's Fair or a State of the Union Address.
Here, coaches Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr turned their respective teams loose on each other, producing a two-way hailstorm of three-pointers, precision passes and heady plays. The league's top two teams, replete with a combined five All-Stars, didn't so much play as they painted a portrait of the modern game. It felt as if the 2013-14 Spurs' atom had been split: Golden State and Atlanta made full use of space, acted in unified concert as if equipped with team-wide telepathy and maintained composure when the opposition got things going.
Atlanta's eye-popping total of 124 points -- its second-highest mark on the season -- owed to superstar-type performances, superior balance and strong bench play. Jeff Teague (23 points, seven assists, three rebounds, three steals) drew MVP chants from the home crowd for effectively playing MVP favorite Stephen Curry (26 points, nine assists, two rebounds, two steals) to a draw and for scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter to put away the victory.
Paul Millsap (21 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals) also gave Golden State fits all night, deftly exploiting soft spots in the Warriors' defense and finding his way to the free-throw line. His well-timed dime to a cutting DeMarre Carroll with less than two minutes to play provided the dagger -- to the Warriors and to the notion that All-Stars must go it alone with the game on the line.
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The over-the-hump boost was provided by reserve forward Mike Scott (17 points, two rebounds), who stepped in for Al Horford, who was plagued by foul trouble throughout the second half. Scott didn't miss a beat, scoring nine points in the final period and proving again that Atlanta's anonymous reserves are flourishing in Budenholzer's ultra-open, ultra-unselfish style.
Golden State hung around when many lesser teams would have wilted under the might of Atlanta's 15 three-pointers, 37 free-throw attempts and 28 assists on 38 field goals. Although Curry and Thompson (29 points, five assists) looked as loose and dangerous as always during this premier matchup, their supporting cast wasn't quite able to muster enough help. The up-tempo, free-flowing nature of their attack produced a whopping 103 field goal attempts, tying an NBA season-high for a regulation game. The Warriors' showing would have produced a win on most nights, but they were simply out-dueled by an opponent that was locked in and scorching hot (55.6 percent three-point shooting, including five threes from Kyle Korver).
The victory moved Atlanta (42-9) past Golden State (39-9) for the league's best record, and with apologies to Memphis there's really no question that these two teams stand as the cream of the crop before next week's All-Star break. Any skeptics searching for evidence that an NBA Finals without LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, James Harden and Derrick Rose could be an entertaining success can officially call off the dogs. Even though a hypothetical Warriors-Hawks matchup would feature two franchises that haven't played in a Finals in 40 years, the hoops world should feel fully confident they are capable of delivering a barnburner come June.