The secrets to success for the Hawks, who have won 22 of their last 24 games.
The NBA regular season operates at a frenzied pace, with one game and storyline bleeding into the next. Every Friday here at SI.com, we'll slow things down in While You Weren't Watching – a spotlight on the little moments in the week's slate that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Special for this week, we focus on the Atlanta Hawks, who have won 22 of their last 24 games. No team in the NBA goes more consistently overlooked in its success. Here's what you may have missed...
• Court vision. Part of what makes Spurs-style offenses so difficult to install and operate is that they all but require a roster full of quick decision makers with a wide field of vision. It’s not enough to simply be a good passer; operating in a read-and-react system draws on spontaneity, and through it a sense of preemption. Atlanta has no problems maneuvering through its offense at that speed. Across the board the Hawks move fluidly and keep their heads up, scanning for the best option beyond the obvious. This is a silver bullet against high-level defense. Even the best defensive teams in the league can only take away what they think you want to do. Yet by running so much improvisation in their offense and making so many smart reads that for others would go unseen, the Hawks can get the jump on anyone. Watch Paul Millsap here after he makes his move baseline. His – and anyone’s– first reaction would be to hit Kyle Korver in the corner against a recovering Derrick Favors. Millsap teases this option just enough to sell it, then sets up a wide open Elton Brand instead:
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• Guile. This dagger three from Korver was only possible because of a quick, small play from Jeff Teague: A spin off the catch to both shield him from the incoming Courtney Lee and launch him into transition. Had Teague hesitated, he could have killed the fast break or worse. Instead, he sealed a hard-fought win over the Grizzlies:
• Artifice. Even the Hawks’ post-up players aren’t really post-up players. Al Horford and Millsap still get pretty consistent touches on the block, yet within this offense the post is used primarily to facilitate. All the same, the very fact that they’re Horford and Millsap demands that the defense take them as serious threats inside. This tends to pull the entire defense inward, which when layered underneath the movement of the rest of the offense tends to generate some great looks. Watch here as Horford operates against Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, works off of a Sefolosha cut, and finds Korver free and clear:
• An old friend. The Hawks are probably the only team in the world for which the 35-year-old Brand can serve as an occasional drive-and-kick threat:
• A screen unseen. Next time you find yourself spending an evening with the Hawks, try tuning in exclusively to Korver. Few players in the league stay so active. Korver always seems to be going somewhere and doing something on the floor, and yet his understanding of Atlanta’s offense and his teammates’ tendencies ensure that he’s consistently in the right place at the right time. His ability to read the floor and work his way instantly into a catch-and-shoot three-pointer makes the entire offense go. Korver also might be the most prolific screen-setter in the league among wings, as on some possessions he seems to fly around the court screening every opponent he can. This is a smart setup for free-flowing basketball. Picking off a teammate’s defender is a quick and easy way to spring someone open for a shot, be it Korver as he flares out to the three-point line or whichever teammate might then find themselves unattended. In some cases, Korver adds another layer for the defense to navigate by feigning some other action and screening at the last second. This sequence here – in which Korver appears to be going into a curl, only to wall off DeMarre Carroll’s man – is just so damn difficult to guard on the fly:
• Acceleration. There’s a lot to be excited about with Hawks sophomore Dennis Dennis Schröder, thanks in no small part to just how terrifying he can be when he turns on the jets:
• Singularity. Paul Millsap’s got moves. So much of his made of how his shooting opens up the floor for Atlanta’s driving and cutting, yet what really sets Millsap apart is his ability to make something happen when attacking from 18 feet out:
• Rallying effort. While Atlanta’s offense rightly draws praise and attention, let’s not overlook the fact that its defense ranks No. 5 in the league in points allowed per possession. There aren’t any All-NBA defenders in the mix. Many bigs in the league protect the rim better than Horford and Millsap. Carroll, while effective and bothersome, doesn’t quite challenge as one of the league’s top defensive stoppers. The Hawks’ way to success is in the employ of enough quality defenders to stay solid on-ball while harnessing the synergy of five players quick on their feet. They play hard and smart to keep in the thick of things defensively, and for the most part they play full possessions:
• Will. Thabo Sefolosha’s shot has gone skunk. Both his overall field goal percentage (39.9 percent) and three-point percentage (25 percent) will qualify as career worsts, cementing the notion that his days as a useful spot-up type are finished. Still, Sefolosha – one of the few Hawks who can’t really shoot – still finds ways to contribute for his new team. Seemingly once a game Sefolosha will turn up a possession like this one:
• Detail. Atlanta overwhelms opponents with reactive continuity, but it’s amazing how often one small decision can make all the difference. The primary action on this play concerns Millsap, Horford, and Korver. Yet a score ultimately comes through this spot-perfect cut from Carroll: