You get the feeling the Atlanta Hawks are kicking themselves because they didn't find out about this defense thing sooner. The Hawks, who ended the Houston Rockets' 15-game winning streak and extended their own string of victories to 10 with a 133-111 rout in Atlanta last Friday, are the most surprising team of the young NBA season, largely because new coach Lenny Wilkens has introduced them to the wonders of actually stopping opponents.
Last season the scoring-minded Hawks were 21st in the league in team defense, giving up an average of 108.4 points per game. Through Sunday, that figure was down to 97.1 points, fifth-lowest in the league. The additions of guard Craig Ehlo and shot-blocking center Andrew Lang have helped, but the Hawks, who were 11-4 and atop the Central Division at week's end, are stingier than they have ever been, mainly because Wilkens simply won't accept anything less. He got that message across during an early-season win over the Miami Heat by pulling star forward Dominique Wilkins out of the game twice in the first half because Wilkins was a little too shot-happy.
But Dominique has, overall, been more than willing to go along with the new emphasis. "I got so frustrated last year because we could score, but we could never stop anybody," he says. "Defense just wasn't something we focused on."
That was strange because in the last few years the Hawks have drafted and traded for players who were known for their defensive skills, including swingman Stacey Augmon and guard Mookie Blaylock. But under former coach Bob Weiss, the Hawks always seemed most concerned about where their next shot was coming from. "Not to knock Bobby," says center Jon Koncak, "but Lenny has convinced us that you win with defense."
Koncak has been one of the players who have benefited most from the arrival of Wilkens. Formerly a popular whipping boy for the fans, Koncak has become far more aggressive at both ends of the court. He even gets cheered when he leaves the game these days.
Wilkens was aware of the Hawks' reputation as an undisciplined team when he joined them after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers at the end of last season. He addressed that situation by instituting a dress code and mandatory weight training and by limiting the team's number of days off—they have had only two days without basketball all year. "Players only give what you demand of them," he says, "and frankly, I have no complaints."
The Hawks certainly have no complaints about Wilkens, whose departure from the Cavs was caused largely by his inability to figure out a way to stop Michael Jordan. Apparently he knows how to stop just about everyone else.