Paul Millsap

Hawks are Soaring into the Playoffs

The improvement of the NBA’s Eastern Conference has been one of the best storylines of the 2015-16 season. Gone are the days when teams with losing records sneaked into the playoffs due to a concerning imbalance of talent. While the East has seen new faces emerge to the forefront, the old contenders are still there – and some are as dangerous as ever.

Take the Atlanta Hawks for example. The Hawks, who were sitting in third place in the East at 45-31 at the time of writing, are one of the hottest teams in the Association. Atlanta has won 12 of its last 15 games to vault itself into the upper echelon of the conference, good enough to be in the conversation with Cleveland and Toronto as serious contenders.

Defense wins championships, and it’s hard to argue with the current makeup of the Hawks. Atlanta has owned best defense in the NBA since the calendar turned to 2016 and is surrendering just 101.4 points per 100 possessions. They also boast the second best defensive efficiency in the loop, right behind the ever-steady San Antonio Spurs.

Big men paving the way

Considering head coach Mike Budenholzer is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, that last sentence shouldn’t surprise you. Led by its two-headed monster of Al Horford and Paul Millsap, the Hawks have one of the most mobile and unique backcourts in the league. The Hawks are limiting opponents to just 56.1 percent shooting from less than five feet from the rim and rank second in opponent overall shooting percentage (46.7 percent).

Capitalizing off turnovers has been key for this squad. Atlanta is averaging 9.1 steals per game (third in the NBA) and are second in points off turnovers (18.9 per game).

If you’re playing devil’s advocate, it’s completely warranted to be skeptical of the Hawks. In 2014-15 Atlanta won every single game in January (and 19 in a row) en route to a franchise-best 60-22 record.

But teams aren’t judged by their great regular seasons, and an underwhelming performance in the playoffs saw them meekly bow out to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The new-look Hawks are here to stay

What’s changed between then and now? Consider this: the Hawks peaked far too early last year, which led Budenholzer to start resting his big guns once they locked up the No. 1 seed. Carrying a 43-9 record as of early February, the Hawks went 17-13 the rest of the way and barely got by the Nets and Wizards in the Sportsbook two rounds of the playoffs.

Atlanta wasn’t going to make the same mistake again, and the script has been flipped this season. Budenholzer has done an excellent job of keeping his star players fresh without sitting them for extended periods of time.

Point guard Jeff Teague has returned to his previous All-Star form, and the combo of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha provide outstanding defensive coverage on the wings while filling the basket with ease.

The Hawks have been here before. This time they’re out for blood, and unlike previous editions, this time they’re for real.