Last Friday night in Atlanta, the Hawks hosted the Golden State Warriors. It was a meeting of the teams with the NBA's two best records, and the latest opportunity for the Hawks—superstar-free and situated in the lesser conference—to defend their new and still strange-seeming place in the league's upper echelon. They accomplished the task, winning 124-116 in characteristically coordinated fashion. Every Atlanta starter scored between 12 and 23 points, and except for the misfiring Pero Antic, who played as much like the surly bar bouncer he resembles, no bench player who made it onto the floor scored fewer than nine.
Anyone who missed the game can likely guess at the Hawks' style that night. The analysis surrounding the team during this year's surprise ascent has centered almost universally on the offensive principles of head coach Mike Budenholzer, a long-term assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio prior to his arrival in Atlanta last season. Like the Spurs, the Hawks space the floor, cut in tempo, set hard screens, and move the ball. Their baskets often come at the end of a string of five or six passes, each accompanied by some bit of peripheral misdirection. You get the sense, watching Paul Millsap step into a suddenly open lane or Jeff Teague line up a comfortable jumper, that the Hawks have spent the possession's initial 15 seconds quietly pulling all of the opposing defense's strings. It's meticulous and precise and lovely to watch when it's working right.
But it's not all design, and the praise of Budenholzer's system, while deserved, also unfairly minimizes the contributions of the Hawks' players, who end up lauded for their obedience more than their idiosyncrasies. A pick-and-roll draws help and sets off a chain of passes culminating in a Kyle Korver three, and an announcer crows, as if in passive-aggressive retaliation for every moment he's had to watch Nick Young, Boy, this is a well-coached team.
Atlanta's players are more than mere enactors of a sturdy basketball philosophy. Those easy baskets owe as much to their talents as to Budenholzer's whiteboard work, and not just in the sense that someone has to make all those threes. While not the most ostentatious bunch, the Hawks nevertheless possess a set of wonky and rare attributes that combine with that much-lauded direction to produce one of the best teams in basketball.
For an example, look at Al Horford's game on Friday. Though the Hawks' center didn't play his best, scoring only 12 points and finding his drives and rolls routinely interrupted by Andrew Bogut, he remained essential to his team's liquid play. His 14 rebounds—twice the total of the nearest Hawk, and all of them necessary against the burlier Golden State front line—and six assists stand out on the stat sheet, but even these numbers do not wholly account for his presence.
More illustrative than any figure is a pair of plays from early in the first quarter and late in the second. In each instance, Horford pulled down a rebound and, instead of firing off an outlet pass, advanced the ball on his own. In and of itself, this is not uncommon; it is the kind of indulgence any big man with a passable handle—Duncan, Gasol, Boogie—permits himself now and again. Horford's version differs, though, in both quality and effect. He dribbles and runs exceedingly well, and in bringing the ball up himself frees the remaining Hawks, fine shooters all, to dot the three-point line in semi-transition. In the first quarter, Horford darted to the free-throw line, stopped and surveyed, and tossed a pass over his shoulder for a Teague triple. In the second, he threw a diagonal dart on the run to Korver, who had hidden himself in the corner and caught and released the ball in the time it took all the Warriors on the bench to mutter, Shit.
Each of those plays owes a debt to Budenholzer's principles of space and tempo, sure, but both would have remained theoretical had they not been brought to life by Horford, who is perhaps the only player in the league capable of doing so. The same holds true, with the relevant players substituted, for most any Atlanta possession, even the best-plotted ones. Each hinges on the adaptability of Millsap, who has become the league's roughest stretch-four, or the nerviness of second-year pick-and-roll savant Dennis Schröder, or any of a dozen other assorted, and often overlooked, skills.
It is the curse of the diagrammable team that its players should sacrifice some notoriety, and Atlanta's varied crew now receives the same tepid compliments that the non-icons in San Antonio's rotation have collected over the years, all of which tends to be drowned out by more full-throated praise for the tactics. But these Hawks are not just a mind-the-teacher parable. They are, rather, testaments to the efficacy of their low-key knacks and understated virtuosities. All these not-so-little things add up.