This year's Atlanta Hawks team is the same one that we've seen fall in the second round of the playoffs for the last three seasons, but yet it's entirely different.
For starters, there is an older bench: more experienced, but less talented than previous ones. Then there's the rise of players like Marvin Williams and Jeff Teague.
It's the same corps Hawks fans have come to love, but hate at the same time. After the Hawks lost a 19-point lead to the Chicago Bulls, it's easy to see why there is a love-hate relationship in Atlanta.
However gut-wrenching the loss to Chicago was, the Hawks are more competitive than they've been since the '80s. This year's team should be better than any Hawks team we've seen with this corps. Here are the positive signs that indicate just how upward the Hawks are trending.
The Hawks renewed their defensive commitment over the offseason. Of course it helps when your 6'8" swingman is fully healthy and has regained quickness.
Marvin Williams has no doubt played a role in Atlanta's defensive resurgence. He's a long defender who can create serious matchup problems for the opposition. Of course Josh Smith can strap up anyone anytime, but he's blocking shots at a much more alarming rate than he did last season.
While certain individuals are playing better defensively, it's a concentrated team effort that has stimulated the success. The Hawks beautifully ran a 2-3 zone against the Heat that stifled their blistering offensive pace and slowed them to a crawl. With the Hawks trapping effectively in the zone and preventing any serious penetration from Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, they toppled the NBA's hottest and best team.
Their relentless and smothering defense also held the bulls to 26 points at the half. The Bulls ended up scoring 76 points, their lowest output of the season. Unfortunately, missed free throws and a few iffy calls held the Hawks back from beating Miami and Chicago on consecutive nights.
Winning one of the two was all fans hoped for, but after seeing how suffocating this defense can be, going away with just one win in that brutal back to back feels a little empty.
The Hawks have mastered the half-court, top-of-the-key alley-oop. They can run it with Horford and they can run it with Smith. It was on full display in the heart-breaking loss to Chicago, and it was the only play they could truly turn to against the stout defense of the Bulls.
Aside from their 74-point outing against Chicago, the Hawks have moved the ball much more frequently and with much more purpose.
It all starts with penetration, and that is just what Jeff Teague provides. He's as quick as a hiccup and gets into the lane with ease. Finishing isn't a strong suit of his yet, but at least he collapses defense.
After that it's all mashed potatoes and gravy. With a collapsed defense, Teague can kick out for three, look for the pick and roll (or pop), or even toss up a lob to the man who was just left by the help defender.
While Teague has inspired the influx in ball movement in Atlanta, Tracy McGrady's sound play and decision-making has also stimulated a more free-flowing Hawks offense. McGrady has always been one of the best passing forwards, and he's been able to find teammates early and often with the Hawks.
There's been a personnel switch in Atlanta, and it's made the offense look that much better (except for the Chicago game which was close to an offensive disaster).
Williams has fueled the Hawks to a nice start for the season as he's racking up 12 points and seven rebounds per game. His activity on the offensive boards has been incredibly noticeable as the Hawks now find themselves with more second-chance opportunities.
He's also taking more three-pointers, which is better than the dreaded 22-footer with heels on the line that he became famous for. His shot selection has improved and he's getting inside the paint frequently. He's an entirely new player.
Back surgery over the offseason has clearly helped him. The duck-walk is gone as he now stands straight, making him look an inch taller. He's a much more capable playmaker than he's ever been, and that's what has Atlanta rolling early.
The Hawks have gotten out in transition more often thanks to their defense forcing turnovers. However, they know who to run with and who not to. The Hawks were completely satisfied to sit back in a zone against Miami and take away the fast break. They'd take their chances in the half court and make Wade and James get through their zone.
They pushed the ball wisely against Miami, avoiding a track meet. They picked and chose their opportunities and did it well as Jeff Teague led the Hawks on the break.
Against New Jersey and Washington, though, they were off to the races with no restraints. The Hawks were all too complacent last year, content with a sit-and-wait half-court offense. The Hawks should have been running and gunning frequently since 2008, but better late than never, right?
When the Hawks have seen chances to take slower teams and throw them in a transition game, they've done just that, and that is why they demolished the Nets in the first game of the season and trounced the Wizards after that.
The Hawks were blown out so many times last season they were actually outscored by their opponents despite going 44-38. Part of that was a bench filled with inexperience, youth and a lack of identity.
With a healthier team and a bench full of players who have been around the block, Atlanta is set up to keep games a little closer than last season.
Vladimir Radmanovic kicked things off for the bench by dropping 17 in his debut, and while Willie Green hasn't found his touch yet, it's safe to assume he's good for a few buckets a game. The most important addition, however, was clearly Tracy McGrady.
T-Mac put up solid numbers in his first few games, but then exploded against Miami, scoring 16, but more importantly 14 in the 4th quarter while closing out LeBron and Wade.
These veterans signed with the Hawks because their time is running out and they want to be on a team that will be playing well into April. They won't let things get out of hand in Atlanta, they'll keep the team in games, especially when Kirk Hinrich comes back. More competitive games on a more regular basis means more wins for this team.