Once the Atlanta Hawks brought head coach Mike Budenholzer over from the San Antonio Spurs in 2013, one suspected it was only a matter of time before this team began resembling the reigning champions—or at least some nascent version thereof.
Atlanta hasn't yet established legends like a Tim Duncan or Gregg Popovich, but Tuesday night's 107-104 win against the Los Angeles Clippers is only the latest reminder that this franchise has quietly ascended to the highest ranks of the Eastern Conference. The 21-7 Hawks are now just a half-game behind the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, and they've climbed the standings with quality wins against elite competition.
The Hawks have just one loss in their last 15 games, and they're getting help from all corners of an ensemble roster that has some undeniably Spurs-like qualities to it. DeMarre Carroll led the club with a career-high 25 points on Tuesday, doing his best three-and-D impersonation of Danny Green with a 5-of-6 performance from beyond the arc.
And after allowing the Spurs a season-high 37 assists in their loss on Monday night, Los Angeles found itself similarly flummoxed by Atlanta's unselfish play. The Hawks tallied 28 assists and currently lead the league with 25.8 of them per contest according to TeamRankings.com.
San Antonio topped that list a season ago (when the Hawks finished fourth) and gave the league a crash course in how to move the ball, sacrificing good shots for the great ones that ultimately secured Duncan and Popovich their fifth titles.
Not far removed from his 17 seasons as an assistant coach under Popovich, Budenholzer is uniquely prepared to replicate those results in Atlanta. The names and faces may be different, but the fundamental principles remain the same.
Without an abundance of superstar talent, the movement-heavy system deserves much of the credit for an offense that ranks seventh in efficiency with 106.5 points per 100 possessions according to Hollinger Team Stats.
The commitment to passing isn't the only similarity to San Antonio.
As ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton recently put it (subscription required), "Atlanta is frequently compared to San Antonio—but usually in the context of the team's emphasis on ball movement and shooting. It's another trait shared with the Spurs, depth, that is helping the Hawks' rise in the East."
Guys like Carroll and point guard Dennis Schroeder (who posted a career-high 22 points in Monday's win against Dallas) are starting to give the Hawks' core some help. Though the bench only ranks 20th in scoring with 31.3 points per contest (according to HoopsStats.com), there's a lot to like about what the team's been getting from reserves like Mike Scott and Pero Antic.
After all, role players can do a lot of important things that don't show up on the stat sheet, something the Spurs have long understood as well.
"He's got a great group of guys who fit," Popovich told reporters in November with regard to Budenholzer's roster. "It's not about having the most talent in the world. You need a certain amount of talent, but all the pieces have to fit."
So far, that fit has been good enough to take the East by storm—and draw some comparisons to the league's model franchise in the process.
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Love Triumphs in Timberwolves Reunion
Rookie of the Year hopeful (and No. 1 overall pick) Andrew Wiggins came within two points of his season high against the team that originally drafted him, dropping 27 points in a 125-104 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Led by Kyrie Irving's 29 points, each of Cleveland's Big Three scored at least 20 points. Kevin Love scored 20 in his first meeting with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team with which he spent his first six years. The 26-year-old left Tuesday's game momentarily with a right thumb injury but later returned.
Love didn't make much of the awkward reunion, but it may be more interesting to see how Timberwolves fans receive him when the Cavaliers come to town on Jan. 31.
"Minnesota people are pretty loyal," Timberwolves president and head coach Flip Saunders told reporters on Monday. "You turn on Minnesota, they don't forgive you. So I think people probably appreciated him while he was here. But you leave under the terms that he did, just the way Minnesota people are, they're not pretty forgiving along those lines."
In injury news, center Anderson Varejao did not return after an injury to his left leg that required assistance off the court. For a team already lacking in the rim-protection department, that's a situation worth monitoring.
Lakers Stun NBA's Top Team Without Kobe
Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott rested iconic shooting guard Kobe Bryant on Tuesday, but the rest of the rotation certainly didn't take the game off. They stunned the now-23-4 Golden State Warriors, current owners of the league's very best record, with a 115-105 victory.
At 9-19, the Lakers were long shots to win this one even with Bryant in the lineup. Without him, coming up with the compelling victory borders on miraculous. Seven different Lakers scored in double figures, and the team collectively tallied 28 assists.
No, it doesn't mean the Lakers are better without the NBA's best scorer this side of Michael Jordan. But it shows this team isn't nearly as Charmin-soft as Bryant suggested earlier this month.
Rose Leading Bulls Over East's New Elite
Derrick Rose followed up Monday's 29-point outing (in a 129-120 win against the Toronto Raptors) with 25 points in a 99-91 win over the Washington Wizards. That's two signature performances against two of the East's top seeds—on back-to-back nights no less. Tuesday's victory puts the Bulls a half-game behind the Wizards for the No. 3 seed.
Injury and illness have limited Rose to just 18 appearances this season. Rose is starting to remind the rest of the league just how much his return has altered its balance of power.
Trail Blazers Survive OT vs. Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't have Kevin Durant (ankle) on Tuesday night, but they still had a prayer on account of Russell Westbrook's first 40-point eruption of the season. However, it wasn't quite enough for the now-13-16 Thunder—victims of a November in which injuries ravaged Durant and Westbrook both.
Point guard Damian Lillard tallied 40 points (and 11 assists) of his own, and the Portland Trail Blazers prevailed by a 115-111 margin in overtime. They move to 23-7 so far this season, ranking second in the West and just 1.5 games behind the top-seeded Warriors.
Mavs Fall To 1-2 with Rondo at Point
Yes, it remains a very small sample size, but Rajon Rondo has yet to yield real dividends for the Dallas Mavericks just yet. Though they claimed a victory against the shorthanded Spurs in his debut, Dallas has subsequently lost to the Atlanta Hawks and—on Tuesday night—to the Phoenix Suns.
This time the Mavs coughed up 124 points to a Suns team that had six players score in double figures. Rondo will almost certainly fit in just fine once he has some time to get acclimated, but there's less reason to be optimistic about this team's defense.
It ranks just 20th in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents 104.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Hollinger Team Stats.
Quote of the Night
The now-13-16 Miami Heat handed the Philadelphia 76ers just their fourth win of the season, 91-87, in a contest that didn't sit particularly well with Dwyane Wade, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports:
It was the fifth straight game in which Chris Bosh was sidelined by a calf injury, but that probably didn't warrant losing to a team like the Sixers. This is an especially dark place for the post-LBJ era.