DETROIT — NBA teams must possess many attributes to seriously contend, with talent, toughness and intelligence at the forefront. But, sometimes, a healthy dose of intentional ignorance doesn't hurt either, the ability to be entirely oblivious to outside forces and opinions.
So you can safely add that to the assets of the Atlanta Hawks, who had already surprised many by scaling the Eastern Conference standings before hopping over Stan Van Gundy's wall on Friday, raising their record to 23-3 in their past 26 games with a 106-103 win against the Pistons. But the Hawks seem to have little clue, or care, about whom they're surprising, or even that any other team exists at all.
"I have no idea what other people think about us," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said dryly.
You can take this as typical coach-speak, from a man who, with the media, is typically mighty bland.
Just allow for the possibility that, in this rare care, it may actually be true—and not just for him, but for every single one of his individually underrated, heretofore overlooked and remarkably under-aware group of players. Further, understand the likelihood that, as they begin to attract more media scrutiny—albeit still less than Cleveland, Chicago or even Washington or Miami in the East—it won't affect them in the slightest.
Take this tale from the team's elder statesman, backup center/forward Elton Brand.
"I think the group we have is going to do well with it, because they don't really pay attention," Brand said. "We beat Cleveland early on (by 29 on Dec. 17) and I think LeBron (James) said something like, 'It doesn't matter, really, it's only one game. We beat them pretty handily by 30 (earlier). And we'll be in the Eastern Conference Finals anyway.' Or something like that."
Actually, it wasn't anything like that, at least if Brand was referencing James' postgame press conference on Dec. 17; James was asked if he, like his coach, David Blatt, was "embarrassed" to lose so badly, and James replied that, "Nah, I'm embarrassed losing the Finals."
"And someone told me about it," Brand continued. "I didn't see it either. So the next day, we were at an event. 'Hey, you heard what LeBron said?' No one heard it. No one watched it. No one cared. And that's just the group of guys we have."
"They don't care," he said. "They're just focused on us and winning ballgames."
OK, so maybe Brand didn't get the story exactly straight. But when it comes to different types of teammates, he knows of which he speaks, because he's had a lot of them. He's been on all sorts of teams, many lousy ones, and four that made the playoffs, including two (2006 Clippers and 2012 76ers) that reached the second round. He's never been on a team that was anywhere close to 28-8 at this stage.
That's quite a start for any team, in any season, in any conference.
Consider that, before representing the East in each of the past four NBA Finals, the Miami Heat started 27-9, 28-8, 24-12 and 27-9 the past four seasons, respectively. Naturally, many more people noticed what Miami did. The national media has long averted its eyes from Atlanta, and the local populace hasn't paid much more mind, with sparse crowds—often filled with fans of the star opponent—and a minuscule media contingent compared to other markets. Prior to Friday, the local paper of record, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, hadn't sent a writer to a road game this season.
But, inevitably, if the Hawks keep playing like this, plenty of people will notice by accident, if merely when comparing other more celebrated teams to them and trying to figure out how a squad without superstars is still soaring. "I mean, they made the West Coast trip look like it was easy; they beat up on those people," Van Gundy, the Pistons coach, said prior to Friday's loss. They did, with three road wins over a five-night period, against the Trail Blazers, Clippers and Grizzlies. They did so with beautiful ball movement, steady body movement and an increasingly tenacious defense.
Opposing players are taking heed and starting to show the requisite respect. As Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings put it Friday, "Losing by three to a team like Atlanta just shows we can play with anyone in the league."
But what happens when the secret gets out of NBA locker rooms and video dens?
What will happen when they're hunted, by scribes and foes alike?
Won't matter, Brand said.
They'll handle it.
"Absolutely," Brand said. "This group? Like Kyle, he doesn't know, he doesn't care. Jeff (Teague) he doesn't care. It's just about playing and winning. I see it coming. SportsCenter did a thing about our Tinder night, and stuff like that. We're definitely getting a little more media nationwide, and teams will be up for us. But we'll be ready for it. Because the group of guys we have, they just want to win."
Al Horford agreed. Of all the players on the Hawks, he is most familiar with being on the team on top. He was one of the stars of the University of Florida basketball team that won back-to-back championships in 2005-06 and 2006-07. That team was targeted, by media, foes and fans alike, though mostly the latter.
"Yeah, yeah, totally," Horford said. "It was crazy. Just how up, not so much the other team, but the crowd was up and into it. It was crazy. You really felt the tension. Our whole thing was we got to keep them quiet, quiet them down. If we fell behind, that crowd gets loud, the team gets hyped, then it's a problem. For the most part, we just try to keep them down, keep driving it play after play."
The Hawks aren't the same sort of draw that those Gators were, and undoubtedly won't ever be, not unless some premium free agent takes his talents to them. Even so, Horford acknowledged the chance that more flies may start hanging within their locker room walls, and more stories about their feats and flaws may start circulating on the Internet. "It's important for us to stay focused," Horford said. "We need to understand that we need to keep playing the right way. Because you can get distracted."
"Man, I say it all the time, that we kind of feel like a college team," small forward DeMarre Carroll said. "We really don't listen to anything outside of the locker room. Everybody believes in each other. When we go on the road, guys eat together. We do things as a team. And we don't worry about what the people outside the locker room say. Because there are a lot of people that just say we're hot now, and we're going to fall out. If we just keep playing Hawks basketball, keep playing the winning way, keep being unselfish, I think the sky is the limit for us."
To reach those heights, they'll need to play better than they did in the second half against the Pistons, when they stopped passing with the precision that has become their hallmark this season, missed some key free throws and let Detroit get loose behind the arc. That got the crowd going, in an arena that was a little more charged than it's been lately, after a seven-game win streak that included Van Gundy's plea to his players to "form a (bleeping) wall" on the final possession in San Antonio.
Van Gundy thought the frenzy over his videotaped admonition was "strange," but that didn't stop the Pistons' marketing staff from capitalizing, with the Detroit dance team wearing "The Wall Vs. Everybody" T-shirts and the PA announcer bellowing, "To the wall, y'all. This is Stan Van Gundy."
That little splash of fun made Detroit the flavor of the day, but it was Atlanta that emerged with another, albeit sloppy, win.
Atlanta, first in the East.
That would be almost impossible to believe, if you forgot that the Hawks were third in the East in Budenholzer's first season before Horford tore a pectoral muscle and missed the final 53 games.
"I don't think people really realize that," Carroll said. "But, you know, we're gonna make them realize it. Right now, we just got to keep looking forward. We can't look back."
Right now, the rest of the East, all of it, is looking up at them.
It will take a little longer, but eventually, even more eyes may gaze their way.