At one point in Saturday night’s Hawks-Rockets game, a 109-97 victory for Atlanta, Rockets center Dwight Howard was busted for using Stickum when Hawks forward Paul Millsap felt it on the basketball during a free throw. As it turned out, it was really the only chance the Rockets had to keep the game close.
Over the past 12 games, the Hawks have been a steaming locomotive through Hell, picking off one opponent after another en route to a 10-2 record. In some ways, they resemble the Hawks team that won all 19 games last January, but there’s something even better about this stretch of basketball.
They’re actually getting hot at the right time this year.
In two weeks, the Hawks have gone from barely hanging on to a playoff spot to third place in the Eastern Conference. Point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder are playing as well as ever, and there’s virtually no dropoff when one exits and the other subs in.
Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has been getting more minutes and has been taking full advantage. He has scored 21 and 20 points in their last two games, adding even more offense to a team that hasn’t had much trouble scoring lately.
But what has been most impressive is the defense these guys are playing. I wrote about the unexpectedly big signing of Kris Humphries, but it goes way beyond that. Opponents are shooting 43.3 percent against Atlanta, just shy of the San Antonio Spurs, who lead the league with a 43.2 percent defensive shooting percentage. Since the beginning of 2016, that percentage is even lower.
Since Jan. 1, the Hawks have allowed just 96.2 points per 100 possessions, which is the lowest in the NBA. This level of defense, combined with a high-powered offense, has made the Hawks appointment television again.
During the current hot streak, the Hawks have held the Charlotte Hornets to just 76 points. The Los Angeles Lakes scored just 77, and the Utah Jazz were held to 84. They also held the Memphis Grizzlies to 83 and the Indiana Pacers to 75. When you play defense like that, it’s hard to lose.
The Hawks’ website may have put it best when they said, “2016: The Year Teams Stopped Scoring On The Atlanta Hawks.”
There’s still a month of regular season basketball left, and the Hawks may still be a distant third in the Eastern Conference behind the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers. But this year, they’re trending in the right direction, and that could be a much better sign for their postseason fortunes than the trainwreck we saw in the 2015 playoffs.
Main photo: AP/John Bazemore; Millsap photo via DeadspinFollow @Sean_Breslin