Posts Tagged ‘Hawks’

Celtics stick to their own formula for turnaround

VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas has been critical to the Celtics’ turnaround

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The playoff berth, the turnaround, the return to relevance, if you will, sans a superstar after the end of the Big 3 era.

It wasn’t supposed to happen overnight for the Boston Celtics.

Danny Ainge‘s current rebuilding project is the model for doing it without the saving grace of a marquee superstar. And that’s fine by Brad Stevens, the coach Ainge plucked from the college ranks to guide these surprising Celtics through this process.

Ainge sold Stevens on a long-term vision, signing him to a six-year deal in 2013 that made him the youngest coach (36) in the NBA at the time, that included a transformation of the culture for the winningest franchise in league history. The days of leaning on future Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to lead the way was over.

And in the early stages of the third year of this new era, the Celtics appear ready for prime time. They face off against the Atlanta Hawks tonight (8 ET, TNT), the first of seven national TV games they’ll play this season after just one last year.

Their 20-9 finish last season led to that playoff berth, where they went after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first-round sweep and served notice that planning for the future didn’t necessarily mean drowning in the misery of the typical rebuilding plan.

Winners of six of their last nine games, the Celtics have shaken off a 1-3 start and gotten back to the ways that led them to the playoffs last season.

Built on a bedrock of defense, depth, player development and shared sacrifice, the Celtics are on to something. With a starting lineup that includes three second-round picks and roster dotted with as many journeymen as high draft picks, Stevens has molded this group into one of the scrappiest crews in the league. And to a man, they point to their young coach and his measured ways as the key to their success.

“His approach is everything, he’s always prepared no matter what the situation, be it in games or practice and that says a lot about a coach in this league” said Isaiah Thomas, the veteran guard who leads the Celtics in scoring (21.6) and assists (6.5). “You never know if he’s happy or mad because he’s so even-keeled. He won’t show it. And that’s how this team is. He’s always talking about looking to the next play. He’s instilled that in us and it’s really defined us as a group. We’re a next play team, no matter what the situation.”

In an environment where basically half of the league is rebuilding perpetually, Stevens has made sure to avoid discussing anything of the sort with his team. Why bother with the obvious, when just talking about it won’t speed up the process?

“We’ve never once talked about it as rebuilding,” Stevens said. “We’ve talked about it as building, growing and improving. We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’re still super young. And we have to take every opportunity as a learning experience. We have to say, there aren’t any excuses in being young and not having that extra experience. That means we have to watch more film, we’ve got to put more time in the gym, we’ve got to shoot more on our own and we’ve to be better to catch up.”

David Lee, 32, is the only player on the roster over the age of 28. He’s also the only former All-Star and he arrived via trade after winning a title with the Golden State Warriors last season. But he doesn’t hold a position above or beyond any of his teammates based on that body of work.

That’s not the way this group works.

“Young and hungry, that’s us,” said fourth-year center Jared Sullinger, the Celtics’ leading rebounder (8.8). “We’ve got a lot of guys who are still trying to establish themselves throughout the league. And we play as a team. On any given night it could be someone’s time to shine and we’re so unselfish. We feed off of that.”

Buying into the system was easy, Sullinger said, because of the collective understanding that none of this would be possible without the entire group diving in. Roles change on the fly, a starter one week could be a key reserve the next. Stevens has fostered an ego-free environment and instead mandated that guys serve the greater good and emphasize the team over all else.

It’s the backbone of any successful team, but particularly in today’s NBA, where the universal embrace of the pace-and-space style has changed the landscape. Stevens pointed to the Hawks and the way they busted out last season, winning a franchise-record 60 wins and earning a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, as the prime example of a team whose success shined a light on what the Celtics are trying to create.

“Offensively, they are who they are. They are outstanding moving the ball,” Stevens said of the Hawks. “They are very intelligent. Their team savvy is off the charts. They are just really organized but still play with a lot of freedom. And they are just fun to watch … I thought it was just awesome last year they got four All-Stars because it talked about what was most important, and that’s the team winning, and all of those guys were playing great off of each other.”

The Celtics might not have four All-Star ready talents just now, but the players are convinced that the foundation and the culture for that kind of success in the future is in the works.

“I always say guys don’t play with each other, they play for each other,” Thomas said. “And on this team, it feels like a college team, for the most part. Guys aren’t running around with big egos, everybody just wants to see each other succeed. And that’s hard to find in the NBA. I think we’ve got a great group of guys and it starts with our coaching staff. Everybody has an equal opportunity to be themselves. And that’s what works for us.”

Budenholzer takes leave of absence

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer announced Saturday he is taking a leave of absence “due to an emergency medical situation” with his wife, adding “We are encouraged by her progress to this point and remain cautiously optimistic.”

The team provided no additional details, only that Budenholzer was with the Hawks in Boston to face the Celtics on Friday before leaving in the morning to return to Atlanta.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the doctors and support staff at Emory for the outstanding care they have provided my wife,” Budenholzer, also the president of basketball operations, said in a statement. “I would also like to thank my coaching staff, our players and the entire Hawks organization for their support and encouragement during this time.  We are humbled by the outpouring of support from so many friends and members of the NBA family. It is greatly appreciated.

“Finally, I’d like to thank the media and our fans for respecting our family’s continued request for privacy during this period.

“I will return to the team as soon as possible and will be happy to answer any basketball-related questions at that time.”

The Hawks are 8-3 and next play Sunday against the Jazz at home.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 214) Featuring Jamal Crawford

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Once again it’s on. The NBA regular season, that is.

The Golden State Warriors got their championship rings on opening night in Oakland, to go along with a spectacular 40-point effort from the reigning KIA MVP Stephen Curry.

As far as first impressions go, the Warriors couldn’t have looked better … and Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans couldn’t have looked worse.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls on the road. And the 60-win crew from Atlanta last season got a surprising wake-up call from the Detroit Pistons as they unveiled their new court at Philips Arena.

The rest of the league dives into action tonight, with a 14-game slate that gives us intriguing matchups from coast to coast.

That includes a Thunder-Spurs tussle that cannot be missed (we get our first glimpse of Kevin Durant back in regular season action and of LaMarcus Aldridge in his regular season debut), Kobe Bryant‘s return against Kevin Garnett and talented but wounded (by the loss of Flip Saunders) Timberwolves team and the debut of Jamal Crawford and the new-look the Los Angeles Clippers.

And are there two teams more entertaining, on and or off the court, this season than the Warriors or Clippers? We don’t think so.

We discuss all of this and much more on Episode 214 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers.


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of,  Lang Whitaker of’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford and the Los Angeles Clippers will command attention around the globe this season

New offense energizes Wizards

VIDEO: Bradley Beal’s evolution is crucial to the Wizards’ season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Bradley Beal insists it’s the best the Washington Wizards have looked during his time with the team.

So what if he’s talking about the often flimsy sample size that is NBA preseason.

When you basically pass on free agency (until next summer’s Kevin Durant free-for-all), install a new offensive system and ask everyone to buy into new and tweaked roles heading into what is sure to be a pivotal season, a seamless transition to a decidedly different way of operating offensively should ease whatever tensions might have lingered.

A comfort zone for Beal and All-Star point guard John Wall has to be the top priority for a Wizards team few people mention a contender in the Eastern Conference this season. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are at the top of everyone’s list, followed in some order by the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat … and then the Wizards.

That dynamic backcourt is not only the key to the Wizards’ season, they’re also the selling point for the future, along with this new, player-friendly offense that coach Randy Wittman unveiled during the preseason. If the Wizards are serious about making noise this season in the Eastern Conference playoff chase and carrying that momentum into the summer of 2016, it all starts with this emphasis on the faster pace, which takes advantage of what Wall and Beal do best.

The Wizards had the highest offensive rating in the preseason (106.8 points per 100 possessions) and were fourth in pace (104.45 possessions per 48 minutes), a stark contrast from a team that finished 19th and 16th, respectively, in those categories last season.

We saw signs of the shift in the playoffs, when the Wizards threw a scare into the Hawks in the conference semifinals with their small-ball lineup. A summer of tinkering, training and a preseason of on-the-job training gives a team with basically the same core personnel (sans Paul Pierce, of course, who moved on to the Los Angeles Clippers) a chance to reinvent itself on the fly.

Otto Porter and Jared Dudley inherit the minutes and responsibilities Pierce handled last season, including the floor-stretching duties that opened things up for Beal and Wall in the postseason.

VIDEO:’s John Schuhmann breaks down the Wizards’ new look on offense

Beal spoke of improved team camaraderie, better focus on the details and the always important good health that evaded him and the Wizards this time a year go. An improved and more efficient offensive system that the players “love,” according to Wall, paired with a top-10 defense that’s been a staple under Wittman, could serve as the wrinkle the Wizards need to move into the East’s upper echelon.

“Well, I think the Wizards obviously are a dangerous team, and they’ve proven that,” ABC/ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said, “and Randy Wittman has done an outstanding job coaching that team, leading that team, being strong in the face of tough times, holding on to the rope, which became contagious with the players where they bought in.

“I think it’s a different look for them because they certainly have post-up players that are skilled that they can take advantage of, at certain points of the game, but it really gives — adds versatility to that basketball team when you look at that dynamic backcourt in Wall and Beal, playing at a faster pace, creating an offense, stretching the floor is only going to make them tougher to defend, and I think ultimately a tough out in the Eastern Conference.”

If anyone knows about the importance of playing to the skills and abilities of a dynamic young backcourt duo, it’s Jackson. It’s what led to the rise of the Golden State Warriors during his tenure as he catered his system to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Wall and Beal are not Curry and Thompson, and there’s no one suggesting as much.

But they are talented in their own right and on a trajectory that could very well push the Wizards into the realm of teams capable of upsetting the projected East order before whatever free agent splash the team is planning for the summer.

Yes, we’re working on the fumes of the preseason, and that’s always a dangerous predicament.

But if you’re trying to both engineer a revolution and outperform expectations, as Beal and the Wizards are this season, you have to start somewhere.


A photo posted by Bradley Beal (@bradbeal3) on


Wounded Hawks cleared for basketball activities

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The injury issues that helped sink the Atlanta Hawks’ 60-win season in the Eastern Conference finals won’t necessarily be the talk of training camp in Atlanta.

The three players with the biggest question marks heading into this season — All-Star Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Shelvin Mack — have all been cleared for basketball activities, according to a report from Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Of course, there are “differing degrees,” those are Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer‘s words, for each player since each one had their own specific injuries. More from the AJC:

“I would say, to differing degrees, they are doing basketball activities now,” Budenholzer said Monday. “Whether it’s some 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 between now and camp there is the potential for some 5-on-5 in a limited kind of way. But shooting, working out and doing those types of things, they are making good progress.”

Sefolosha had the most serious injury as he suffered a broken right fibula and ligament damage in April in an incident with police outside a New York nightclub. He had surgery and missed the rest of the regular season and playoffs. A trial in the case is scheduled to begin during training camp on Oct. 5.

Korver had right ankle surgery after being injured during the Eastern Conference finals. He subsequently had surgery to remove loose bodies from his right elbow.

Mack had surgery on his right shoulder after being injured in the final game of the conference finals. He suffered a separation and some ligament damage.

Budenholzer made it clear that there will be no rushing any of the healing Hawks in training camp or the preseason, which kicks off next week.

The Hawks finished last season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and owned home court advantage throughout their run to the Eastern Conference finals, where a group decimated by injuries fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 203) Super Team Redux

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Maybe one superstar, one healthy, game-changing true superstar is all you need.

That one transcendent star might be just enough to get you into the building to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Or at least that is the story they are telling today in Cleveland, where LeBron James has guided the Cavaliers back to The Finals for the first time since 2007.

He didn’t promise this when he returned home last summer, at least not right away. But the Cavaliers are here now, awaiting either the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets in The Finals next week.

And since we have a few days to ponder it, what does this feat for LeBron say about today’s NBA and what it takes to scale the mountain?

An hobbled Kyrie Irving and an injured Kevin Love should have been a recipe for disaster in the conference semifinals against Chicago. That was not the case. LeBron rendered that point moot with stellar work night after night and did the same against the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals sweep. Can he do it again? We shall see.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the theory of a Super Team and whether or not that’s what you need to compete for it all, to win it all. Recent history is split on that (LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were 2-2 in the big series).

History says there are no guarantees for Super Teams, as our very own Rick Fox would know, having witnessed a Super Team meltdown of his own with the Los Angeles Lakers’ monster squad of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton — the one coached by the Zen Master himself, Phil Jackson. The same star-studded crew that fell to the ultimate team, the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons.

Mix it up with us on Episode 203 of The Hang Time Podcast: Super Team Redux …


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of,  Lang Whitaker of’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business, Andrew Merriman.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

VIDEO: LeBron James leads the Cleveland Cavaliers past the Atlanta Hawks and into The Finals for the first time since 2007

Morning Shootaround — May 24

VIDEO: Saturday night was Stephen Curry’s night in Houston


Steph Curry is the real MVP | LeBron is the B.O.A.T. | Korver, Hawks all but done? | Wounded Rockets stunned by loss | Skiles the frontrunner for the Magic job

No. 1: Steph Curry is the real MVP — The debate is over. Stephen Curry is the “real MVP.” If that is not clear after three games of the Curry-James Harden duel in the Western Conference finals, you need a new pair of glasses. Curry’s brilliance was on full display in the Warriors’ Game 3 win in Houston Saturday night. And good luck finding a comparable talent, a topic our very own Fran Blinebury explored in the aftermath of the Warriors’ huge win:

The record book now says that after hitting 7-for-9 from long range to ignite his 40-point, seven-assist, five-rebound, two-steal bonfire and an embarrassing 115-80 beatdown of the Rockets, Curry is now the most prolific 3-point shooter in the history of the playoffs, passing the legendary likes of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen.

Your eyes that pop wide open, your ears that can hear the wind getting sucked right out of the arena and any sense of innate rhythm that runs from your head to your feet say you don’t need any list of numbers to tell you he’s a completely different breed of cat.

“I think it’s the ball-handling that leads to the shot,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “People ask me all the time who I would compare him with. I played with Mark Price years ago. Mark had a skill set that was really fun to watch, great ball handler, quick pull-up on a dime. Steve Nash, although Steve really preferred to make the pass and he was a reluctant shooter, could still shoot off the dribble.

“But I don’t think we’ve seen anybody this quick, [with] ability to create space and then pull up and six, seven feet beyond the line, with this kind of fearlessness and confidence. He’s really something.”

That was perhaps one thing a few of the swells in the high-priced front row seats were saying midway through the third quarter when Curry grabbed the rebound off a missed layup by Klay Thompson, ran to the left corner, turned to drill one more trey, stared at the crowd, then removed his mouthpiece to return verbal fire.

“That’s the fun with playoff basketball on the road,” Curry said. “You’ve got hecklers and guys up close that paid of a lot of money for those seats that want to get their money’s worth. It’s fun. You know, those are just genuine reactions.

“I think the one in the corner, a guy said — it was a four-letter word I can’t repeat. But that’s the one I turned around and just said, ‘Sit down.’ Just having fun with him, go about my business, get back on defense. If they want to talk, hopefully they can take some back in my fashion.”


The Cavs-Hawks style referendum

VIDEO: Can the Hawks’ team-first approach defeat the Cavaliers’ star-first approach?

ATLANTA — Much will be made of the contrast in styles between the combatants in the Eastern Conference finals.

The ultimate superstar in LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers versus the ultimate team in the Atlanta Hawks and arguably the best starting unit in basketball this season. It sounds good and lends itself to the underlying drama every playoff series of this magnitude requires.

Whether or not there is any actual validity to that theory, however, remains to be seen.

We’ll know better after Game 1 tonight at Philips Arena (8:30 ET, TNT), when we get our first look at these two teams and their styles that have led them to the brink of fighting for a championship. There is no need in rehashing the particulars of how these teams have arrived here. The Cavaliers rely heavily on LeBron to trigger all things, on both ends of the floor. He is at the center of everything they do, the same as he’s always been on whatever team he’s played on, dating back to his biddy ball days in his native Akron.

The Hawks — their four All-Stars (Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver) and playoff MVP (DeMarre Carroll) — are focused around that five-man unit that has excelled all season long. When they needed to surge past Brooklyn in the first round, they took turns playing hero. Same goes for the way they handled things in the conference semifinals when they needed to squeeze past Washington.

While the Hawks’ main focus will be on LeBron and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers know that they won’t have the luxury of locking into any single player in an effort to slow the Hawks down.

“For us defensively, we have to be in tune,” LeBron told reporters in Cleveland after practice earlier this week. “First of all, the most important thing is the ball and the ball is going to start in Jeff Teague’s hands and then from that point on to Kyle Korver to DeMarre Carroll to Al Horford to Paul Millsap on to the guys that come in after them.”

Cleveland’s role player have stepped up, particularly J.R. Smith, Iman ShumpertTristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavadova, but they still won’t draw the focus of the Hawks the way LeBron and Kyrie will. The Hawks don’t change who and what they are based on the opponent, choosing instead to stick to the principles on both ends of the floor that produced their franchise-record 60-win season and breakthrough to the conference finals.

So even if there are some who are trying create the narrative that this series is a referendum on which style of play will prevail, the Hawks aren’t necessarily interested in playing that game. This isn’t a battle between the pace-and-space style and the hero ball style that has ruled the roost for years.

“Hero, that word,” Korver said. “It is unique. There’s only so many elite, elite superstars. The rest of us have to figure out how to win. So this is how we do it. And we feel like it’s a good way to play, a fun way to play. And a fun game to watch. This is who we are and we’ve all kind of taken turns taking and making shots at the end and it’s probably going to continue to be that way. The last series it felt like every game was down to the wire and different guys made different plays in different games. Gonna be the same thing this time around.”

Even if they don’t want to dive in on the narrative, Korver is well aware that the trial of this style versus that style will rage on.

“It feels like it’s been on trial for a while, huh?” he said. “Feels like we get asked this question a lot. Obviously, the fire keeps burning brighter. And that’s okay. That’s what we play for. We’re not here trying to sell the world that this is better than hero ball or whatever. This is just who we are and how we have to play and it gives us our best chance to win. And we’re just trying to do it the best that we can.”

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 202) featuring Charles Barkley

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Charles Barkley is not afraid to admit when he’s wrong.

He just can’t remember the last time he was actually wrong about something.

Like many of us, though, he couldn’t have predicted the Final Four field facing off for the right to play for the NBA title, well at least not three of the four teams.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers making the Eastern Conference finals is by no means a surprise. But their opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, and the two teams in the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, weren’t on everyone’s preseason list to make it this far. Those slots were supposed to be reserved for the blue bloods, the franchises used to working this late in a season, not these upstarts from around the league.

Stephen Curry and James Harden, the top two finishers in the voting for the KIA MVP award and now the combatants at the center of the Western Conference finals, had other ideas.

So did Al Horford and those three other All-Stars the Hawks will deploy against James and his crew in the Eastern Conference finals. The revolution will be televised this year and who better to analyze it all than the biggest star of TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, who joins us on Episode 202 of The Hang Time Podcast Featuring Charles Barkley.

Dive in to see who we all think comes out on the other side of a heated Final Four round of the NBA Playoffs on Episode 202 of The Hang Time Podcast Featuring Charles Barkley …


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of,  Lang Whitaker of’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business, Andrew Merriman.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

VIDEO: Think you are clowning Chuck? Keep dreaming!

Horford savors Hawks’ breakthrough

VIDEO: Al Horford played hero for the Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals

ATLANTA — Al Horford never put a timetable on it.

He wasn’t thinking that far ahead when the Hawks made him the third pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and he went from two-time college champion to starting center for a struggling outfit in Atlanta, where he knew enough to know that there would be no Final Fours and contending for titles right away.

Fast forward eight years and Horford and the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage, facing off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the right to go to The Finals. To say this ride has been something of a roller coaster would be an understatement of epic proportions. And not just this stunning season, one that began with no one outside of the Hawks’ most die-hard of supporters believing this sort of dream season was possible, but the entire trip from the moment he arrived to now, the moment when he and the Hawks have truly arrived.

“I think you acknowledge it,” Horford said of the Hawks’ breakthrough to the conference final round for the first time in the franchise’s Atlanta history. “But then you move on and realize that is more work to be done. That’s what I did after Game 6 in Washington. It was like, ‘man, that’s good but we still want more and we are still looking forward to the next round.'”

The compressed schedule for mountain climbing in college makes it much easier to get caught up in the moment at that level. Superstar players spend one, maybe two and rarely three seasons on campus before departing for the adventure that is professional basketball. Horford did not enter Florida as a guaranteed pro, a surefire one-and-done prospect headed for the top of the Draft. His journey was different.

And he knew that from the start. That’s what made winning back-to-back titles with the Gators so great. Same goes for a NBA career that began with him being selected behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant eight years ago. The road to back to respectability for the Hawks has been an arduous one. The fact that it’s been paved on Horford’s watch, with his blood, sweat and perhaps a tear or two over the years, makes this moment even sweeter than you might imagine.

Once the youngster of the bunch — playing alongside Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia, Mike Bibby and others — Horford’s the seasoned veteran now. A three-time All-Star, he’s the one pointing the way for youngsters like Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, alongside fellow veterans and All-Stars Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and veteran swingman DeMarre Carroll. 

As much hard work as it takes to grind away this long before reaching the conference finals, it also takes a ton of patience to continue plugging away with all of the distractions, on and off the court, that came up along the way. The cast of characters has changed dramatically and there have been regime changes in the front office and coaching ranks. The one constant has been Horford and his undeniable work ethic and desire to be better this year than he was the year before.

“You’ve got to look at yourself as an individual and it depends on where your goals are,” he said. “I always wanted to be a better player. I always wanted to challenge myself. For me it’s just, I feel like the league is changing quickly and every year I want to make sure I can be better and to put my team into a position to be successful. That’s always my mindset, to make it a point of just getting better and not feeling content with what you have done.”

Horford has found a kindred spirit in Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, whose arrival before the start of the 2013-14 season ushered in a totally different program than what the Hawks were used to. The emphasis on player development and individual skill building became more than just operational procedure. It became a mission for all involved.

The results are obvious.

The best season in franchise history during the regular season. The breakthrough, finally, to the conference finals. And who know what else looms on the horizon in the next two weeks. There are children growing up in Atlanta who will identify Horford’s time with the Hawks as some of the greatest times in franchise history, from the flash of the Highlight Factory days to this trip to the NBA’s version of the Final Four and the matchup against LeBron, the face of a generation in the NBA.

“When you get to this point, if you want to be one of the best teams, you have to go through the best players and teams,” Horford said. “There are no shortcuts when you get to this stage of the season. We have a huge challenge in front of us, and we obviously don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but I think this is the way you want to do things.”