ATLANTA — They didn’t need the big stage, the bright lights and noise of the building dubbed the “Highlight Factory” in another life.
The Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors could have picked any court, indoors or outdoors, anywhere in this city for a Friday night showdown pitting the two best teams in the NBA against each other for the first time this season, and the results would have been the same. The Hawks’ 124-116 win Friday night at a packed Philips Arena was an absolute masterpiece of basketball that was a decade in the making for the home team.
Ten years ago today the Hawks were in the midst of what would be a 13-69 season, a low-point for a franchise that had seen plenty of dark days, far too many to regurgitate for long-suffering Hawks fans who lived through every painful misstep.
Friday night they delivered in ways that not only stirred the emotions of a fan base and city, they also checked every basketball box on the way to an unbelievable sense of what might be this morning. At 42-9 and the clear class of the Eastern Conference, the Hawks have become the model for downtrodden teams around the league. They are 14-3 against the mighty Western Conference, have won 35 of their last 38 games, own a 25-3 record on their home floor, and remain on pace for a 68-win season. They are also making a mockery of any doubts about their ability to sustain this beautiful, pace and space game being cultivated under the meticulous and watchful eye of Mike Budenholzer.
It’s hoops karma that took years of hits and misses to get right, a gestation period not everyone could stomach, that has birthed a full-blown movement in a city where this wasn’t supposed to be possible.
Make no mistake, from the heart of the city to the suburbs that sprawl in every direction, it’s real.
I’ve been here for every step, sometimes closer to it than in recent years but always watching, and it is as real as the traffic congestion and late-arriving crowds and finicky fans everything else that comes along with professional sports in this complicated and diverse metropolitan area of 6 million people.
Through the haze of a yet another pair of say-it-ain’t-so moments, courtesy of owner Bruce Levenson and exiled general manager Danny Ferry, these Hawks have provided a storyline that overshadows all of the foolishness.
From their All-Stars, the deserving trio Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap, to their equally deserving other stars, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, to super subs like Dennis Schroder and Mike Scott (all brilliant in their own right at times in the win over the Warriors) the Hawks have stumbled upon the winning formula for capturing the imagination of basketball fans around the globe and most importantly here at home.
“It was amazing,” Teague said of the playoff-like atmosphere. “The crowd was into it. Everybody was into it. Kyle was yelling out. That was a first. It was a good game.”
True to their DNA, seven players scored in double figures as the Hawks bested the one team in the league that can claim a first-class ticket on the rags-to-riches express of the recent past.
“We’ve both been in the playoffs the last few years,” Warriors star Steph Curry said Friday morning, hours before the two best teams in the NBA dazzled the crowd with 48 minutes of the best basketball witnessed in these parts all season. “So it’s not like we’re unknowns. But it’s not the Lakers, it’s not New York or teams that have won championships recently.”
That’s what makes this so special for the Hawks — no one saw it coming.
Everybody knows exactly who these two teams are now. Curry and Thompson will be joined at All-Star Weekend in New York by Steve Kerr and his coaching staff. Budenholzer and his staff will coach Teague, Millsap, Horford and the Eastern Conference All-Stars.
They are both legitimate contenders this season, teams with the parts to play deep into the postseason under any circumstance. The similarities, from the sets they run to the style of play in general, are born out of the shared basketball experiences from both Kerr and Budenholzer during their San Antonio days. The locker room vibe and enjoy-the-moment mantra both teams share, however, comes from within.
The Hawks’ unselfish, no-nonsense approach works in a place known for celebrating the flashiest things. Budenholzer’s constant preaching of belief in the system, the process and ultimately one another, has forged a bond between this team and players like nothing we’ve seen from the crew with the second-longest playoff streak in the league behind the reigning world champion San Antonio Spurs.
The fact that both teams embraced the magnitude of Friday night’s game — the first matchup between teams with winning percentages this high this late in a season since 1981 — the way they did, speaks volumes about the approach and foundation laid in both places. It was indeed a measuring stick game for both sides, a chance to prove yet again that what you are seeing is real.
Kerr pointed out the obvious and parallel path for both teams; the cosmic wave they are both riding, the fact that they are getting everyone’s best shot every night, the fun that comes with competing that way every minute of every day, and the responsibility that comes with occupying that real estate at the top of the standings.
It’s foreign territory for the majority of the players on both teams.
You couldn’t tell Friday night.
No one looked uncomfortable in that spotlight, in the moment, certainly not the Hawks.
They rode the emotional wave, battled back from an early deficit and played their game down the stretch to pull away. A lesser might have buckled under the pressure, more talented Hawks teams in the past might not have possessed the mental fortitude to win a game like this one or some of the 41 others they have during this magical season.
“We have confidence in ourselves. We’re not going to back down from any team,” Scott said. “We also want to respect teams. Just like tonight, we respect the (heck) out of Golden State. Great coaching, great players. We played a hard-fought game and came out with the win.”
And they could have done it anywhere in this city that finally has a team it can believe in.