x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Let's hear it for the Atlanta Hawks

How about giving up some love to the NBA Eastern Conference's only undefeated team? Unfancied Atlanta are one of only three teams still boasting a 100 per cent record.

Atlanta Hawks' Joe Johnson, right, shoots against Charlie Villanueva of the Detroit Pistons.
Atlanta Hawks' Joe Johnson, right, shoots against Charlie Villanueva of the Detroit Pistons.

How about giving up some love to the NBA Eastern Conference's only undefeated team?

Nope, not that "Super Friends" team in Miami. Not the defending conference champions Boston. Not the two-time Eastern Conference finalists Orlando.

No, it is time to put those hands together for the perfect … Atlanta Hawks? It is true, completely - if slightly unbelievably - true.

The Hawks have started the season 6-0. They are one of only three teams left without a loss.

That one is the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champions, is no surprise. That another is the New Orleans Hornets, only mildly surprising. But the Hawks? The under-the-radar Hawks? That qualifies as an absolute shocker.

Which is not the same thing as saying that it should. The Hawks have improved their record for the past five seasons. They have been a play-off team the past three years, and won a series the last two. They won 53 games last season.

But the shadow cast by the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic has almost left the Hawks in a public blackout. And this is not to say the Hawks are better than the East's big three, but they are proving worthy of greater respect, particularly as four of their six victories came on the road.

"When you talk about being a good team you have to be able to go out on the road and win," Larry Drew, the Hawks coach, said. "I don't care who the opponent is. We've been trying to mature on the road and in certain cases in the past we've gotten leads and lost them.

"We've been able to weather some storms early on the road with teams fighting back and even taking leads. We've seemed to not be rattled and maintained our composure and we've stuck with our game plan and executed the game plan until the end."

Sounds remarkably like a team truly in the process of growing up.

Certainly, the key pieces have been in place for a while now. Joe Johnson, the forward, may not be worthy of a six-year, US$124 million (Dh455m) contract, but he is a top player. Al Horford, the centre, is a consistent rebounder and improving offensive player. Jamal Crawford is a consistent threat at guard. Josh Smith, the forward, one of the league's best defensive players. And Mike Bibby may seem older than the Pyramids (he's actually only 32), but he is still an effective point guard.

Best of all, the Hawks are playing together. They are No 1 in the league in field goal percentage (.495). Eighth in points scored (104.8 per game) and allowed (96.0). Third in rebound differential (plus-3.5).

They are responding to Drew, in his first season as head coach. They are making a greater commitment to defence. Beating teams with their fast break. Playing together and starting to both believe, and earn believers.


Players of the week
• Emeka Okafor, New Orleans: Had 26 points and 13 rebounds in the 96-93 upset over the Miami Heat on Friday.
• John Wall, Washington: The rookie guard, pictured below, scored 29 points, passed out 13 assists and had nine steals on his home debut, a 116-115 overtime victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
• Carmelo Anthony, Denver: The forward had 27 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals to lead a 103-92 victory over the Mavericks in Dallas.

Teams of the week
• New Orleans Hornets: One of three remaining teams without a loss. Their 87-81 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday left them 6-0, the best start in franchise history.
• Atlanta Hawks: Also 6-0, the last unbeaten team standing in the Eastern Conference.

Duds of the week
• DeMar DeRozan, Toronto: The shooting guard was one-for-10 from the field, with one assist, no steals, no free throws and two turnovers in 29 minutes of a 97-84 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
• Grant Hill, Phoenix Suns: The veteran forward was just one-for-nine from the field in 23 minutes, though his team rallied for 123-118 overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Games of the week
• Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic, today. The Hawks take their unbeaten start to Orlando, meeting a team with a winning record for the first time this season.
• Boston Celtics at Miami Heat, Thursday. A quick rematch of the season opener. Now the Heat get a chance to hold court.