Hawks’ defense steals the show in win over Nets

ATLANTA — Ever since Mike Budenholzer took over as the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach, the team has been known for its unselfish ball movement, which leads to easy baskets for the offense.

Hiding behind that popular topic is a team that finds just as much success on the defensive side of the court.

With the loss of DeMarre Carroll in the offseason, some thought the Hawks’ defense would suffer –“ especially on the perimeter –“ and the team would fall backwards in the Eastern Conference as a result of that. So far, that’s proven to be completely untrue, as Atlanta has ridden its defense to a 5-1 start to the 2015-16 season.

On Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets, the defense once again made its impact to help lead the Hawks to their fifth consecutive victory with a 101-87 win. Coming into the game ranked fifth in the NBA with 9.6 steals per game, Atlanta easily bypassed that average with 15 against the Nets. Despite ranking towards the bottom of the league in blocks, the Hawks set an early season-high with 10 blocks in the game.

"I think the activity and the effort really allowed us to win a game tonight, said coach Mike Budenholzer. "Kent Bazemore and Justin Holiday’s activity and their length on the wing, and Kent tracking down shots in transition … Justin with multiple efforts, multiple contests. That’s part of who we are, so that’s what we have to continue to do."

With Kyle Korver sitting out, Holiday played a season-high 29 minutes and made the most of it with four blocks — a team high — and plenty of swarming defense.

Coach Budenholzer was asked after the game about what he saw from Holiday and his increase in playing time.

 "I think it’s his defense and activity and length, and then he’s making some shots and making plays," said Budenholzer, "Tonight Justin got his (minutes), and he took advantage of it."

Holiday made it clear after the game that his defensive aggression was a priority, and it may have helped him seeing a teammate come out of the gate with some big defensive plays.

"When I’m backing up on defense, I’m thinking be aggressive, use your hands, and be active," said Holiday, who is in his first season with the Hawks after winning a championship with the Warriors last season. "It’s me trying to be active and give everything I have. I’m really just trying to be like (Bazemore). Baze got those two early, so I was like, I need to get some blocks too."

While Holiday may have been thanking Bazemore for his strong defensive performance, Bazemore was full of praise for the team’s effort and the first-year Hawk after the game.

"We were pretty aggressive, said Bazemore. "Justin Holiday played huge minutes for us with four blocks, and we had 10 blocks as a team … I’m sure that’s a record. It’s just us being versatile … (having) long wings … Justin is a really good athlete. Defense is what we hang our hat on. If we can get some stops, the team can do what we need to win."

As a perimeter defender led the team in blocks for the night, a Hawks’ All-Star forward led the team in steals. Paul Millsap’s five steals set an early NBA-high for the season. That should come as no surprise, as the versatile big man came into the game ranked 11th in the NBA with two steals per game.

"Just being active, just being myself," said Millsap. "If I see a ball, I go after it … just try to cause havoc. Guys are moving. They were hustling, scrambling on defense, blocked shots and steals come with that … come with playing hard. If we do that every night, things like that will happen."

Ranked fifth in points allowed per game and sixth in opponents field goal percentage last season, the Hawks have opened up the season with the same defensive tenacity that, while under appreciated, was the driving force that allowed Atlanta to win 60 games and make the Eastern Conference finals.

Though a main piece of that juggernaut has departed, the Hawks are showing they have plenty of depth to make up for it and cause scoring to be a difficult task every night for their opponent.