ATLANTA – Russell Westbrook delivered an emphatic slam, and as the Hawks called timeout, he walked toward midcourt, screaming and pumping his fists.
He was met by Kevin Durant, who high-fived his teammate before putting his hand on the back of Westbrook’s head as the All-Star duo walked toward the Thunder’s bench.
It was a game that offered the surprising Hawks a chance to prove they belong among the NBA’s best.
“We put our pants on just like they do,” Atlanta forward Josh Smith
said. “We’re not going to back down from anybody, no matter what the
record is, no matter what the media says about a team. … We’re not
scared of anybody. We’re willing to take the challenge.”
Instead, one of the league’s truly elite turned it into a showcase.
Durant scored a season-high 41 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, while Westbrook had 27 points and 11 assists in the Thunder’s 100-92 win, their 12th straight.
It was an impressive display as Durant scored 28 of his points in the second half, while 21 of Westbrook’s came before halftime.
“[Westbrook] was aggressive, and they were giving him jump shots,” Durant said. “We just played off of that. He was very good, and it opened up for me in the second half.”
Let’s be clear: the Hawks have penned one of the more stunning starts in a season that’s just gone past its quarter mark.
Remember, six-time All-Star Joe Johnson is now in Brooklyn, and Danny Ferry’s reconstructed roster included just five players from a year ago in Al Horford, Ivan Johnson, Zaza Pachulia, Jeff Teague and Smith.
Atlanta entered Wednesday night third in the Eastern Conference, just a game behind the defending champion Heat, and it has been a start fueled by defense.
Sixth in the league in fewest points allowed (94.1) and committing 16.9 turnovers per game, the Haws have wins over five playoff teams from a year ago, the Clippers, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Pacers and Thunder. It’s also a team that has taken advantage of playing the Bobcats three times and the Magic and Wizards two times each, winning each of them for seven of their 15 wins.
Still, they’ve largely overachieved. And the Thunder offered a star-studded reality check.
Yes, the Hawks had already beaten them, 104-95, in Oklahoma City on Nov. 4, a game in which they played without Smith, who suffered an ankle injury. But that was a Thunder team that, three games into the new season, was still adjusting to life without sparkplug James Harden.
The Thunder have gone on to lose just two games since, including the franchise-high winning streak to hold an NBA-best record of 21-4 after leaving Philips Arena.
The Hawks led 19-17 off an Anthony Morrow bucket in the first quarter, but it would be the last time they held the lead.
By halftime, Oklahoma City led 55-41 behind a combined 34 points from Westbrook Durant. Just one Hawk, Teague, who had 10 of his 19, registered more than eight points.
“You can’t have a second quarter like we did,” Horford said. “We had a lapse, and they took a big lead. You can’t do that against a team like them.”
Two games removed from their worst loss of the season, 115-93, at the hands of the Warriors on Saturday at home, the Hawks looked on their way to being out of this game in the third quarter, falling behind by as many as 16.
They responded, ending the frame on a 12-2 run to cut it to 73-66 and moved within four with an Anthony Tolliver slam with 10:18 to play.
But they simply had no answer for Durant.
He hit a 26-foot shot, a fall-away jumper and a spinning three-pointer, avenging one of his worst shooting performances (7 of 17) in that November loss to the Hawks.
“We double-teamed him, we zoned him,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “He still made shots. You can’t stop him when he’s hot like that.”
Fifteen wins through the first 23 games of the season are more than anyone could have expected, especially given a roster turnover that included shipping out the face of the franchise in Joe Johnson.
Since the calendar flipped to December, the Hawks have beaten just two teams with winning records, the Nuggets and Grizzlies, and have lost their last two meetings with last year’s NBA Finals participants, the Heat and Thunder.
The Hawks have shown they can be among the NBA’s best because of that defense.
They remain a top-six team on that side of the floor and kept 15 opponents under 95 points a game and have star power with Horford and Smith, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season.
The Hawks have flashed potential, but they’re far from a fully realized product. But they didn’t have to look far to see what a contender looks like.
Taking the ball on the top left of the arc, Durant took a step to his right, spun and then faked a drive inside. Kyle Korver bit and Durant pulled back, draining a step-back three over the 6-foot-7 guard.
“He’s just one of those players,” Korver said. “People don’t understand how tall he is and how long his arms are.”