Preview: Timberwolves at Hawks
The Hawks know it can be done.
A season ago, they watched the San Antonio Spurs blow out LeBron James’ Miami Heat for the NBA title without anyone carrying the bulk of the load.
Still, this is rather rare territory in a star-driven league, a team pushing itself into the championship mix without one or two players standing above the others.
Atlanta (36-8), which has set a franchise record with 15 straight wins and leads the East, is a team in every sense of the word heading into Sunday night’s home game against the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves.
The starting lineup is about as balanced as it can be, with five players averaging between 17.2 and 11.7 points. The bench runs five or six players deep on any given night, all of them capable of making a valuable contribution.
"Every night, somebody different can step up," coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Not that the Hawks don’t have some talented players. Paul Millsap and Al Horford have been to the All-Star Game. Jeff Teague, the team’s point guard and top scorer, will almost certainly make the All-Star team for the first time when the East reserves are announced. Sharp-shooting Kyle Korver and defensive stopper DeMarre Carroll have blossomed in starting roles since coming to Atlanta.
"Give me four or five really good players compared to just one superstar," Millsap said. "I’ll take that any day."
Over the last 30 years, only five teams have gone on to win the NBA title without at least one player averaging at least 20 points. The most recent was last year’s Spurs, who were paced by Tony Parker at 16.7 points a game.
"We watched how the Spurs did it in the Finals," Korver said. "We’re not the Spurs, but we do a lot of similar things. And they won the Finals pretty convincingly."
No other champion in that span has had a top scorer with a scoring average lower than 17.6, slightly above Teague’s average.
"There are definitely times during a game when you need someone to step up and make a play," Korver said. "What we’re trying to do is make it possible for a lot of people to be that guy. There’s a lot of talk about us not having a superstar, but I feel like we’ve got a lot of good players."
Eight players have led Atlanta in scoring, led by Millsap and Teague with 15 games apiece. Korver and Horford have each done it seven times, with Carroll pacing the scoresheet in five games.
The Hawks appear more than likely to keep rolling as they look to extend an 11-game home winning streak versus Minnesota (7-35).
The injury-ravaged Timberwolves have dropped 19 of 21 following a 92-84 home loss to New Orleans on Friday. They’ve struggled offensively during their current three-game skid, averaging 79.7 points on 37.5 percent shooting.
Andrew Wiggins averaged 21.4 points and shot 50.5 percent over a 13-game stretch before scoring 14.3 per game on just 34.0 percent shooting over his last three.
"I think he’s physically and mentally just worn (out)," coach Flip Saunders said. "I think he’s hit the rookie wall a bit. Somehow we’ve got to find a way to go right through it."
Nikola Pekovic has totaled 27 points and 13 rebounds off the bench in two games since missing two months with a sprained wrist, while Kevin Martin might be ready to return from a wrist injury that has kept him out since Nov. 19.
Shabazz Muhammad (abdominal strain) and Ricky Rubio (ankle) are expected to remain sidelined.