ATLANTA — Eight years removed from his junior season at Florida, Al Horford is once again the hunted. For just the second time in Atlanta Hawks’ franchise history and the first since Michael Jordan was trying his hand at minor-league baseball — the 1993-94 season, well before any current Hawks player even played college basketball — the team holds a No. 1 seed in the NBA playoffs. It’s a welcome, albeit unfamiliar, position.
In the context of prior experience, this is new territory for this Hawks group, particularly Horford, Jeff Teague and others who have spent their entire careers in Atlanta too often stuck in Eastern Conference no-man’s land. Of the 15 players on the Hawks roster, only two have played on a top-seeded team entering the playoffs before: starting guard Kyle Korver (2011-2012 Bulls) and reserve wing Thabo Sefolosha (2013 Thunder). The latter will not play this postseason due to a season-ending injury and the former is looking for his first NBA Finals appearance.
In fact, the only Atlanta player with an NBA ring is backup big man Austin Daye, who played a grand total of six postseason minutes on last season’s Spurs team.
Atlanta is not waltzing into the postseason blindly, though. Aside from Korver and Sefolosha, its coach knows the playoff ropes more than most. Mike Budenholzer, a leading Coach of the Year candidate, was an integral part of the San Antonio Spurs’ four NBA championships as a member of Gregg Popovich’s staff. Though not in a head coaching role, he experienced the constant scrutiny San Antonio was under as preseason favorites or end-of-season title contenders. He brought a few lessons along with him when he moved to Atlanta.
"There’s a lot more talk, it’s just not very relevant with us. … The focus is always on us and how are we playing and how are we practicing," said Budenholzer, whose team was 29-12 against playoff teams this season. "Are we doing what we need to do to be prepared regardless of all the other things that are discussed? You just keep your focus on your team. Everything else will kind of take care of itself."
Then there’s Horford. There’s always Horford. As the roster’s longest-tenured member, best player (team-leading 8.7 win shares and 21.4 PER this season) and unquestioned leader, the 6-foot-10 big man has seen the ups and downs. And he remains the franchise’s steadying force.
While occupying the pedestal of NBA elite is new to the eighth-year star, he’s experienced the relentless pressure that hounds favorites before — and he says life is once again different now that he’s at the top of the hill.
"People are going to give us their best shot," Horford said. "We know that."
Horford was a vital cog on Billy Donovan’s ultra-talented Florida Gators teams that repeated as national champs in 2006 and 2007, the last team to accomplish the feat. Eventual NBA players like Joakim Noah, Marreese Speights and Corey Brewer certainly didn’t hinder the cause, but Horford was that group’s pulse. He kept those teams grounded, focused. Donovan has referred to his former All-American as "The Godfather" on more than one occasion, praising Horford’s beyond-his-years maturity and leadership skills.
That second title run was anything but smooth sailing — as the preseason No. 1, the Gators went 26-5 in the regular season, losing to rival Florida State and dropping three of their final five games before kicking it into high gear in March — but it provided its own set of firsthand lessons. Things change when you’re on top. Opponents change. When asked if he notices teams playing differently against the Hawks as opposed to past years, Horford quickly answered, "Totally, totally."
"I think the whole thing is that we keep our killer instinct, that we stay the aggressor, that we go out there and play hard. That’s what we did at Florida (during our second title run)," Horford continued. "That’s the mentality that I have here. You have to come out on edge. Because if not, any given night any team can embarrass you.
" … With this team in particular I feel like we have have several leaders. I feel like they already carry themselves in that way. It’s very rare for a team to have so many leaders like that. And we actually do. That’s the surprising thing: We have guys that are kind of already wired like that."
Budenholzer doesn’t put much, if any, emphasis on seeding or targets. The man with more playoff experience under his belt than the rest of his roster combined (perhaps only a slight exaggeration) knows that the Hawks’ success is determined less by opponent effort than their own quality of play. The second-year coach wants Atlanta to focus on Atlanta — and let everything else fall into its rightful place.
And if teams gear up a little more for the No. 1 seed? All the better.
"We haven’t played a game yet in the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. But I think hopefully we’ve earned some respect around the league and that there are teams that feel like they’ve got to — I kind of say about other teams, when we play really good teams we’re going to be tested in a lot of different ways. Maybe other teams are feeling like we’re testing them. I can’t speak for them," Budenholzer said. "You can sense when the players have that heightened awareness and attention, and it’s great for any team that gets to play that on a night-in and night-out basis. So if it’s true, good for us."
The 1998-99 Duke Blue Devils entered the season as college basketball’s overwhelming preseason No. 1 team. Mike Krzyzewski’s team featured NBA talent all over the roster. All eyes were on Durham. And that was when that team’s best player and eventual top overall NBA draft pick, Elton Brand, first noticed how underdogs want nothing more than to knock favorites off their pedestals.
"(It was noticeable) definitely back in college and then this season," said Brand, whose Duke team earned the top overall seed in the ’99 NCAA tournament before falling in the title game to Richard Hamilton and UConn. "This season, we’ve gotten everybody’s best shot after 19 wins in a row. Like, ‘Oh, is this team for real?’ Teams that are at the bottom of the standings were coming at us, whoever. Top teams wanted to show that they were top teams. We had some battles.
"You have to come with the mindset that the underdog is going to try to play a lot harder, play a lot more aggressive. So you have to match their intensity. They’re just going out gung ho saying, ‘Nobody expects us to win.’ Just like we did last year as the 8-seed against the 1-seed, took them to the brink."
Brand, 35, is the eldest member of this balanced Hawks roster — certainly the one whose playing days came closest to that pivotal 1993-94 season when Atlanta grabbed the franchise’s first No. 1 seed but also traded Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins — and he’s settled into the role of affable, wisened veteran presence off the bench. Much like Horford, this is Brand’s first experience in an NBA conference driver seat. He’s been in a similar make and model before. It had just been a while since he took it for a test drive.
(Side note: It must be pointed out that while Atlanta holds the No. 1 seed, the East’s Cleveland Cavaliers remain the Vegas favorites to not only win the conference but also the NBA Finals. Call it the byproduct of employing LeBron James.)
But even the team vet is still seeking advice.
Though his head coach remains consistent in his self-focus public mantras, deflecting the importance of regular-season success come playoff basketball, Brand said the players look to coaches past and present for perspective. The Hawks clinched the top spot weeks before the season ended, but this is all still a novel experience. Brand texts every now and then with Coach K — the Duke coach only recently joined the preferred present-day form of communication: "This is new, last two years. He used to write down everything." — while Horford keeps in regular contact with Donovan. Bouncing ideas off proven winners can’t hurt.
Of course, Budenholzer’s office is right down the hall from the locker room as well.
"Coach Bud, we’ve talked a lot. He’s been on a 20-year run with the Spurs and won four rings. He’s been a part of this type of thing, he’s been entrenched. The head coach and the star players get a lot of (recognition), but it’s the organization, it’s the team. He was a part of it," Brand said. "One thing he told us is that it’s not always a smooth ride. It’s a seven-game series, just be prepared for that. It’s the first team to get to four. Even if you start out bumpy or whatever, you need to find a way to win four games."
Korver, the team’s only active member with a No. 1 seed in his rearview, gave a telling statement last month after the team clinched the Eastern Conference’s top seed with 10 games remaining on the schedule, saying "This isn’t the goal, it’s one of the goals along the way."
Different Hawks players have given different versions of that response throughout the season. Atlanta has made it known they are not satisfied with being the target. No. 1 seeds have won more than 70 percent of NBA titles, but there are far too many examples of top dogs being tripped up (including Korver’s Bulls team losing to Brand’s 8th-seeded 76ers in 2012) for Horford, Korver and the rest to be complacent entering their first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.
"I think we had a good first season. That’s how I look at it," starting wing DeMarre Carroll said. "We got a second season and the record’s going to be zero-zero."