Court Vision: Hawks take down Thunder for franchise-record 15th straight win

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks extended their winning streak to a franchise-record 15th straight game in a 103-93 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night. Here are three observations from the game:

1. Defense helps Hawks hit franchise-high win streak

When the doors opened for the Hawks’ open locker room and the large media contingent filed in, one after another, point guard Jeff Teague’s eyes widened: "It’s gotta be a record." If not, it’s been a while.

It was the aftermath of 15 straight wins, this time coming at the expense of the reigning league MVP and a team with about as much star power as any in the NBA, and the national attention has arrived in Atlanta. The Hawks have won 29 of their past 31 games, taking out many of the top teams in convincing fashion along the way. The "narrative" questions keep getting lobbed up to players and coaches after every win — "How are you doing this without a superstar?" — but the wins keep piling up. The Hawks rank in the top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, boast ridiculous depth and play a team-oriented basketball. It’s not a matter of national name recognition. You can’t fake this type of productivity.

Teague’s good-humored surprise aside, it appears the team is taking the recognition in stride. Franchise records are welcomed, but that isn’t the focus. In fact, Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll was surprised — or perhaps feigned so — at the No. 15 record news:

"Ah man, it was?" Carroll asked about the record win, laughing. "I don’t even think we’re paying too much attention to that. It’s cool to get your name in the record books, but at the same time we’ve got a bigger task at hand: That’s making it to the playoffs and bringing an NBA championship to Atlanta."

There it is. The long-range goal that now doesn’t seem like such a pipe dream. The Hawks are in full control of the Eastern Conference heading into the All-Star break. They’ve beaten 10 straight Western Conference teams, they protect their home court with bad intentions (19-3 at Philips) and own a winning streak that is now triple the next-longest active mark.

"Our guys deserve to have an opportunity to do something," said coach Mike Budenholzer, who will coach the Eastern Conference team in the All-Star and looks like the frontrunner for Coach of the Year honors. "We just have to keep doing it. We have to keep working in practice. We have to keep doing all those things and keep our focus there. That’s how we’re going to get better. That’s how we’ll be at our best."

So much attention gets paid to Budenholzer’s pace-and-space offense, and deservedly so, that it often gets lost in the shuffle that this team is extremely good defensively. (The same could be said of the Golden State Warriors, the only team with a better record than the Hawks.) In terms of efficiency rankings, the Hawks are better defensive team than they are on offense.

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Look no further than the work Atlanta’s unit put in against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Thunder team that has started to find itself now that it’s healthy. The Thunder shot 41.4 percent from the floor and were limited to nine offensive boards. Durant and Westbrook both hit the 20-point mark, but it came on a combined 16 of 38 shooting. Perhaps this is becoming less surprising: the Hawks are 34-3 when they hold opponents under 50 percent from the floor.

"Coach told me to take the challenge upon myself of getting into him and stopping (Durant)," Carroll said. "So I just tried to do what I could. He was a little off tonight, but you know he’s a great player and he always bounces back."

Added Thunder coach Scott Brooks: "Kevin is a shot-maker. It’s hard to get to go 8 for 22. They’re good defensively. Carroll did a good job of staying after it."

The Hawks have held every opponent under 50 percent shooting on this winning streak, including highly rated offenses like the Clippers (twice), Bulls, Grizzlies, Trailblazers and Cavaliers. This is a trend.

2. Hawks overcome slow start with ball security

Things were not all sunshine and rainbows for the Hawks on Friday night. Through the first 12 minutes, the Thunder looked like the better team — playing with energy, getting into passing lanes and out in transition. Budenholzer credited Oklahoma City’s defense and ball-pressure for building up an early lead, and it was clear that the Thunder’s athleticism it created problems on both ends of the floor at times.

The Thunder led 30-23 after the first quarter. Things didn’t get off to a much better start in the second as the lead again ballooned to nine points with five minutes left in the first half. Something had to change.

"We didn’t take care of the ball very well," Budenholzer said. "It led to buckets, especially that stretch there where we made a couple of defensive mistakes. We shifted too much, turned it over. They scored 12 or 14 points like that. … I thought we cleaned it up a little bit in the second half. Teams that are this athletic and this long, when they turn you over, it can be quick layups and dunks and 3s."

The Hawks finished the game with 16 turnovers — just the 15th game this season they’ve committed 15 or more in a single game this season — but only five after the break. That halted the Thunder running game, and made it a game of execution. That style is going to favor Atlanta in almost every game the rest of the way. As the Hawks started to pull away, Brooks was forced to call timeout after timeout to try and disrupt the momentum.

Atlanta’s first lead came under the two-minute mark in the second quarter. It would eventually balloon to 15 points before settling on the final margin in garbage time.

"You can have five really good guys and go out there and win games," said Hawks forward Paul Millsap, who logged 22 points and 10 rebounds with an aggressive second half. That’s what our team is predicated off of. We’ve got good guys coming off the bench, we’ve got basketball players, guys who are not particularly great at one thing but multiple things."

3. Put Kyle Korver in the dunk contest please

Entering this week, the odds of Kyle Korver dunking in back-to-back games were roughly the equivalent of Dwight Howard (four career 3-pointers) knocking down 25-foot shots in consecutive games. And yet, there was Korver again on Friday night, running in the open floor with nothing but daylight and a rim in front of him. The result:

Seeing Korver dunk is one of the rarer treats in the NBA. It’s like finding an early Prince recording session that hasn’t been taken off YouTube. He shoots more than 70 percent of his shots outside the arc, so any time he goes above the rim deserves to be replayed over and over and over.

When asked about his fledgling streak in the locker room, Korver was typically self-deprecating: "Don’t count on it going any further."

Budenholzer also doesn’t plan to draw up any plays, Lob City-style, for Korver in the near future: "I’m sure there’ll be some talk about it tomorrow in the locker room at practice, but I’d like to see him keep shooting and making 3s. But if he dunks every once in a while, I guess that’s OK."

For the first time in his career, Korver, who is on pace to claim the first official 50-50-90 season as arguably the greatest pure shooter on the planet, will compete in the 3-point contest on All-Star. Might as well keep him around to see what else he can pull off above the rim.

11: The Hawks grabbed 11 more rebounds than the Thunder, including 10 offensive boards. Oklahoma City entered the game as one of the top rebounding team in the NBA.

5: The Hawks finished the game with five players scoring in double figures: Millsap, Carroll, Teague, Al Horford and Dennis Schroder.

"Their home crowd has gotten better. I guess they’ve jumped on the bandwagon." — Kevin Durant on Philips Arena