At last: Best of East, West clash as Hawks take on Warriors
Calling an early-February matchup the NBA's Game of the Year or even a Finals preview reeks of hyperbole. But the standings and the statistics don't lie.
This buildup is worth embracing.
The best of the East will meet the best of the West when the Hawks host the Warriors on Friday night at Philips Arena.
"It's a fun game," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters Thursday. "It doesn't really mean a whole lot if we win or we lose, in terms of the big picture. Both teams are having great seasons and one loss, one win, I'm not sure what that means. But it's a great test and it's a great challenge."
But the weeks of anticipation and the spotlight is undeniable for a game that, at its most, can further validate a strong start.
At 41-9, Atlanta leads the Eastern Conference by eight games, while the 39-8 Warriors are up by three in the Western Conference, marking the first meeting of teams with losses in the single digits this late in the season since Lakers vs. Cavaliers on Feb. 8, 2009.
Golden State enters with the league's highest-scoring offense (111.4 per), while the Hawks are sixth (103.4). They're first and second in 3-point shooting -- the Warriors are at 38.9, the Hawks 38.8 -- and in the top four in field goal percentage (48.4 for Golden State; 47.2 for Atlanta).
They also rank in the top five in defensive efficiency, another category the Warriors lead (97.3), where as the Hawks are fifth (100.0).
Ball movement, strong outside shooting and dominant defenses are paramount and they're lead by coaches -- Kerr and the Hawks' Mike Budenholzer -- who are their conference's respective Coaches of the Month.
But where they depart is in personnel.
All five of Atlanta's starters -- Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford -- were just named East Players of the Month for a 17-0 January and all five are averaging at least 11.7 points, with Millsap's 17.1 out front.
"I think it's reflective of all the work that everyone's putting in each day," Budenholzer said of the honor. "I'm just appreciative of that recognition for their work this last month."
While the Warriors have that same kind of depth, with its first five at 10.3 or higher, they backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson do the heavy lifting.
Curry is eighth in the league at 23.6 a game, while Thompson is 10th. You have to go all the way down to 33rd to find Millsap on the scoring list.
Curry is also coming off a season-high 51 points against the Mavericks on Wednesday, which was 12 days after Thompson scored a career-best 52 vs. the Kings.
"Look, it's the best back court in the league," Kerr said. "What these guys do from the three-point line is amazing. And so when you have that threat, you're always able to be in a game."
They're the first teammates to have 50-point games in the same season since 1993-94, when the Sixers' Willie Burton and Dana Barros and Dallas' Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn did it.
Atlanta's highest-scoring game of the season is via Millsap, who had 30 on Nov. 12 vs. the Jazz.
That doesn't mean the Hawks don't have a scorer capable of taking over a game, it has an army of them. Every starter has at least one 20-point game, along with backups Shelvin Mack, Dennis Schroder and Mike Scott.
Atlanta has won 20 of its last 21, with victories in that span against the likes of Portland (twice), Washington (twice), Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Toronto.
Adding Golden State to that list would arguably trump them all, though that's not to say for either team this signals a fall from the ranks of contenders. They still have to meet again March 18 at Oracle Arena and with the season not even at the All-Star Break, that 'Game of the Year' label probably hasn't been used for the last time in 2014-15.
But for week the Hawks and Warriors and this impending showdown have had the attention of the basketball-watching nation -- a buildup that hasn't been lost on the players.
"We can sit here and say, 'Oh, it's just another game,' " Warriors forward Draymond Green told the 'San Jose Mercury News.' "And for the standings it is.
"But it's the two top records in the league. That means a lot ..."
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney