Hawks and Warriors showing Popovich’s influence


Mid-season title favourites, the Hawks and Warriors may be the biggest surprises of 2014-15. (Photo: Ben Margot/AP)

We’re at the halfway point of the NBA season and, so far, 2014-15 has yielded plenty of surprises. Many of those early shocks still boast their fair share of question marks—Can the Oklahoma City Thunder bounce back to become, perhaps, the deadliest eighth seed in NBA history? Will the pre-season hype in Cleveland finally pay dividends in May and June? What’s going on with the disappointing Clippers?—but two you can already bank on: The Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks are the best teams in basketball right now, and both are genuine, if surprising, title contenders.

Many wondered how Steve Kerr’s team would fare under the rookie head coach. Well, safe to say the results speak for themselves. No, the Warriors aren’t likely to go 72-10 like another team that Kerr was a part of, but they’re not as far off as you might think. Twenty years ago today—January 21, 1996—the Bulls beat the Pistons to push their record to 34-3. Golden State heads to Houston tonight a league-best 33-6.

So what’s working? Clearly, the “Splash Brothers,” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, lead from the backcourt, but the team has also handled extended absences from key big men David Lee and Andrew Bogut—whose combined injury history had ESPN Analyst Jeff Van Gundy calling them the “Brittle Brothers”—without missing a beat. Draymond Green was crucial over those stretches, and his versatility at both ends of the floor is going to make the free agent forward a rich man in the off-season.

Kerr has this team loose and playing together regardless of who is in the lineup. According to insiders, paying close attention to on-court details and logging long hours in the video room has endeared Kerr to his players in a way that is rare with this generation of NBA talent. A true players’ coach, Kerr regularly plays a free-throw shooting game with Curry. It goes to 10, first one to get there wins. You get two points for a swish, one point for a regular make and you lose a point for a miss. At the turn of the calendar, Kerr had missed one foul shot—just one shot—in 12 games but had yet to defeat Curry. On Jan. 2, he told me he had finally beaten Curry and when he did, he acted like Bjorn Borg winning Wimbledon, walking around with both hands in the air.

Yes, the Warriors have great shooting—you don’t need a free-throw game to teach you that—but they’re also having fun, something that speaks to both their talent and state of mind. Kerr is the real deal.

Like the Warriors, the Hawks are riding high, looking mentally tough and playing as a team. Both teams wield incredibly balanced offensive attacks and defend with tenacity—their defensive units ranking first (Golden State) and fifth (Atlanta) in the league, respectively.

Atlanta is a throwback under head coach Mike Budenholzer. They share the ball exquisitely and play for one another. The Hawks are reminiscent of the great college teams of the ‘70s and ‘80s in the sense that ball screens don’t dominate the offense—ball and player movement combined with great spacing does it all. By the time Atlanta has finished bending opposing defences out of shape, firing the ball around like a hot piece of coal, the shooter can, as one NBA coach remarked, “read the logo and Adam Silver’s signature before squeezing the trigger.”

As the Spurs proved last season, team play is tough to beat—you can’t outrun a pass—and team play is what it’s all about in Atlanta. Yes, the Hawks have all star-calibre players, but there’s nobody on the roster whose jersey flies off the racks worldwide.

Golden State has more star power, but both the Hawks and Warriors are proving that team play is ruling the day in the NBA of late. It may be a surprise to find the Hawks and Warriors leading their respective conferences in January, but should these two teams keep up their current level of play, no one will be shocked if they face off in the Finals.

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