The Atlanta Hawks have won two games, on the road, against teams that won a combined 108 games last year. They've gotten out to a much better start than I anticipated or even hoped for. They've done it different ways-they pretty much led Orlando wire-to-wire, they trailed big to Philadelphia and came back, and then jumped out to a huge lead on the Hornets before letting them come back, and then pulling ahead in the fourth quarter.
What are we seeing, exactly? I know that this is an extremely small sample size, and that teams will go on stretches like this (and it's always overblown when a team starts a season hot, as opposed to going on a streak two months into the season). Yet I still feel that I need to acknowledge that what I'm seeing is not at all what I expected. Let me attempt to list the factors that have led to the good start.
First, team defense has been outstanding. Holding New Orleans to 79 points after they had averaged 106.7 through their first three games speaks volumes. In particular, Josh Smith is simply playing outstanding on the defensive end. Two years ago, the take on Josh Smith was that he is a great help side defender but less than stellar man to man. Against David West, who was an all-star last season and is one of the better forward in the NBA, he was absolutely shut-down. West finished with 15 points, but several of those occured after a switch had West matched up against Joe Johnson or even Mike Bibby. Josh Smith did this while playing his usual help-side defense, made a great transition block on Stojakovich, and grabbed a couple of errant passes as well. He may be on the verge of becoming a serious contender for defensive player of the year (many thanks to Scoop Jackson).
The bench play has been sporadic through three games, which is pretty much as expected. Zaza Pachulia is coming out with plenty of energy and has provided solid defense and rebounding, which is exactly what every team wants in a back-up center. Flip Murray has shown the ability to score, inefficiently, with occasional standout performances like he had against New Orleans. Those only the only two noteworthy bench performers to date for the Hawks, despite the fact that Woodson is running about 9 deep with his rotation.
The biggest mystery to me, right now, is what exactly transpired in the second half in New Orleans. At halftime, Chris Paul was a perfect 7-7 from the field, and had been to the line 5 times. He had 19 points, and was pretty much doing what he's done to Atlanta ever since he was drafted-demonstrate that he's the best point guard in the NBA. In the second half, Chris Paul shot 1-8 and did not get to the free throw line, managing only three points (through with 8 assists).
Of course some of his shots were out of rhythm, and he had some perplexing misses but...is it possible-and I can't believe I'm saying this-that Mike Woodson made some manner of half-time adjustment?
This might be historic. If memory serves, we occasionally saw Josh Smith help out on Chris Paul in the second half. And the Hawks' fontcourt was doing a much better job of getting back on defense to prevent Chris Paul from getting easy buckets in the paint. And there was a bit of zone defense thrown in there, if I'm not mistaken (which occasionally resulted in David West simply backing down Joe Johnson and/or Flip Murray).
Perhaps this Hawks defense is something that's here to stay.