February 6, 2015 has been circled on the calendar of many Atlanta Hawks fans for quite some time, and it is finally here. The Hawks, who lead the Eastern Conference by a comfortable 8-game margin over the Toronto Raptors, play host to the Golden State Warriors, who happen to lead the Western Conference, on Friday evening in front of what is set to be a jam-packed house at Philips Arena.
The pipe dream of the Hawks entering this highly anticipated battle with a 21-game winning streak went up in flames on Monday evening, but Atlanta rallied for an impressive win on Wednesday and Golden State has done their part in supporting the hype with three straight wins. It isn't every day that the conference leaders get together on the same floor, but given that this is the first match-up of the year between the two clubs, the stakes feel loftier.
There are plenty of reasons that the Warriors have built a 39-8 record, and it begins with their defense. Golden State leads the NBA on that side of the ball, allowing only 97.3 points per 100 possessions, and with the duo of Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut on the front line, it isn't difficult to see why. The general public does not give the Warriors enough credit defensively, largely due to their bombs-away offense, but the Hawks are running into a team who is well-equipped to stick with their highly efficient offense.
On the other side of the court, Golden State will test Atlanta with very good offense. The backcourt pairing of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson is arguably the best in the NBA, and from an individual standpoint, Jeff Teague's night will be marked with a huge assignment on the defensive end. DeMarre Carroll will almost certainly see a full dose of Thompson throughout the night, but players like Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder will be vital when they are called into action.
The return of "peak" Al Horford does provide a great deal of optimism for the folks in Atlanta, however. Horford is shooting 60.3% from the field over his last 10 games while averaging 17.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, and even with a difficult match-up in Bogut, he could be the key to the evening. Of course, one of Atlanta's calling cards this season is balance, and it could be any player (i.e. Paul Millsap or even DeMarre Carroll) that sparks the team to a strong performance.
To be honest, this is a regular season game in February, and it certainly isn't a "must-win" spot for the Atlanta Hawks. Still, there will be unusual attention on this particular match-up given the team that is in town, and as a result, fans could place undue emphasis on the win-loss result here. It would be fantastic for the Hawks to topple the best team in the league (Golden State leads the NBA by a wide margin with a +13.0 net rating this season), but it feels safe to assume that there will be high-level basketball played at Philips Arena on Friday and that is enough to big-time excitement.
Game Date/Time: Friday, February 6, 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Philips Arena, Atlanta, Georgia
Radio: 92.9 "The Game" FM