Al Horford agreed. Jeff Teague sounded relieved. Paul Millsap said it. The Hawks are a rhythm team, and they're finding it now, evidenced in the 116-98 takedown of the visiting, rudderless Denver Nuggets in Philips Arena Thursday night.
When this all started is somewhat debatable, but what is inarguable is that the Hawks are rolling, statistically and now, finally, in the standings as well. The Hawks are 40-29, third in the eastern conference and have been the #1 defensively rated team for over 20 games now. Over the last 15 games, per NBA.com, they are giving up 94 points per 100 possessions, three points per 100 possessions better than the Spurs.
The Hawks are 10-5 over those last fifteen games, but there's an unmistakable sense of coalescing that's going on with this team. Roles are suddenly, and effectively, defined. The second shift has taken on the personality of a defensive buzzsaw. The team has been tough to beat, back over .500 on the road, even.
Those roles had a little bit of a hiccup against the Nuggets, with Kent Bazemore out and Tim Hardaway, Jr. moving into the starting lineup, but it didn't harm the starting unit, who were unstoppable by the aimless visitors. Time after time, as the Hawks would end up with their starting five out there, the Hawks would stifle and rifle past Denver.
It's a fluency that we saw in January last season, as the Hawks famously revved up to a 19 game winning streak, but then Thabo Sefolosha got hurt, the team began to wear and tear, and they never got up to that level of consistency again, for many reasons.
Over the course of an 82-game season, certainly teams can arrive and depart that zone, the area where the team is humming on all cylinders. It's a place the Hawks haven't found before this current run.
"I think we went through the whole trade thing, now that that's over with...guys are playing a little harder, playing better as a group.", offered Jeff Teague as a reason for the improved play. "We just left our egos in the locker room. We're playing as a team, it's a lot of fun."
Said Paul Millsap, "We're a rhythm team - we strive to find that. We struggled earlier trying to find that rhythm." "(Now, we're a better defensive team than we were last year."
"Sometimes we lose track that if we wanted to do anything special it all starts on the defensive end," Al Horford added. "It's a long season, there's a lot of ups and down. Teams get complacent. But the reality for us was that there might not be a playoffs. So we started taking things game by game, get that focus again. Play at a better pace. Things started to change."
The Hawks have 13 games to go before the postseason begins, so there is still some more runway for improvement before that even starts. As Horford added, "I'd rather be playing better later in the season." There's some optimism in rolling into the playoffs as opposed to limping in there.
Atlanta has suddenly defined themselves, as both Millsap and Horford confirmed, as a defensive stalwart team. Horford added that he felt the offense was starting to do the little things better now, too.
"We've got a significant number of games to go. We have to do it for a lot longer," cautions Mike Budenholzer. "But the group has a lot of confidence right now."
Now, if they could just play the Nuggets every night.