Atlanta Hawks, in Loss, Win Respect of the Miami Heat

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterDecember 24, 2013

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MIAMI—Kyle Korver was a bit busy on the night of Dec. 6, so he wasn't immediately aware of what was spreading on social media.

But when you get LeBron James' attention, that tends to captivate the rest of the basketball world. 

"A bunch of my brothers and my friends were pretty excited about it," Korver said of James recognizing his achievement. "He spelled my name wrong, but that's OK. Yeah, it's cool. It's something new."

It was something new, in fact, for any member of the Atlanta Hawks to get any acclaim at all.

So, if James wanted to credit "Kyle Kolver" for having a "cannon," well, that was certainly better than nothing. Since Dominique Wilkins retired, the Hawks have been among the NBA's easiest franchises to ignore: competitive but not compelling, respectable but hardly riveting.

That wasn't expected to change this season, not with their general manager, Danny Ferry, more concerned about future flexibility—in terms of cap space and future draft picks—than the current standings.

But perhaps, as Monday's 121-119 overtime loss to Miami showed, we need to start looking at them differently, We can't look past them at all the Eastern Conference's expensive flops, one of which (Brooklyn) may be forfeiting an unprotected lottery pick to Atlanta in June in a swap related to the Joe Johnson trade.

The Hawks ended the day as they began, as a distant third seed behind the Pacers and the Heat, the two teams that everyone expects to battle in the Eastern Conference finals. They now have a 2-7 record against teams over .500, mostly because they couldn't keep up with the preeminent player on the planet—LeBron James, who scored 38 points on a season-high 28 shots. They suffered a 10th straight loss to the Heat, though they were much closer than earlier this season, and they demonstrated why Al Horford believes their faster playing style helps them match up better with Miami.

On the whole, they came out of the game encouraged, as they should be.

They're pretty good.

And, as Korver said several times after the loss, "We're getting better."

Dec 23, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (left) talks with center Pero Antic (right) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 121-119 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchel
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Spoelstra actually foreshadowed the challenging contest with his pregame comments, in which he spoke of being "really impressed with them," most notably their implementation of new coach Mike Budenholzer's San Antonio Spurs-influenced offensive system.

"The ball moves," Spoelstra said. "They have attackers. They have cutters. They have great three-point shooters...They are scoring the ball very easily right now."

All of that was evident Monday, at least after Atlanta rallied back from a 13-0 deficit. Jeff Teague got in the paint at will, finishing with 26 points and eight assists. Korver and Paul Millsap—who had a career-high 46 points against the Heat in 2010—combined to connect on 12-of-18 from deep. Horford worked all over the floor.

The Hawks just couldn't close in regulation, not with James knocking down two three-pointers and dunking over Millsap in the final 1:49, before driving and finding Ray Allen in the left corner, which led to a foul and Allen making three free throws. Nor could they complete the task in the overtime, with Korver and Millsap both missing three-pointers and Korver—with Mario Chalmers under him—unable to convert an inbounds lob from Pero Antic.

"They made a bunch of really clutch plays tonight," Korver said. "We should have won that game a couple times. That's why they are champions. They've been through a bunch of these games, and we're still growing." 

"We were just one play away every time from putting them away and we couldn't do it," Horford said. "Credit to them."

Dec 20, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver (26) and small forward DeMarre Carroll (5) and point guard Jeff Teague (0) and center Al Horford (15) walk on the court against the Utah Jazz in the third quarter at Philips Arena. M
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Still, there was just as much credit coming from the Heat locker room, with Miami players praising the Hawks' personnel and performance. Chris Bosh, with eight fresh stitches on his inner upper lip, called the Hawks offense "awesome." James, who earlier had said Atlanta had "all the ingredients to be a really good team," did even more gushing in the aftermath, especially about Budenholzer and his sprinkling of San Antonio.

"He's brought that culture to the East, and it's not a good thing for the East," James said. "It's a great thing for their team. They move the ball, they share the ball. And it's a tough cover, especially when you don't have a lot of time to prepare for it."

He spoke of Teague's quickness and the shooters' accuracy.

"They all complement each other well."

Korver played on another team that complemented each other rather well, the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, coached by Tom Thibodeau.

Does he see any similarities? Korver, after saying he hadn't given it much thought, found a few.

"I think Thibs came in and completely changed the culture, like, from Day 1, it was a whole new everything...And Bud has done the same thing. He is probably a little more laid back with it, just because his personality is a little more laid back."

"But I think the culture is changing here as well. In Chicago, we obviously had Derrick (Rose) and he had an amazing year. But we had a lot of good pieces that fit together. We didn't get a Big Three in Chicago; we don't have a Big Three here."

"But in Chicago, we played such good team basketball and played good defense, and we're trying to use a lot of the same things here. We have a lot of really good pieces. We don't have a Big Three. But we have a couple of guys who should be All-Stars this year. They are playing really good basketball."

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 1:  Al Horford #15 and Jeff Teague #0 of the Atlanta Hawks celebrate against the Toronto Raptors on November 1, 2013 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Horford and Teague are, and maybe soon, they can make more people notice. Both said they didn't pay too much mind to all of the assumptions about Miami and Indiana rolling through the East.

"When we get those opportunities for the world to see us play, we’ve just got to make the most of it," Teague said. "We haven’t done too well against the top teams so far, but if we can get some big wins in the East first, that would be perfect."

They didn't get one against the Heat, but they will get other chances.

"Me personally, I think the biggest killers in the world are the people who are under the radar," forward DeMarre Carroll said. "I think we’re just under the radar, continue to keep getting wins, continue to be right up there at the top of the Eastern Conference. When the time comes for the playoffs, a lot of teams aren’t going to take us seriously, and you know, we can easily just slide in and kill some teams. Me personally, I don’t mind being under the radar, because I’ve been under the radar my whole life."

He still is, and so are his teammates, if a little less than they were Sunday.


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