The Hawks have been sharing the ball, and that's translating to wins. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images
"Assist"ing each other
The Hawks are over .500 and in position to make another playoff push thanks in large part to their unselfish play on the offensive end.
By Jon Cooper
Every team says the right things when it comes to unity and playing together.
But saying the right things is a lot easier than doing them, especially during the course of an NBA game or over the grind of what can seem like an endless 82-game season.
As the Atlanta Hawks head into the final handful of games before All-Star Weekend, they've shown their willingness to share the basketball is more than just talk.
It's led to the Hawks having five players averaging better than 10 points a game (guard Devin Harris is less than a bucket from making it six), one more than the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, and have five more players scoring better than five points per game (two more than the Heat, three more than the Thunder). Rookie John Jenkins is less than a point away while fellow rookie Mike Scott is within a bucket of the five ppg mark.
Atlanta also has six players averaging at least two assists per game, three more than both the Heat and the Thunder.
All this is very much by design.
"That's something that I really wanted to brand after taking this job," head coach Larry Drew said. "Before we were predominantly an isolation team. I really wanted to get away from that and utilize everybody the best way that I could. Guys have bought in to what we do. It's a point of emphasis every game to share the basketball. We feel if our assist total is at a certain number, chances are we're going to win the game. That's if we defend."
That number appears to be 24.
Heading into February, the Hawks were 19-3 (an 86.4 winning percentage) when handing out at least 24 assists. The consequences of not reaching 24 proved harsh during a 10-game January stretch in which the team lost eight of 10. Atlanta handed out fewer than 24 assists seven times and was 0-7.
To get out of their funk, the Hawks became even more unselfish despite losing players to injury on seemingly a nightly basis. In the process they found a new lucky number — 30.
Atlanta, which ended January 7-0 in games in which they hand out 30 or more assists, raised that from 4-0 during a three-game run Jan. 21-25, handing out 32, 31, and 31 in wins against Minnesota, Charlotte and Boston.
The streak was historic, as it marked the first time the Hawks had three consecutive 30-plus assist games since a five-game stretch March 6-14 of 1993.
The streak also proved that by working together, anything was possible, as Atlanta overcame an 18-point deficit in beating the Timberwolves and came back from 27 down to trip up the Celtics in double overtime.
Looking to make the extra pass has put Atlanta in the top five in the league in assists, something that isn't surprising to forward Josh Smith.
"We've been top five in team assists for a long time, so it's not like it's just starting to happen," Smith, who leads Hawks forwards in assists, said. "We're playing very unselfish. We're running, getting out on the break and we're not settling. We're driving the paint, trying to get fouls and it's panning out pretty well. We just have to keep doing that. We have to keep playing together, keep making that extra pass, and we should continue to be successful."
It's a concept they sum up in a simple four-word phrase that has its own designated place on the whiteboard in the locker room.
"We always say before the game, 'High assists, low turnovers,'" point guard Jeff Teague said. "When we can get out on the break and make plays for others I think we're a better team. It's been a struggle at times, but I think we're getting back to that."
"It's something that we talk about usually on the board before games — 'High assists, low turnovers,'" guard Devin Harris, who has fought off left-foot and ankle injuries in the first half of the season, said. "When we have high assists we usually turn out to be pretty successful."
Getting the ball into as many hands as possible has made the Hawks successful at keeping everyone happy and into the game.
"When you move the basketball everybody knows that it's kind of an equal-opportunity offense," Drew said. "We know the guys we're going to go to down the stretch. It's important for them to make the right plays going down the stretch. But our point of emphasis is always whatever we do, we move the basketball. We try to force the defense to have to shift, and then we look to attack."
The return of Harris has once again given the Hawks a two-guard attack capable of picking up the pace of the game and turning up the pressure on opposing defenses.
"Two points allows us to really push the tempo," Harris said. "With two ball-handlers out there it really doesn't matter who brings the ball up. It allows us to get a lot of fast break points, a lot of easy baskets, a lot of points in the paint. We have big guys that can push the ball as well. They do a great job of finding guys in transition. Especially our three-point shooters."
As with assists, Hawks three-point shooting ranks in the top-five in the league and has been singeing the twine all season long. The team headed into February with a string of five straight games in which they'd hit at least 10 three-point field goals. Prior to February, they'd already had streaks of five, four and three games this season hitting double-figure threes. Atlanta's longest such streaks prior to '12-13 was two three-game runs.
The long-range game has greatly benefited from picking up the tempo and making the extra pass, even if the three-ball is not necessarily the first option.
"Obviously, we want to try to get a lay-up first," Harris said. "But if you're a three-point shooter and you have an open look, shoot it."
Getting everyone touches, in turn, has motivated the team defensively.
"I know when you get a chance to touch the ball on offense you want to play defense," Teague said. "When that's happening we're a really good team. When we're getting out on the break, sharing the basketball, we're a better team."
"We have been very unselfish. We have moved the basketball well," Drew said. "When the ball does stick we recognize it and we do something about it. But when we play where the ball is freely moving we become a very tough team to defend because we have a number of guys on the floor that can make plays. We have a number of guys on the floor that we can go to. We try to spread the wealth. When we move the basketball that instantly happens."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta
Second photo by Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images