It’s said that the highest form of flattery in sports is copycatting. From individuals, to teams and organizations, entertainers and celebrities alike, it’s like an undercover pat on the back to the party that is inspiring the copycatting. It simply means that people want to pattern your success or your coolness. In team sports, when a champion is throned & their style was successful to the eyes and the pockets, you start to see other organizations carbon copying the image. We’ve seen many examples throughout time. Remember when the Bulls were ruling the 90s, and the Dallas Mavericks thought they can run the triangle offense with Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jimmy Jackson with similar success? How did that turn out? Don’t ask Toni Braxton. Or recently when the Heat had their Big Three run, look at how many teams that were and still are trying to get three superstars to solidify their championship aspirations. Just ask the Houston Rockets, who I’m pretty sure will do anything short of making love to a Ouija board to make this happen. Well, this past year the San Antonio Spurs, as you all know, not only won the title, but destroyed a legacy (Miami Heat) in the process with their spacing/sharing the ball/one-for-all-all-for-one system. Even the most hardened Spurs hater had to appreciate how they continually shared the ball over and over again until they got the best shot possible. Well, obviously, other organizations were watching this, & decided to build their own almost in that vein.
Now, I’m going to let you in on a secret. Initially I had it all planned out & was going to write a post about the successes of the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors this season. In fact, this was supposed to be the next set of sentences at the end of the first paragraph:
“This season, two franchises have followed in the ideals of the Spurs, and neither one of them are in the West. The Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors are the perfect students that took the lessons from the Spurs blackboard of playing team basketball, and made it successful for themselves….. and both teams won’t be going away anytime soon.”
I still mean every word of that to be very honest. I believe in the Toronto Raptors. They went and dismissed my #TankCity visions for them a little more than a year ago. Since that Rudy Gay trade last December, the Raptors have been the best team in the Eastern Conference (72-37). Losing that 1st round seven-game slugfest with the Brooklyn Nets last spring can only add more wood to the fire. With coach Duane Casey, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, MLSE Head Honcho Tim Lieweke, and their top players Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, not only have they changed the culture of how the Raptors are being respected around the NBA, with the 2016 All Star Game coming to Toronto (and a little help from Drake & his OVO team), they are starting the process of giving this city an attractive destination buzz. Almost like the awkward high school girl who got a full makeover & started walking the halls in her new outfit before 1st period, people are discussing the Raptors in hushed tones which will only get louder as they continue moving forward. I’m all in for their progress so far. Last month, when the Raps were playing splendidly, & everyone was worried about what was happening in Cleveland, how great Chicago looks & how well Washington has played this season…….the Hawks kept winning under the radar. No one was paying any real attention.
I noticed Atlanta was on a bit of a winning streak at the beginning of December, but they were playing the shittier teams in the East, so I kinda dismissed it a little bit. Right before Christmas, they beat Chicago at home. No biggie. After all, I had them as my sleeper team in the East this season, so I shouldn’t be surprised if they beat good teams at home. Then they went on the road and destroyed a healthy
LeBron Cleveland team by 29. You could chalk it up to Cleveland still trying to figure things out. However, they went right to Houston and Dallas in back-to-back games and beat both of them. Hmmm….. okay, that’s a little surprising. They slipped up against Milwaukee losing by 30 on Boxing Day. Ok, maybe they’re coming back down to earth. Since that game, they went on a 10-game winning streak. They went on the road & smacked around the Clippers and Portland, beat the Grizzlies at home, beat a rolling Pistons team, destroyed a good Wizards team by 31, & rested players against wins vs. Philly and Boston. On top of everything else, they surpassed the Raptors for 1st place in the East. What the hell is going on here???
So when they headed up north to play Toronto almost two Fridays ago, I made sure to park myself on the couch and anticipated a huge game between the two new East powers. By this time, I already decided to postpone this Hawks-Raps post at least until after this game was over. With about three minutes left in the third quarter, I was shocked, awed, and confused. They were beating down the Raptors. By 20. At the ACC. And they were making it look easy. What had made Atlanta successful all season was on full display. Everyone was sharing the ball, all five guys were touching the rock in the halfcourt set. There wasn’t a consensus to feed one guy in particular. They worked the ball until they had the best shot possible, via drives and kicks, dump offs in the post, or opportunities for slashes to the paint. All five players played fundamental team defense, hands in the passing lanes, deflecting passes, perfect rotations, swarming the paint on drives, close-outs on shooters. It was like watching a basketball instructional video. It never mattered what Toronto was doing (outside of turning the ball over more than their average that night, they really didn’t play a bad game), Atlanta simply controlled everything. There was a reason why they kept being called “Spurs East” all season. The last time I saw a team play this selflessly on both ends of the floor, were the Spurs in the Finals last season. To prove that this was far from a fluke, they dismantled the Bulls the very next night. Ok then, I guess I gotta scrap this f**king idea….. ****flings papers in the air*****
Since that point, they have cruised on their way to their 16th straight victory. Honestly, I don’t even care about the streak, it will eventually be broken. Considering the NBA record for a winning streak is 33 straight, they’re not even halfway to that goal, I can imagine them being picked off at some point. What I look at when I see how the Hawks are playing is that, in the wide open NBA season that has no clear cut favorites, they have as clear a shot to win the NBA Title this season as any contender. When you remember how their season started with the ownership situation in flux from Bruce Levenson’s email (& decision to sell his stake of the team as a result), and Hawks GM Danny Ferry’s racially insensitive comments, you would be a complete liar if you saw this season coming. There was a better chance this team would have imploded internally, & some may have even expected it. Luckily, one of the things that Ferry did right in his tenure, is hire coach Mike Budenholzer, going into the 2013-2014 season. All Budenholzer has done, is take his experiences learned from the years as an assistant coach of Gregg Popovich, & has built a strong foundation and culture in Atlanta’s locker room. He has gotten them to avoid the team’s self-inflicted dramas, & had them on a path to playing smart with a sharpened focus. We see the proof every night with how his players have completely bought into his system. His team may not be viewed as one that has a superstar or superstars, but they absolutely have all stars on them.
Al Horford when healthy, is a top ten power forward or center in the league, which he has been all season (let’s hope his pectoral muscles stay in one piece). Paul Milsap not only has a steal of a contract (making $8.5M this season), but has been steady throughout his time in Atlanta & will more than likely receive his 2nd straight all star appearance. Jeff Teague’s not only an all star this year, but his game as a whole has jumped a notch or more since Budenhozer has gotten there, & has arguably been the Hawks best player. Kyle Korver, coming off his experience from this summer’s World Championships has been shooting flames out of his ass (13 PPG; 52 FG%/53 3P%/92 FT%) & you can make the argument that he should be in New York City in a couple of weeks, for more than just the 3-point contest. They have a solid supporting cast behind them (DeMarre Carrol, Pero Antic, Thabo Sefolosha, etc.), a young Rondo-clone in Dennis Schroder, & they haven’t unwrapped Adreian Payne out of the plastic yet (I still believe in the kid). You have a balanced rotation of penetrators and creators, shooters and slashers, bigs that can spread you out, drive to the basket, and gets buckets on the block. Now with the announced sale of Hawks ownership recently, they will more than likely get a new set of owners who will enhance the foundation that’s now being built here.
Quite frankly, it’s hard to understand why Atlanta haven’t been bigger players in free agency historically. They have good weather, the cost of living is sensational, the club scene is big, strip club scene is legendary, most things that would appeal to a Free Agent who’s a bachelor….. or married (Just being honest here people). They have also struggled since Dominique Wilkins’ heyday to get consistent fans, and are doing things right now to change the mindset of the consistently skittish local fan support. Even as a younger fan of the league, I used to notice through the TV, that the fans at Hawks games used to cheer louder for the visiting teams than their own. With what Budenholzer and Ferry (who’s in exile right now) have started, it could start attracting free agents that they probably wouldn’t have gotten in years past. Winning attracts everything and this isn’t Utah. If an athlete can go to a team with a stable foundation, where they can win, and be in a vibrant city (much like Toronto can boast for example), they will eventually come running……… and with the way Atlanta’s been playing this year, they better get ready to set up shop, because I don’t think they’re going anywhere, anytime soon.
– Although the East can still be considered crappy in some aspects, the Elite part of the East hasn’t looked this good in years. Between the aforementioned teams Atlanta & Toronto, Washington has elevated themselves this season behind the play of John Wall, who’s game clearly jumped a notch (17.2 PPG, 10.1 dimes per, 46 FG%), with Cleveland and Chicago starting to round themselves into form before the all star break. Normally. I’d willingly ignore the Eastern Conference playoffs until it gets to the Conference Finals, but this year’s 4 vs. 5 seed matchup in the 1st round alone should be worth your attention…..
– I still believe that Chicago could represent the East as long as they remain healthy. And when I say “they”, I mean “Derrick Rose”. He’s struggled thus far with his consistency to be what he used to be which is expected, seeing that he missed almost 30 months of NBA ball. But, the last 7 games: 23.2 PPG; 46.5 FG%/48 3P%/85 FT%, plus he’s playing way more aggressive than before. The only thing Chicago should worry about, is making sure Rose goes into the playoffs with his game sharp and his legs ready. Nothing else……
– For those who are old enough to remember, but remember back in the day when you would play season mode in NBA Live and in the playoffs, the computer would go into “F*** you, you are losing this game” mode and hit every shot in sight? That’s what it felt like watching Klay Thompson get 37 points in the 3rd Q vs the Kings last weekend. If there was anyone I would have thought would get that hot in a game like that, it would be his teammate Steph. That World Championship experience did a boost for Thompson’s confidence. He’s a legitimate All Star, & is a top 3 shooting guard with Jimmy Butler, and behind James Harden…..
– “I’m here so I don’t get fined”…. “You wanna do this again?! Ok then….. I’m thankful“……
– Lastly, can we put to rest to this whole Deflate-Gate issue, please? The fact that we aren’t focusing on the Super Bowl with only days leading up to the big game, and all that’s being talked about are deflated balls, is both annoying and depressing. I feel like this whole controversy should be sponsored by Cialis. With that said, it should be a great game on Sunday, but even as a lifelong Niner fan, I’ll have to admit that our nemesis (The Seahawks) will repeat as champions. I hope I’m dead wrong because if I am, I’ll probably be doing this after the game…..
Cal Cee // South Shore Ave
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