The Hawks are ranked near the top of the NBA in steals per game.

Handsome Reward
The Atlanta Hawks are using their hands to create defensive havoc, offensive opportunities.

By Jon Cooper

Hands may be the most taken-for-granted defensive asset an NBA player has.

By keeping their hands moving (or at least in the proper position) they can affect passing lanes, foiling the most intricately designed play, and throw opposing offenses into disarray.

The simplicity of it sounds kind of silly.

It did for Josh Smith when asked about the Hawks' stress of hands.

"That's the way to get steals. You have to use your hands, right?" Smith said, and then laughed.

"Just playing the passing lanes pretty well." he added. "Being aggressive, playing physical and it's just all about having active hands."

The emphasis on active hands has contributed to the Atlanta Hawks ranking among NBA leaders in steals -- heading into their Dec. 5 game against the Denver Nuggets Atlanta is averaging 9.1 steals per game, third in the NBA.

"I'm very happy about that," said Larry Drew. "I think with the makeup of our club, we have guys that are good defenders. They read very well, they pick and choose spots. Hands are active, more active than they've been in the past. So we're doing enough things to take teams out of their rhythm.

"Jeff [Teague] and Devin [Harris] and Josh [Smith] and Al [Horford], Zaza [Pachulia], all those guys are guys that have active hands," Drew added. "We really put a lot of emphasis on getting deflections, getting loose balls, coming out with the 50-50 balls. We put a lot of emphasis on that along with just being solid defensively. At times, we gamble when we don't have to, but we'll get better at that. For the most part, right now, where we are defensively as a team, I'm very pleased."

Making steals or making it hard for opponents to complete passes by getting hands in the way is a simple concept but one taken very seriously by Drew. It was important enough to be the focal point of a meeting.

"I remember in training camp when we had a meeting, the coaching staff mentioned the word 'Hands' and to be active," recalled Pachulia, who has 11 steals in Atlanta's first 14 games. "I think these words kind of stuck in everybody's mind and that's a great thing. To force turnovers and give yourself opportunities to have a layup on the fast break and easy points, that's a great thing. We're definitely benefiting from it. So why not?  Just keep your hands active, keep your body active and be in the passing lanes. That's helping our team for sure."

Getting guys excited about defense is hard enough. Creating enthusiasm about contesting passing lanes and deflecting passes? Not very sexy. Certainly not as sexy as getting out on the fast break.

But putting the two together was easy math for this heady group and the results have only encouraged them.

"Just pressure. We talk about having 'Hands,' being really active with our hands and causing havoc," said Teague, the team's leader with 25 steals. "That was our biggest thing and we're doing it right now."

Anything positive is sure to be contagious and with the Hawks, defense and active hands have caught on.

"We've got guys on this team that like to play defense," said guard Lou Williams, who has 16 swipes, third on the team. "They want to be out there. They want to be in the stance. When you set a goal, you want to get 20, 30 deflections a game, you've got to have those hands active and create turnovers."

"At the beginning of the season we had a lot of guys that didn't play defense or didn't know how," said Harris, who has 12 steals and averages 1.2 spg for his career. "We obviously took it upon ourselves to create havoc and get to the right spots and get our hands on a lot of balls."

During the Hawks' recent six-game win streak the team showed how successful they can be when playing such an aggressive, ball-hawking defense, averaging 8.7 thefts per game.

It may not sound like an overwhelming edge, but it is an edge, and in the NBA every edge is big.

It's certainly a contributing factor in the Hawks' 6-2 record when outscoring opponents in fast break points, something they did in every win on the recent streak save the 94-91 win over the Bobcats at Philips (and even then they were outscored only 12-11).

"We're just really getting after it," said Teague. "We're jelling. We all really want to win and we know it starts on the defensive end. When you play defense and you get some early stops and some deflections, you're able to get out there and get some fast break points. I think we thrive in the fast-break game and we have some great finishers in Josh and Al. Those guys can really run the floor. Then when you have shooters like DeShawn [Stevenson] and Kyle [Korver] and Lou [Williams], to be able to knock down those transition threes, it's big."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.