Hawks, Warriors Stage Classic In New Age of NBA
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The Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors played a memorable game Friday night.
By every metric -- assists per game, percentage of field goals assisted, total passes per game -- the Hawks and Warriors are far and away the two best passing teams in the league. Not coincidentally, the two teams also entered Friday's contest with the top two won-loss records in the NBA.
The hype was huge, and in a rare upset, the reality lived up to the hype.
The game, the pace, the drama, the fans -- everything was terrific. The Hawks assisted on 28 baskets in their 124-116 win, and the Warriors came up with with 31 assists of their own.
Pass-heavy attacks are the reality of NBA hoops in 2015. The pass is king. The San Antonio Spurs won the most recent title with a multi-faceted attack. The Hawks and Warriors hope to string their ball-swinging regular-season success into the playoffs, and the Spurs, of course, will still be there too.
The pass, however, wasn't always the most valuable weapon in the NBA. Offenses were geared toward isolation. And isolation worked, even if it wasn't the most pleasing aesthetic.
The emergence of the three-point shot helped reshape NBA offenses to the style now played by Golden State and Atlanta, but Kyle Korver noted that the biggest incentive for fixing ball-stopping offenses may have actually involved fixing the defenses.
"The trend a couple of years ago was Coach Thibs' defense: loading up the one side of the floor, stopping the iso," Korver said, referring to Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau and his tendency to put extra defenders on the same side of the court as the ball.
"A lot of teams have caught onto that. A lot of teams do that now."
As a result, teams have figured out that the proper counterattack, the best means for getting high-percentage shots, is through ball movement.
This contest had ball movement in spades. After the two teams scored a combined 240 points on each other's top-5 ranked defenses, Korver compared the Hawks and Warriors.
"We’re different teams, and we have different personnel but I think a lot of the philosophy is probably similar. Both teams play with the pass, both teams play with space, both teams have a lot of shooting, both teams play great defense. I think that gets lost."
The more Korver talks, the more one gets the sense that he cherishes the new wave of five-barreled offenses, groups that zip the ball from point A to point E with precision and care. And one also picks up on the fact that he likes his own team's offense best of all.
“It’s really fun to play on this team. Like every time down the court, we all matter, because we play as a group," Korver said, adding a deep, emotional vowel sound to the word 'all'.
"We all matter every single time. You might not shoot the ball, but you’re definitely going to at least set the screen, or make the pass, or make the cut that opens up whoever it is that’s going to get that shot."
“It just makes us play hard because you matter.”
Then Korver stepped back into a broader perspective that was less about basketball and more about a general world view.
“Right? When you matter in life, you do life a little better when you feel like you matter."
"We feel like we matter. No matter who’s out there, we all matter."
He added sheepishly, "I keep saying ‘matter'."
Does Korver think the star model makes it more likely for players to detach and not matter?
"It’s easy on teams when you have got superstars. I mean, they’re really good. And you give them the ball, and you say, ‘Make a play.' You know?"
"A lot of offenses are created to make them feed off that guy. We don’t have that guy, so we have to play a little bit differently," he noted. "There’s different ways to do it. So this is what we do.”
To this point in the season, the Hawks and Warriors have done everything they can do, which is to say, not much. Their ultimate success or failure will be determined in May and June. The Warriors have only won one series in the last two postseasons combined, and this iteration of the Hawks hasn't won any series at all.
So until they actually do get a chance to test their creation in the NBA postseason, the ultimate basketball lab, Korver expects to be scrutinized.
“Anytime something is a little new and a little fresh, it’s going to be critiqued. I don’t know if it’s being criticized, but it’s definitely going to be critiqued. And it has to be proven.”
“I feel like I’ve said this a thousand times. We still haven’t won a playoff series together. We have a lot to prove but I feel like we’re building good habits and we feel like we have pieces that fit well together."
And so basketball fans wait. Until springtime, all we'll have to hang our hats on are great nights of basketball like this one.
Story by KL Chouinard