When Nate McMillan was asked about his team playing at a quicker tempo of late, he couldn't quite compartmentalize that one category.
"That's what we've wanted to do really all season long: play faster. But it starts with getting stops. It's difficult to do that when you're taking the ball out of the net. We're rebounding the ball, we're pushing the ball, we're attacking."
Better defense is helping the offense. Better offense is helping the defense. The Hawks have played well in all facets of the game lately, which makes it difficult to parse out which factors have been most important, but here are some trends that bear watching.
In the win over the Heat, the Hawks had a fully healthy roster for a full 48-minute game for the first time all season.
Injuries to Bogdanovic, Capela, Hunter and Collins chipped away at the depth chart at times this season, but the Hawks have better health now than they have had at any other point.
There is not a whole lot to say here: It is not a surprise that having the team's best players healthy is a good thing.
An uncanny number of solid defensive bigs
Even before the five-game winning streak, the Hawks flashed the defensive depth of their power forwards and centers. In playing the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks in three consecutive games, the Hawks faced three of the top-75 NBA players ever – all members of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Those three are big, they all play with the ball in their hands, and even without a healthy Clint Capela, the Hawks had the depth to give each multiple looks defensively. De'Andre Hunter played suffocating defense on Kawhi in the fourth quarter of the win over the Clippers, and against the Bucks, the Hawks played without Trae and Capela and lost, but held Giannis to 7 points.
"We have a lot of guys to throw at him: me, JC, O, Dre," Jalen Johnson said of John Collins, Onyeka Okongwu and De'Andre Hunter. "There's a lot of guys we can throw at him, so it's fresh bodies."
Indeed. If the Hawks top-three options at center are Capela, Okongwu and Collins, and the top-three options at power forward are Collins, Hunter and Johnson, then they have above-average defenders across the board at both positions. It is a luxury for sure; few teams have that level of depth.
With Capela back, it only gets that much deeper.
"I love my boy, CC," Collins said. "I told him today in the weight room, 'It's great to get blown by and have my guy back there be like, "Nope!'''"
Collins can do the same for his teammates. His rotation to stop a driving Reggie Bullock helped seal the win over the Mavericks. The return of Capela allows the Hawks to double down on rim protection.
"Everybody knows that since he came into the league, you've got to finish strong or he'll block it," Dejounte Murray said of Capela. "It's great to have someone in there that has your back. But also, I'm trying to make the game easier for him by staying in front of guys."
And Dejounte has done exactly that.
The backcourt has stepped up its defense to match the frontcourt.
Nate McMillan usually gives out a Player of the Game medallion after each win, one for offense and one for defense. Against the Pacers, Onyeka Okongwu won both for his 18-point, 20-rebound performance.
In the wins over Toronto and Miami, it got a bit trickier. The Hawks almost had too many defensive performers. McMillan gave the defensive award to the whole team after both games.
Then Murray matched Okongwu's two-chains feat by scoring 30 points in the win over Dallas and taking over the assignment of guarding Luka Doncic when De'Andre Hunter got into foul trouble.
"I thought that really helped us. DJ (got) underneath him and pressured him coming up full court and stayed attached to him," McMillan said of Dejounte's defense on Doncic. "He did a good job of just staying in front of him and making him turn his back, not allowing him to face up and get downhill on us."
Through games played Friday, Dejounte sits in a tie for fifth place on the NBA steals leaderboard with 1.7 steals per game this season.
Trae Young has gotten in on the act, too. In January, Trae has 16 steals in 9 games (1.8 steals per game).
"I'm glad you brought up the steals, man," Trae quipped with a smile after nabbing four steals versus the Heat. "It's important to me. I just want to be aggressive and just fight for my team on both ends. With DJ out there, it allows me to be a little bit more aggressive on the defensive end."
Trae noted that Dejounte's presence frees him up to not worry about foul trouble while playing defense because the Hawks would still have Dejounte as a playmaker if Trae has to sit for fouls.
Beyond the steals, Trae has been a pest on the defensive end using his speed. When opponents run pick-and-roll plays using the player he is guarding as a screener, he pops out to guard the ballhandler for a split-second before retreating to his original assignment, staying out of switches that might lead to a mismatch but also not letting the play develop.
When he is working away from the ball, he is in constant communication on defensive assignments with Capela and Collins making sure that he himself isn't in a size mismatch, while also getting his bigs into situations where they can be ready to help at the rim.
When guarding ballhandlers, opponents try to set picks on him, but Trae has been shifty enough to just "fight over" those picks by squeezing his body in the gap between the pick and the player he is guarding. In both the Miami and Dallas games, he drew offensive fouls on the opposition by fighting over illegal picks where the screener moved in an attempt to close such a gap.
Shots are falling
More Hawks are hitting more shots, and it's starting to snowball in January. Dejounte Murray, AJ Griffin and De'Andre Hunter are all shooting 40 percent or better on threes this month. Jalen Johnson has connected on 8 of 12 attempts in January after struggling earlier this season.
The Hawks are getting more stops, pushing the ball with tempo and getting better looks as a result.
Dre is balling
De'Andre Hunter has averaged 17.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in January. If he keeps it up, it would be the first month of his career where he averaged both 17 and 5, and as always, he is doing it while picking up the toughest of defensive assignments every game.
"I just worked really hard for the whole offseason," Hunter said. "I actually had a whole summer with no surgery and no rehab, and I was just focused on my game. I really think my game expanded and got better."
The Hawks have fallen into good habits of getting stops, pushing the tempo, making shots and setting up their defense for the next stop. Almost every aspect of their game has improved of late as the Hawks make a push to the upper tier of the Eastern Conference in the second half of the season.
Just don't try to pick which one happened first.