Atlanta Hawks have surprised everyone in NBA, except themselves

Low-profile Hawks are runaway leaders in Eastern Conference but still don't rate among NBA title favorites

The big surprise of the NBA this season is clearly the Atlanta Hawks, who have dominated the Eastern Conference standings.

But can you name the Hawks' starting five and their head coach?

For all the Hawks have accomplished, though, very few around the NBA have any faith that Atlanta has enough talent to be crowned as NBA champions in June.

"It's almost like they are waiting for the Hawks to tumble," said the most famous Hawk, Dominique Wilkins, the team's television analyst and a Hall of Famer who just had his statue placed in front of Philips Arena in Atlanta.

"It's like they don't want to give these guys credit. These guys can play. Period. It ain't no fluke."

This Hawks team has excelled because of consistent all-around play and the supreme effort it gets from a group of talented but low-profile players.

For most of the season the Hawks' starters have been guards Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, forwards Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll and center Al Horford. Teague, Korver, Millsap and Horford made the All-Star team.

Korver, shooting a career-best 50.1% from beyond the three-point arc, is sidelined after breaking his nose last Sunday in a game against the Lakers. He needed surgery and missed the rest of the team's trip.

The Hawks are guided by the front-runner for NBA coach of the year, Mike Budenholzer, who is in his second season in Atlanta after spending 19 years with the San Antonio Spurs, the last 17 as an assistant under Coach Gregg Popovich.

The Hawks have the second-best record in the NBA at 53-16 and should easily break the franchise record of 57 wins.

"I'd be lying if I said I expected us to have this good of a year," Teague admitted. "But I thought we were going to be really good. I know we were finding our stride at the end of last season. Getting Al back, I knew that would help us a ton. So I knew we'd be a really good team and a really good contender in the East."

The Hawks were 38-44 last season but still reached the Eastern Conference playoffs as the eighth seed, losing in seven games to Indiana. Their best player, Horford, played in only 29 games before having season-ending surgery on his right pectoral muscle.

So when this season started, expectations were low for the Hawks. Sports gambling website Bovada.Lv pegged them as 66-1 longshots to win the NBA championship, ranking them 19th, behind even the Lakers.

After the Hawks lost back-to-back games at Cleveland (by 33 points) and to the Lakers at home to start the season 5-5, there was no reason to think they would flourish. But they won 11 of 12 and were on their way.

Then in late December they began a real hot streak and won 19 straight games — the best in the league this season — including the first 17-0 mark in January in NBA history.

Budenholzer talked about his team's ascent, saying it was about "effort," "focus" and being "highly unselfish."

"I think they are good players, too," Budenholzer said, and chuckled before he continued. "I think that sometimes is lost.

"I think we've got a lot of good players that fit together well and play unselfishly on both ends of the court. I think their focus and their consistency and their effort has probably been what has stood out the most."

The team doesn't have any player averaging more than 17 points per game, but all five starters score in double figures, led by Millsap's 16.9 points.

The Hawks began the weekend as the only team in the NBA ranked in the top five in field-goal percentage, three-point shooting and free-throw shooting. They were also second in the NBA in assists (25.5 per game), fourth in points allowed (96.9) and fifth in defensive field-goal percentage (43.5%).

"I think people are sleeping on them," Lakers Coach Byron Scott said. "Anybody who thinks they are going to be an easy out in the Eastern Conference is crazy. They've got too much confidence in themselves and they have no agenda. The biggest danger about a team like Atlanta is that they believe they can beat anybody and that's scary."

The Hawks have beaten some of the best teams in the NBA, including an impressive 21-6 record against the superior Western Conference.

Atlanta went 3-1 against LeBron James' Cleveland crew, 2-0 against Houston and Chicago, and 1-1 against both Golden State and Portland.

Nevertheless, Bovada recently had Cleveland (21-10 odds) as the favorite to win the NBA championship, followed by Golden State (7-2), San Antonio (15-2), Oklahoma City (8-1) and then Atlanta (9-1). "I hear the same thing, that teams still don't fear them the way they talk about some of the other teams, even as good as the Hawks are doing," Cleveland assistant coach Larry Drew said. "They don't have that superstar, per se, and I think that's what people are looking at.

"But we've played them four times and they beat us three times. So to me, they are just as legitimate as anybody else out East."

broderick.turner@latimes.com

Twitter:@BA_Turner

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