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Atlanta had won four of the last five meetings against the Cleveland Cavaliers coming into Thursday night’s game. They flirted with a fifth victory after leading the King and his servants 69-63 at the half, but fell short 121-114.

“They are tough,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “Schroder puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They have multiple guys that can shoot the basketball and put it on the floor. They can make plays.”

Dennis Schroder, who had phenomenal performance posting 27 points on 58-percent shooting from the field, came off a pick towards the elbow of the free throw line with 2:11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and a chance to take the lead. His shot barely grazed the front rim. What happened next was almost a certainty.

LeBron trotted down the left side of the floor and responded with his patented left wing 3-pointer to seal the deal. Splash.

Atlanta threw everyone they could at James throughout the night. Taurean Prince took a shot at him. DeAndre Bembry matched up with him most of the fourth quarter. Even Ersan Ilysova took a swipe at him.

In the end LeBron James did what LeBron James wanted to do. Finishing with 24 points and 12 assists — just three assists shy of matching Atlanta’s starters — his fingerprints were all over the Cavs’ 10th straight victory.

Despite the loss, it was another shot a top tier team for the Hawks, an opportunity Prince relishes as a competitor.

“I like playing those type of guys,” said Prince. “Iron sharpens iron. I don’t feel like I will get better unless I continue to play those type of guys. Guys like Paul George. Just continue to further my career and my abilities as a defensive player.”

Atlanta has shown the tendency to gear up for these games. Tonight they scored 114 points on a Cavaliers defense that has improved recently. Without Dedmon, they dominated the paint outscoring the Cavs 50-40. Their record is no indicator, but Boston, Detroit, San Antonio and Cleveland will tell anybody they had to earn those victories against these young Hawks.

“Not discrediting any lower tier teams, but we get hyped up for games like this,” said Prince. “This is an opportunity to show who we are. Opportunity for guys to get better against great players.”

It may have taken 18 games, but John Collins finally heard his name called by Ryan Cameron as the Hawks starting power forward. Collins faced a All-Star front-court tandem in Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan and didn’t disappoint, finishing with 14 points and 11 rebounds — his fourth double-double of the season.

Luke Babbitt and Mike Muscala’s injuries facilitated this into fruition, but the call up was earned. Collins has played a role in some of the Hawks most impressive comebacks of the season whenever they’ve faced a large deficit, and he currently leads the team in PER and win shares.

“I like his game a lot,” said Blake Griffin. “I’ve watched him play this season. Physically he’s ready. He plays the game the right way. He does exactly what I’m assuming he’s suppose to do within their offense. He’s got a super high ceiling.”

One moment he found himself guarding the all-purpose attack of Griffin, who finished with a triple-double, then on the next possession would have to find a way to position himself to score around the defensive anchor that is Jordan.

“I like him a lot, said Deandre Jordan. “He’s physical, long and very good rebounder. He’s active around the rim and dunks everything. He just need to keep working. He has a great coach in Budenholzer. They put him in spots he can be successful. I like him a ton.”

As he typically does on a nightly basis, Collins attacked the glass without concern of who stood in his way and tonight was no different. Hustled, banged and battled with the NBA’s 2nd best rebounder in Jordan was yet another impressive sight given the disparity in size. But that’s what Collins does–work, work and work some more.

That level of activity generated openings in the clippers defense for easy dunks.

Griffin, known for his highflying highlights early in his career can see a ton of potential in the Hawks young phenom and  poke with Collins after the final buzzer.

“I told him to keep working. He’s going to be a beast.”

CHICAGO — Hawks players won’t tell you, definitively, who their leader is, their face, their most well respected voice, because it’s not clear who exactly that is.

If the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks are basketball’s constitutional monarchies—with one player serving as the practical and symbolic leader of the team—then the 1-6 Hawks are a liberal democracy, with a decent amount of haves and a handful of rulers, but equal voice dispersed to all its constituents.

“Things go a little more smoothly when you don’t hear just one, two, three guys talking all the time,” Kent Bazemore said. “I think it works when you do everything by committee.”

The Hawks under the Budenholzer administration (2013 to present) have always been democratic in their leadership, even during times of success, though the current quality of play certainly hasn’t warranted any star treatment. 2014-15’s 60-win team was widely celebrated for its unselfishness, which was evident both on and off the court. The starting five, after all, was collectively given the Eastern Conference Player of the Month award.

Budenholzer’s Hawks teams have never had one defining, authoritarian voice. Dwight Howard attempted to disrupt that dynamic through his behavior last season, and was promptly jettisoned away. Besides virtually demanding for more minutes during his exit interviews, Howard’s selfish need to be the center—of the locker room, of the offense—resulted in multiple Hawks players screaming in jubilation at the news of his departure, according to Zach Lowe.

“We all get along with each other,” DeAndre’ Bembry told HawksHoop’s Eric Yeboah earlier this month. “We have no problems off the court. Us being cool off the court is where it starts and makes its way towards the court when we play together.”

This season, the departures of Paul Millsap and Howard have created a bit of a power vacuum in its wake, one that the likes of Dennis Schroder and Bazemore have begun to partition. But the two believe in the model of Hawks democracy in leadership. Bazemore, for one, prefers it.

Rookie John Collins applauds Bazemore’s willingness to embrace egalitarianism.

“We are a brotherhood when [Bazemore’s] with us,” Collins said. “He doesn’t mind doing it from the top to the bottom.”

Equality doesn’t mean that the elders don’t teach, though. Bazemore is loud, expressive, animated—especially on the defensive end of the floor—and that method of instruction has helped the younger players reinforce concepts.

“Any time I’m on the court, he tries to help me during the game on where I can do better,” rookie Tyler Dorsey said. “I think that’s what’s rubbing off on me [from Bazemore] the most—learning what to do in those game situations.”

Schroder, by contrast, leads by example, consistently setting the tone by hitting the deck for loose balls and making high-energy plays. It’s this dichotomy that Bazemore thinks makes their leadership tandem effective.

“It’s very, like, yin and yang,” Bazemore said. “Two different styles, and both effective.”

As helpful as Schroder’s on the court leadership may be, his off the court struggles—Schroder was arrested for battery and was suspended last season for failure to report—have been road blocks in his progression into a full-time governorship, and is further evidence of the Hawks’ current power vacuum.

Equality in voice can easily breed a power struggle, if manipulated accordingly. So far, through six losses in seven games to start the season, no one’s started to point the finger. There is a blueprint on how to maximize egalitarianism under Budenholzer’s watch, if 2015 is any indication, but whether the Hawks can find it—with entirely different, lower-quality building material—is the question. Liberté, égalité, fraternité: the Hawks way?

“We got multiple guys chatting, feeling like they’re being a part of the conversation,” Bazemore said. “We’re all in a dog fight together—the more the merrier.”

John Collins, standing at an undersized 6’10”, has matched up with some of the biggest bodies this league has to offer—like Dwight Howard, Timofey Mozgov, Dirk Nowitzi and Timofey Mozgov—in the first few games of his career. Collins received his first heavy dose on October 9th, when he was tasked with boxing out 7’1″, 255-pound bruiser Marc Gasol. Good luck with that, right? Despite the disadvantage, he snagged eight boards. Shocking to some, but not to those fully aware of his rebounding prowess.

Collins doesn’t just feel as if its his responsibility to rebound—he takes pride in it.

“Of course I take pride in it,” Collins said. “Part of being a great defending team is getting stops and finishing the play with a rebound. It is really important to me. Using my athletic ability regardless of the matchup on the offensive or defensive glass.”

Take a look his draft reports and you’ll find scouts raving about his motor, low post scoring ability and, most importantly, his rebounding. Atlanta has finished in the bottom half of the league in rebounding twice over the last three years—they placed ninth last season primarily due to Dwight Howard’s expertise.

Obviously Howard is gone, but Collins is demonstrating, in his mere 19 minutes per game, that Atlanta has acquired yet another force on the boards.

Last Friday night’s home opener was no different, as he found himself battling with Denver’s 6’10”, 255-pound Nikola Jokic and 6’11”, 255-pound Mason Plumlee on several occasions. Collins scrapped and scrapped all night long until he was able grab eight rebounds. On a night when he shared the floor with Kenneth Faried, another relentless worker on the glass, Collins showed in many instances that he has the same motor.

The rookie grinds on the glass and understands matchups—which explains why he currently sits fourth among rookies with 7.3 rebounds per game and first in offensive rebounds.

“On the offensive end I’m just trying to use my athleticism and quickness to get around,” Collins said. “Either by tip backs or whatever I can force. On the defensive glass its really about boxing out and trying to find a body—or just attacking the ball.”

The most important aspects of rebounding are positioning and anticipation—especially for someone of Collins’ size.

“For me its almost like the more outmatched I am, weight or height, I think for me to just get a body on him will help my teammates get the rebound,” Collins said. If its a guy I know I can box out pretty well, then I’m pretty comfortably, I try to attack it. If its a guy stronger than me or more experienced than me, I try to hit him first. Make sure my guy doesn’t get the rebound.”

The 2017-18 NBA GM surveys are out, which means: let the arguments commence. Similar to all-star voting, the survey tends to slight at least one person. This year, that would be Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer. The question posed: Which head coach has the best defensive schemes? Budenholzer received no votes.

It was a surprising omission, to say the least, given what Budenholzer has accomplished in just four years as the head coach. Budenholzer’s Hawks teams have averaged a 104.15 defensive rating and have never finished no lower than seventh in opponent points in the paint per game over the last three seasons. His tactics intertwine with the strengths of his players and that in itself should be a respected capability. Paul Millsap not only logged his best career numbers offensively under Budenholzer, but Bud’s system resulted in a 2.9 defensive box plus/minus average for ‘Sap over his four years—he averaged 1.9 in Utah for seven seasons.

The same can be said for a defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, both of whom recorded their best DBPM in Bud’s system, which involves a heavy dose of ball trapping by the guards/wings. Longtime Hawk Al Horford played six seasons before Budenholzer’s arrival and has always been among the best defensive players at his position. However, he didn’t notch his highest defensive win shares until the 2015-16 season.

The examples are endless, but we can’t ignore how much reputation plays a role in the voting. Gregg Popovich’s mystic is one so strong that it’s plausible his accomplishments are the only reason he came in first over Budenholzer, especially after the two spent 17 years side by side, the former the boss of the latter, on San Antonio’s bench. However, Atlanta’s defensive scheme is as demanding as Popovich’s—or Thibodeau’s, the second place finisher of that GM question—and I can assure you that no player will touch the floor without giving an all-out effort on the defensive side of the ball—just ask any Hawks rookie over the last four years.

Defense comes first and foremost in Atlanta, which has resulted in opponents shooting just 43.8 percent from the field over the last three seasons. Yes, the Hawks did struggle guarding the three-point line last season, but a look at Budenholzer’s entire tenure as Atlanta’s coach and you would see that his average opponent three-point percentage is among the lowest in the league. He’s won at a high level—a 57 percent winning record to be exact—and a lot of that has to do with how attuned his ballclub is on the defensive end. Just nine current coaches have a higher winning percentage than Budenholzer. Out of that group, only two have finished with a top-five defensive rating more than once over the last four seasons—Popovich and Kerr. Only six of those coaches have had longer head coaching experience.

Defense is his staple, and he’s damn good at it. Whenever the Hawks experience a rough stretch of games, I assure you the following practices will be focused on defense, defense, defense—revisiting defensive principles and adjustments, re-examining defensive roles, etc. The lineups may change, but the defensive principles will be the same this season, as it always is—swarming, tricky and suffocating.

 

Philips Arena has rightfully earned the nickname “The Highlight Factory” from all the spectacular plays that have echoed from the arena, all the way down Peachtree Street. I remember, when I was a younger man, watching Dikembe Mutombo deny more potential highlights than I could count. However, recently, it dawned on me just how many Hawks have completed a jaw-dropping, otherworldly poster.

So I decided to come up with the list you see below. Enjoy.

10. Jeff Teague over Kevin Durant

Scene: November 5, 2012, at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Two minutes left in the second quarter.

Jeff Teague: “Easy lane to the basket.”

Kevin Durant: “Oh, its just Jeff Teague. I’m blocking this with ease. This finna be a breeze!”

Jeff Teague:

9. Josh Smith mimics Kobe Bryant and Ricky Davis by flushing one on Steve Nash.

Nash has dished out plenty of L’s in his Hall of Fame career, but we shouldn’t forget his blunders. He meant well, but that doesn’t mean it always ended well. Three posters that I can recall and every one of them ended with a Nash receiving a blocking foul. Good Lord.

 

8. Al Horford skies over Kevin Love (Round 2, Game 3 of the 2016 Playoffs).

Al Horford literally sat on Love’s shoulder; take note of how Love’s teammates didn’t even venture near the crime scene. When you get boomed on you are on your own–that’s the code.

 

7. Paul Millsap over John Henson

Trillsap sent Henson back to UNC with this banger. Made the kid re-enroll with a double major and a full-time job just to forget his past life. What a shame.

 

6.  Bradley Beal meet Mike Scott–Mike Scott meet Bradley Beal.

Dominique said it best here: “What are you doing?” And to Beal’s credit, he did the right thing—just at the wrong time.

5. More Mike Scott, this time on Ian Mahinmi’s head.

 

4. Dominique Wilkins over everybody

 

3. Not a poster, but Spud Webb’s dunk against Magic & the Lakers deserves praise. Truly astonishing.

 

2.  Josh Smith dunks on Serge Ibaka

 

1. Dominique double clutched off two feet, while contorting his body mid air and finished with authority. Greatness.