Toronto (19-6) and Washington (17-6) are the top two teams in the Eastern Conference this season, and the No. 3 team, well, it’s not Chicago or Cleveland.
It’s actually Atlanta (17-7), which beat the Bulls, 93-86, on Monday. The Hawks have won 10 of 11 since their 7-6 start.
What’s been the difference?
“Just sticking together,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. “Sticking together, and our defense has been pretty good for the most part. (We’re playing) good team defense. Guys have really bought into whatever we’re trying to do here. That’s a big part of it.”
Monday’s win over the Bulls was an important one for Atlanta, which had been impressive lately, albeit against so-so competition. The Bulls (15-9), however, are not so-so competition; they’re good competition – and Monday’s game almost had a playoff atmosphere to it.
The Hawks were just that hungry to prove they’re legit.
“We think last night was really a test for us to see how good we really are,” Millsap said. “It’s one thing to win the games that we won in the fashion that we won. But to play a team like the Chicago Bulls – one of the elite teams in the league – and beat them, that says a lot.”
Millsap had 17 points, eight rebounds and four steals against Chicago, while Al Horford had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Horford was limited to 29 games last season after tearing a pectoral muscle. Having him back – he’s averaging 14.0 points and 6.6 rebounds – has been huge.
“It’s good, man,” Millsap said. “We missed him last year. The things that he does, especially from the center spot, is amazing. It helps us out a lot. He’s a good passer, he’s a good scorer and he’s definitely a good teammate. So to have him back, it helps out the team a whole lot.”
It also helps having Mike Budenholzer. The former Spurs assistant, who spent 17 seasons in San Antonio, has brought a winning mentality to Atlanta. Budenholzer, like Millsap, is in his second year in Atlanta.
“Before I got here, I talked to Bud a lot,” Millsap said. “He actually told me he really wanted me for me. It was pretty easy to adjust to (his system).”
Millsap, who spent the first seven years of his career in Utah, averaged a career-high 17.9 points last season.
“I’ve been in the West Coast with Utah, and it was a more slow-tempo game for us,” Millsap said. “I wanted to go somewhere where they sped it up and I could get out and run and really showcase my talents.”
But is there any downside to playing a fast-pace style? Millsap said no. In fact, he thinks a lot of elite teams – such as San Antonio and Cleveland – are trying to play the exact same way.
“That’s the style of play they’re going to,” Millsap said. “I think the whole NBA is headed in that direction.”