The Atlanta Hawks led the Washington Wizards 87-77 after the third quarter yesterday, which isn't nothing as leads go, but, in its broad outline the game still had the feel of one whose outcome could go either way. The Hawks looked sharper, sure, but the Wizards had won the second quarter and gotten as close as three points in the third, and a tight, exciting, competitive finish between two of the East's best teams seemed plausible.
Then each member of the Hawks grew four extra limbs and torrents of lava erupted from their roaring mouths and a pit opened up at midcourt and the Wizards fell into it and were consumed by the earth itself, and the Hawks won by 31. That's pretty much how it goes for Atlanta's opponents, these days. They've won 22 of their last 24 games. They are fucking terrifying.
Everyone who logs minutes for the Hawks is good. Not just in the sense that literally everyone but Kirk Hinrich who makes it to the NBA, by definition, is good at basketball, but also in the sense that every member of Atlanta's rotation causes matchup problems in some way or another. The Hawks never don't have a bunch of guys on the court who can shoot and move the ball and defend; they just keep coming, foul trouble and injury and heat-death of the universe be damned, more and more guys who can shoot and move the ball and defend, forever, all of them wearing red and navy. A defender leaves his man for a split second to rotate toward the hoop and head off a dribble-drive, and suddenly the ball is pinging around faster than your eye can follow it, like laser light through a mirror-maze, everybody scrambling madly to close out every corner of a hopelessly stretched-out floor, until it finds a guy, some guy, who the fuck is that guy, do they have eight dudes on the floor or what, and he's draining an open three, another fucking open three, and every skeleton inside the other team turns to jelly in defeat.
Defending the Hawks is as much a test of mental and psychological endurance as it is a physical challenge. Can defenders summon the energy and focus and commitment and sheer will to A) help contain the ball-handler, then B) anticipate the ball movement, then C) run like hell to close out on a shooter, then D) recover, rotate, and run like hell toward another shooter, all at a dead sprint, all the time, for 48 minutes, when there are shooters everywhere and it never works and after the first five minutes it starts to seem like nothing so much as trying to build a sandcastle in the actual ocean itself, like an interpretive dance whose meaning is "futility?" This is why the Hawks won the fourth quarter by 21 points last night. The Wizards, god bless them, were tired. Physically and mentally. In their heads, they were already back at the hotel, sobbing into their pillows.
Still, even stipulating that all the Hawks are good, man, Kyle Korver is just unfair.
My favorite play in that highlight reel isn't the slick behind-the-back pass to DeMarre Carroll on the break, or the sweet lob over the top to Al Horford for a dunk, or the bananas catch-and-shoot from 28 feet. No, my favorite is the simple corner three Korver hits at around 1:55. He loops along the baseline as Dennis Schröder sends an entry pass to Horford in the post; the instant Horford detects that the Wizards are twisted out of shape defensively, he fires the ball out to Pero Antić at the top of the key, and Antić doesn't even waste time rotating it to the next guy: he skips it right past Thabo Sefolosha to Korver in the corner. Look at the two Wizards, Bradley Beal and Martell Webster, as they recognize where the ball is going and both, simultaneously, sellout to get there. Their mingled desperation and despair. Even as they're flying out there—Hell no, not this time, goddammit not another three—they know they're beat. The shot rattling around for a second, before (of course) dropping through, is just a taunt, a troll move, one last glimmer of false hope.
Ol' Kyle's been around for a long time—he played with Allen Iverson in Philadelphia what seems like a thousand years ago—but until he landed with the Hawks, he'd mostly been used to stretch the floor for guys who can't shoot. Credit the Hawks's braintrust with the mad-scientist idea of combining him with a bunch of other guys who can shoot, and letting him do stuff other than running to the wing with his hands in front of his chest; turns out, he's a nifty passer, a smart and credible defender, and can drive past a closeout to get himself in range for a floater. He's a real basketball player now that, at 33, he's finally allowed to be one. All the while, the threat of his shooting range still warps NBA defenses just as much as John Wall's speed, or Boogie Cousins's power, or tying all their shoelaces together, or an asteroid strike.
And: he's Atlanta's fourth-best player. The Hawks are a nightmare.
Photo via Getty; video via YouTube