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November 17, 2009
On the Beat
Hawks Open Eyes

by John Perrotto

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The Phoenix Suns have been the talk of the NBA so far this season as they have started 9-2.

However, there is a team tied with the Suns for the best record in the league and they are a bit of a surprise, too. The Atlanta Hawks are 9-2 after beating the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime Monday night for their fifth consecutive victory.

Granted, the Hawks have made the playoffs the last two seasons, so they aren’t a completely unknown commodity. Still, few would have expected the Hawks to win nine of their first 11 games.

“This is what you play for,” Hawks guard Joe Johnson said. “We’re out here trying to do it in a major way. It really doesn’t matter to me where we are in the standings or anything like that. I just want to be on a team that gets better as the season goes on.”

It is certainly going to be difficult for the Hawks to continue playing at an .818 clip. However, the Hawks are showing signs of being a team with staying power as their 113.8 Offensive Rating is second in the NBA and they are 4-2 on the road.

“It's a new team, so to speak, a new team with a fresh and new attitude,” forward Josh Smith said. “We're trying to live up to our own hype, the stuff we cooked up.”

The Hawks are 16th in defensive rating at 106.4. However, New Orleans Hornets coach Jeff Bower believes they have a chance to be an elite defensive team.

“They really know how to use their length and athleticism,” Bower said. “It's impressive how good they are defensively. They're playing some of the best basketball in the league right now.”

The Hawks went 47-35 last season for their first winning season since 1999-00. However, they aren’t going to be satisfied with just being over .500 this season.

“We don't need to get ahead of ourselves and it’s a long season but we’re a different team,” coach Mike Woodson said. “And, yeah, we’re trying to prove something out there every night. That’s just the way it is.”

Wade Not Thinking About Free Agency

It seems the entire focus of the Heat’s season to this point has been guard Dwyane Wade’s impending free agency. However, the All-Star guard says he only thinking about helping his current team.

“As I continue to say, my main focus is I want to be here, in Miami, for the long haul,” Wade said. “I want to be one of those players that retires in Miami. My job is also to make sure that we get the best players down here, so we can win championships. People are going to say what they want to say but I'm always going to do my job to make sure that we continue to help better our team.”

Heat owner Micky Arison feels the speculation about the Heat’s luxury-tax and salary-cap planning for next season has overshadowed his team’s 7-2 start this season.

“Honestly, I think we haven't done a very good job positioning that issue," Arison said. “It's not an issue for fans. It's not their problem. What they want to see us do is get better and contend for a championship and that is what we are trying to do. The issue in '10 is flexibility and getting better. There are a lot of great free agents available in '10 and that's why we want flexibility. But if we could get one or two of those players in '09, why wouldn't we? So it's not about '10, it's about the players and getting better and getting better players.

“I think there's been this focus on '10 and I think that's been misguided. It's about getting better and about getting better players. And if we can do it this year, we'll do it this year.”

Heat team president Pat Riley’s contact expires at the end of this season. That has led to speculation that Riley might be contemplating retirement or Arison might be looking look to make a change. However, Arison shot down both ideas.

“Pat can be here as long as he wants to be here,” Arison said.” We haven't discussed it but every indication I have is that he'd like to keep going.”

Kahn's Mail Call

Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn has made a habit of writing letters to the team’s season-ticket holders since being hired in May. His latest missive addressed the 1-10 start, the second-worst in the league to the Nets’ 0-10.

“Our record was to be expected but it will not be accepted,” Kahn wrote. “Big difference, I think.”

Kahn tried to look on the bright side, especially that rookie guards Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington are getting extensive playing time. Flynn is playing 28.4 minutes a game and Ellington is averaging 16.2.

Kahn wrote that the duo can help the Timberwolves start “running and attacking more on offense,” especially when forward Kevin Love joins the lineup and center Al Jefferson gets completely healthy. Love has been out all season with a broken left hand that required surgery and Jefferson is still feeling the effects of February knee surgery.

Coach Kurt Rambis is also looking forward to having the two frontcourt players at full strength.

“Everyone knows we’re not going to figure out who we are as a ballclub until Kevin and Al are back and it may not be until Al feels like he’s 100 percent,” Rambis said.

Hard-Luck Nets Fight On with Defense

Despite being winless in their first 10 games, including their latest loss coming to the Heat last Saturday night on a three-pointer by Wade with 0.1 seconds left, the Nets continue to persevere.

The Nets have dressed as few as seven players for games this season because of injuries and illness. Forwards Tony Battie (knee), Yi Jianlian (knee) and Jarvis Hayes (hamstring) are currently out of commission along with guards Keyon Dooling (hip) and Devin Harris (groin).

Guard Courtney Lee is expected back for tonight’s game against the Pacers after sitting out the last four games with a strained groin. He believes the adversity will make the Nets stronger in the long run.

“They realize we’re without key guys and helping each other is important, so I think they got on the same page to help each other on defense, being in the right positions, shrinking the floor, just working together as a team,” Lee said of the healthy players. “Guys who might normally not play as much have been able to get their rhythm, so they’re only going to add when everyone gets back.”

The Nets are 29th with a 92.7 Offensive Rating but 13th with their 104.0 Defensive Rating. The lack of offense is not surprising after the Nets traded their top scorer, Vince Carter, to the Magic in the offseason.

“We only have two double-digit scorers on our roster,” Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. “One of them is (center Brook) Lopez, who has done it for only one year. The other is Harris, who did it incrementally. That why defense, for us, has to be first and foremost.”

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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