ATLANTA — Quick, name the starting lineup for the Atlanta Hawks.
Stumped? You’re not alone.
Despite a lack of recognizable players beyond All-Star forward Paul Millsap, talented young point guard Jeff Teague and perhaps 3-point specialist Kyle Korver, the Hawks have shown just how far hard work, intelligence and a steadfast belief in the system can carry a team.
Eighth-seeded Atlanta has a 3-2 lead against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers and can complete a stunning upset by winning at home Thursday night.
The Hawks finished 18 games behind Indiana during the regular season but have largely controlled the postseason series, building double-digit leads in all five games. Atlanta is coming off an especially impressive performance in Game 5, racing out to a 30-point lead on the road and holding on for a 107-97 triumph.
“Everyone wants to talk about what’s wrong with us,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “I think a lot of this goes to the way they’re shooting it and the way they’re playing.”
The Hawks could’ve wrapped up this series already, squandering a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead at home in Game 4. Atlanta failed to make a field goal in the final 41/2 minutes and lost 91-88.
Now, they’ve got a chance to finish off the Pacers at Philips Arena.
“We’re just trying to play blue-collar, competing, aggressive basketball,” Atlanta forward DeMarre Carroll said after the Hawks practiced for about an hour Wednesday. “Everyone on this team is competing. Everybody is playing hard. Even the coaches. A lot of the things we do after practice and before practice go unnoticed.”
Indeed, the players give much of the credit to rookie head coach Mike Budenholzer, who has brought to Atlanta the lessons learned as a longtime assistant under San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. That means physical, aggressive play at the defensive end, ball movement and penetration to create scoring chances, and a roster full of players who can hit the outside jumper.
The Hawks have shown the sum of the parts can outshine individual greatness. Four players have scored at least 20 points in a game during the series. Seven players in the nine-man rotation have contributed at least one double-figure performance against the Pacers.
“There are very, very few teams who just win because they have the best talent,” Korver said. “The good teams in the NBA have great systems. Even Miami has a great system, even though they also have great players.”
Carroll would hardly be described as a great player — he’s on his fifth NBA team and already has been waived twice — but he’s flourished with the Hawks, averaging 10.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in the playoffs.
“When you have a great system, you can go get players who fit the system,” Korver said. “Everybody in the NBA can play, but until you get the right opportunity and the right fit, it doesn’t really work.”
The Hawks are positioned to become only the sixth No. 8 seed in NBA history to knock off a top seed in the opening round of the playoffs, surely the most surprising performance in a postseason already filled with dramatic moments.
“They do a great job,” Indiana’s David West said. “They have a good team, the way they cut, the way they play. Their coach is a San Antonio guy, so they mimic what San Antonio does.”
Regarded as one of the NBA’s top defensive teams, the bulky Pacers are clearly befuddled at how to stop the Hawks, who use every inch of the court and keep defenses from packing the lane by letting pretty much anyone hoist a 3-pointer.
“It’s just different,” Pacers star Paul George said. “They spread us out and we’re used to packing it in the paint, playing big, playing physical. But it’s like playing pickup ball against them with five perimeter guys.”
The Hawks lost their best player, center Al Horford, to a season-ending injury in December but were still above .500 until another rash of injuries sent them in a hideous tailspin that almost caused them to miss the playoffs. The team got healthy — except for Horford — near the end of the season, played well over the final two weeks, and carried that strong play right into the playoffs.
With one more win against the Pacers, maybe they’ll finally get some well-deserved recognition.
“They’re an eight seed and we’re a one seed,” George said, “but they’re playing great right now.”