Hawks point to defense as spark to recent turnaround

020322 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young knocks the ball away from Phoenix Suns forward Cam Johnson with John Collins looking on during the first half of a NBA basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Atlanta.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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020322 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young knocks the ball away from Phoenix Suns forward Cam Johnson with John Collins looking on during the first half of a NBA basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

These Hawks are looking familiar.

Since losing five consecutive games and dropping to 17-25, the Hawks have figured it out. They’ve won eight of their past nine, most recently topping the NBA-best Suns with a brilliant offensive outburst Thursday.

ExploreTrae's 43 lifts Hawks past Suns

The Hawks, led by All-Star Trae Young’s 43 points, made 20 3-pointers en route to a 124-115 win over Phoenix, which had won 11 consecutive. While the points will generate excitement, Young feels the team’s renewed defensive commitment has ignited its run.

“I think we’re focusing on the defensive end first,” Young said. “Just letting the offensive end come to us. That’s the right mindset to have. We understand what we can do on the offensive end, so just making sure we’re locked in on defense to begin with a make it tough on teams.”

Power forward John Collins added: “It’s the way we’re approaching the game. Guys are communicating with each other more than I feel like I’ve seen before. The small things. Us getting to those 50-50 balls. Us rebounding. Us not turning the ball over late in games. Making good shots, late shots. Closing out the game. All the small things we need to do to win add up. I feel like we’re starting to figure that out a little bit.”

Since Jan. 17, when the Hawks’ re-emergence began, they have a 108.6 defensive rating and 117.9 offensive rating, both fourth best in the NBA over that span. Their 8-1 mark is tied for Phoenix for the best record in that stretch. The Hawks’ only loss came Monday on the second night of a back-to-back against the Raptors (and Young was out). Six of their wins during the run have come against winning teams. That includes victories over Milwaukee, Miami and Phoenix, three of the NBA’s true contenders.

ExplorePhotos: Hawks stop the Suns

The Hawks are still in an undesirable spot, sitting 10th in the East with a 25-26 record. Only three games separate the top six seeds in the conference – the team that will avoid the play-in tournament – and the Hawks are four games behind the sixth-seeded Nets.

Even as the schedule lightens, it will be an uphill climb to avoid the play-in. There’s nonetheless plenty of reason for optimism. The team endured injuries and COVID-19 earlier in the season that’s had it playing catch up. But they’re starting to look like the team that ousted the Knicks and 76ers a season ago during one of the more memorable runs in franchise history.

Thursday was a reminder of how potent they can be. There is no greater measuring stick than the Suns, who boast everything from excellent coaching to high I.Q. to star power to balanced depth.

“We can beat any team in this league,” said Collins, who tweaked his shoulder but is hopeful to play Friday in Toronto. “We’re not scared of any team. It’s a matter of doing what we need to do on a consistent basis. We’re ready to win.”

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And lately, they have been. Now it’s a question of whether the Hawks can maintain it and carry it into the playoffs where, if they’re looking like this, they’ll again be a team no one wants to draw.