Hawks beat Clippers, and 10-10 never looked so good (updated)

(Updated: 10:50 p.m.)

Before this NBA season began, an online sportsbook posted the odds on the Hawks winning the league championship at 150-1. They must be doing something right because that same site shows the odds have dropped to … well, 100-1.

I passed this news along to general manager Danny Ferry, who smiled and proceeded to give a rambling, vanilla, non-response response about effort, improvement and, I think, the weather.

And then this: “I’m not commenting on odds,” he said. And then he mumbled something about a potential fine. (Fines. Bad subject with the Hawks. Don’t go there.)

This shouldn’t qualify as a spoiler alert. But the Hawks probably are not going to win the NBA title. And that’s OK. Sometimes they’re kind of dry to watch — and that’s OK, too, because they’re also not maddening to watch. They are steady. Steady is improvement. Not dumb is improvement. Think of them as a circus with no motorcycles doing loop-de-loops in the tunnel of fire, but also no clowns with exploding shoes on a fast break.

No Josh. No Joe. No Marvin. No, “What the hell was that?”

On Wednesday night, the Hawks were coming off possibly their most impressive performance of the season — a last-second loss in San Antonio 102-100 on Monday night. They responded with their most impressive win of the season, 107-97 over the Los Angeles Clippers at Philips Arena.

“The pace and the purpose we played with the last couple of games has been what we want it to be,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.

They’re now 10-10. Embrace 10-10. Embrace an offense that seems to be getting into a rhythm and players that share the ball. Jeff Teague, averaging a career-high 17.4 points, was quiet against the Clippers (six), in part because of foul trouble. But it didn’t matter because the Hawks got 25 points from Paul Millsap, 23 from three-point machine Kyle Korver (6 for 9) and 21 from Al Horford. The Hawks shot 51.2 percent and had 28 assists.

Teague: “Offensively, I think we’re figuring things out. We have more trust in the system.”

Millsap: “And when you go through the fire together, it brings you together as a team. The other night in San Antonio, we were in the fire.”

So .500 isn’t knocking on the door to a title. It’s not as if the Hawks are being left in the dust in that area by by Atlanta’s other pro sports teams. But they’ve dropped hints they’re moving in the right direction. And, as a bonus, they haven’t suckered some local government into giving them several million dollars for a new venue, which makes them borderline philanthropists in this city.

It’ Year 2 under Ferry and Year 1 under Budenholzer. Expectations were modest. A 10-10 record should be considered more than palatable, given the circumstances: a stripped-down roster with a payroll that ranks 25th in the NBA; new players trying to learn a new system with a new head coach; Lou Williams, one of the team’s best shooters, missed the first eight games and has played only six of 20 overall, in his early return from knee surgery.

They just a beat a Clippers team with Doc Rivers on the bench and Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford on the court. Actually, they made it look easy at times. They led by eight points after the first quarter, 11 at halftime and by as much as 17 late in the fourth quarter.

Before the game, Ferry spoke of his team’s need for improved defense, but on the whole he’s pleased. “I think we function most of the time at a good level, but we just haven’t fully taken form yet,” he said. “Obviously I’m hopeful it doesn’t take too long. … You want things to be very easy. But building something in terms of a way of playing takes a level of patience and determination. You can’t just say, ‘This is who we are.’ You have to prove it.”

Said Budenholzer, “Our biggest thing is to play better for longer stretches. But that’s probably the holy grail for every team.”

If you’re looking for a tangible difference this season, Teague might be the biggest improvement. He’s playing better without Josh Smith barking in his ear. (Further affirmation of offseason decisions: The Hawks won consecutive games over Smith and the Detroit Pistons.)

Ferry’s next move will be interesting. He has a roster of manageable/easily movable contracts. The Hawks’ payroll ($58.684 million) is dwarfed by Brooklyn’s $101.291 million, even though the Nets are 5-13. (Here’s an amusing aside: The Hawks have the option of switching their No. 1 pick with the Nets this season because of the Joe Johnson trade, and I know what you’re thinking: Wasn’t finding a trade partner reward enough?)

There’s already speculation that Ferry has positioned himself to move one or more players before the February trade deadline, possibly to improve draft position or another asset, with an eye on the future. When the Hawks failed to land either Dwight Howard or the Chris Paul in free agency, it was reaffirmed this would be a slow and steady building process.

But that’s OK. Slow and steady looks pretty good right now.