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Birds of Prey
David Fleming
November 24, 1997
Off to a soaring 10-0 start, the Hawks keep pecking away at opponents with a balanced attack that's been winning one close game after another
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November 24, 1997

Birds Of Prey

Off to a soaring 10-0 start, the Hawks keep pecking away at opponents with a balanced attack that's been winning one close game after another

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FAST GETAWAYS

The NBA teams that have gotten off to the best starts without a defeat have usually taken that momentum deep into the postseason. This review of the hottest starts suggests that the Hawks, who had broken out of the gate at 10-0 through Sunday, should have an extended run of success.

START

TEAM

YEAR

FINAL RECORD

PLAYOFF RESULT

15-0

Washington Capitols

1948

38-22

Lost in Finals

15-0

Houston Rockets

1993

58-24

Won championship

14-0

Boston Celtics

1957

49-23

Lost in Finals

12-0

Seattle SuperSonics

1982

48-34

Lost in first round

12-0

Chicago Bulls

1996

69-13

Won championship

11-0

Boston Celtics

1964

62 18

Won championship

11-0

Portland Trail Blazers

1990

63-19

Lost in conference finals

10 0

Boston Celtics

1972

68-14

Lost in conference finals

10-0

Seattle SuperSonics

1993

63-19

Lost in first round

10-0

Atlanta Hawks

1997

 

To be determined

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Every 20 games during the NBA season, Atlanta Hawks general manager Pete Babcock meets with his coaching staff and other members of the team's front office. Over the years the meetings, held in Babcock's office at CNN Center, have served as progress reports for the franchise. In addition to discussions about stats and trends and hot players around the league, team executives would sometimes spend entire days pondering the Hawks' multitude of troubles. Now, though, with Atlanta off to the best start in the franchise's history, you've got to wonder what exactly they'll be talking about at Babcock's first meeting this season. The unusually cold weather? The standoff in Iraq? Anybody seen any good movies lately?

The Hawks stood at 10-0 after Sunday's 89-83 win over the Los Angeles Clippers and were looking down at everyone else in the Eastern Conference, including (if they squinted) the defending world champion Chicago Bulls. Center Dikembe Mutombo, the NBAs Defensive Player of the Year last season, is scoring with the ferocity he normally reserves for blocking shots. Temperamental forward Christian Laettner, who became a father for the first time in June, seems almost serene. The team, once plagued by fan apathy, is setting attendance records playing in the 71,228-seat Georgia Dome while a new arena goes up across the street.

In an 80-78 win on Nov. 7 against the Bulls, the team that knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs in the second round last spring, a franchise-record 45,790 fans showed up—just 228 fewer than the NFL Falcons had drawn to the dome on the previous Sunday. Let's face it, Babcock's first quarterly get-together this season should be a meeting even Dilbert couldn't screw up.

"We are a team that's operating at very close to maximum efficiency," says coach Lenny Wilkens, who is getting so much productivity from his reserves that all of his starters were on the bench with 2:12 left to play in a 104-103 win over the Sacramento Kings last Friday night in Atlanta. "I see a team with character and confidence, one that's very much like the one I coached in Seattle when we won the [1978-79] championship."

The key, says Wilkens, is continuity. His entire starting lineup, including four former first-round picks—Mutombo (Denver 1991), Laettner (Minnesota '92) and guards Mookie Blaylock (New Jersey '89) and Steve Smith (Miami '91)—is back from a team that won 56 games last year. "The Hawks definitely have the talent to handle the Bulls," says Seattle guard Hersey Hawkins.

While your typical NBA roster might have one or two players who can take over a game, the Hawks have four. That makes it hard for opposing teams to figure out whom to stop down the stretch in close games. Perhaps that has contributed to the five games the Hawks have already won by three points or less. "They're aggressive from the very beginning, and when you do that, refs will give you calls late in the game," says Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird. "It's how you're supposed to play."

Because his system was already in place and in veteran hands, Wilkens was free during training camp to work on conditioning—"He was trying to kill us with sprints," says Mutombo—and on individual instruction. No one benefited more from Wilkens's attention than Mutombo, who at week's end was averaging 16.2 points, 12.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks while sinking 80.0% of his free throws. On Sunday night the Clippers threw three different centers at him, yet Mutombo still helped push the streak into double digits with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Against the Pacers on Nov. 12 he had perhaps his best game as a pro. With a soft touch and a strong drop step Mutombo pumped in 25 points to go along with his 15 boards as the Hawks beat Indiana 89-86 for win number 8. "We're all kidding Dikembe now," says Smith. "Last year he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, so now he must be trying to win the offensive player of the year award."

Since leaving Denver in 1996 Mutombo has been working on his positioning and footwork in the paint and has developed an effective hook shot, though he still sometimes holds the ball too long, missing opportunities to pass to open teammates. Oddly, Mutombo has improved despite playing very little basketball during the off-season. Instead, he says, a trip home to Kinshasa, in the Republic of Congo, and time spent "spinning" (using a new, technologically advanced stationary bike, recommended by his friend Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat) kept his knees and spirit fresh. "I stayed away from basketball as much as I could," says the 7'2" finger-waving post man. "On offense the only thing I know is that I feel more patient. Patience comes only with experience. You can't teach it."

That's something Babcock, 48, has learned since taking over as general manager in 1990 and slowly molding the team into a contender. "All everyone in sports wants now is instant gratification," says Babcock. "So people have been very critical of us for not making this move or that move. But all along we have looked at building this team a little differently, with some stability. You don't always have to go to the bottom before you get better in this league."

A former high school coach in Phoenix who worked his way up in the pros from scout to assistant coach to two-time runner-up for the NBA Executive of the Year Award, Babcock landed Wilkens in 1993. Then, through a series of player moves, Babcock engineered the deals that ultimately landed his four stars, who—as an added bonus—all get along. That camaraderie and the team's stability, two words that go largely unused in the NBA today, may be the real secrets to Atlanta's quick start. "It's unheard of in this day and time to have so many great players and have none of them caught up with their own stats or contract figures," says forward Tyrone Corbin, the team's fifth starter. "To me it means that this team has all the pieces in place to win it all."

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