What are the Atlanta Hawks doing right?

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Among the bouquet of surprises in this most unpredictable of NBA playoffs, the one that gets me:

The Atlanta Hawks are good.

I mean playoff good. They’ve been regular season good for a few years now, but when the lights got brighter, the teams better and the defenses more focused the Hawks were not a threat.

But this season, they beat Orlando and sent that team’s fan into a very nervous state. Then they took Game 1 from the Bulls.

What is going on here? This is basically the same roster that scared nobody for the last couple years, why now?

The best of the Hawks bloggers, Brett LaGree broke it down at TrueHoop. And it starts with one thing we knew would be a boost — Jason Collins. The seldom-used big man allowed the Hawks to single cover Dwight Howard in the first round, then everyone else could stay home on shooters. And it worked.

But the biggest change is at point guard. For the past couple years, that was Mike Bibby. That was a problem. But in the first round it was Kirk Hinrich, brought in from the Bulls and he was good on Jameer Nelson, one of the few other Magic players who could create his own shot. Without Hinrich locking up Nelson it was a lot of Hedo Turkoglu. Advantage Hawks.

But Hinrich is down with a strained hamstring against the Bulls, forcing Jeff Teague into action. A talented backup point guard who never really developed for the Hawks. (Does anyone ever really develop for the Hawks? Another issue for another day.) LeGree explains:

Teague played less than 14 minutes a game and suffered through 12 DNP-CDs during his second season in the league, facts baffling in the wake of the 84 quality minutes he’s played in two games against Chicago. He’s played solid defense, mostly matched up against the league’s MVP (though Teague moved over to chase Kyle Korver around screens some in Game 2) while also shooting 50 percent from the floor, earning eight assists and committing just a single turnover. It’s fair to wonder if the Hawks would have been better than a 44-win team had Teague’s quickness been used more regularly in the regular season.

The same “little used but showing he can ball in the playoffs” storyline is there for Zaza Pachulia. Which brings us to coach Larry Drew. Who came into the playoffs on the hot seat but now….

But Drew deserves credit for the Hawks’ defensive gameplan and execution in the first round and how well the team ran Drew’s much-discussed but not-especially-effective-during-the-regular-season motion offense in the first game in Chicago. Based on these eight playoff games, the long-time NBA assistant, but rookie head coach, looks to be learning on the job, rather than, as had been suggested in the local media, in over his head.

Beating the Bulls still seems unlikely at best. But in these playoffs… I’m done trying to figure it out. The Hawks go home for Game 3 and no outcome will surprise me anymore.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

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Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

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Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — 11 of them in the first half. Houston was up 17 in the first quarter and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points. With the offense not running through Kevin Durant isolations, it just flowed better (the Warriors best lineup of the night was Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young, +13 in just more than eight minutes).

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

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The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.

Warriors’ Andre Iguodala out for Game 6

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Steve Kerr has been searching for a couple of games now for his fifth guy.

With Andre Iguodala out there is no Death/Hamptons 5 lineup and Kerr is looking for a fifth guy to partner with his four All-Stars. Kevon Looney is starting, Jordan Bell is showing potential but also makes some rookie plays, Nick Young has been bad enough that Kerr trusted Quin Cook more at the end of the last game (and Cook missed his looks).

Kerr is going to have to keep searching for a guy in Game 6 because Iguodala is out again.

The Warriors are not the team heading into Game 6 with the most significant injury woes, the Rockets are without Chris Paul. That and the fact the Warriors’ backs are against the wall is the reason they are heavy favorites in Game 6.

However, the Warriors have not been the same without Iguodala. He is a playmaker who can control the ball and settle things down, makes the right decision, get the player and ball movement the Warriors have strayed too much from back, plus is one of their best defenders on James Harden. Nobody else on the roster can do that.

And if Game 6 gets tight late, the Warriors are going to miss those skills. As they have in the last two games.