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High-flying Hawks emerge as NBA’s most surprising team

ATLANTA (AP) — Paul Millsap knocked the ball away. Thabo Sefolosha scrambled into the corner to grab it and passed quickly to Dennis Schroder, who took off the other way.

Schroder dribbled into the frontcourt and spotted Millsap already ahead of him on the wing. Millsap didn’t keep the ball for long, bouncing a pass to Al Horford streaking through the lane for a thunderous dunk.

That play epitomized the way the Atlanta Hawks are going right now.

A stop at the defensive end. Four guys touching the ball. An easy basket.

The Hawks are the biggest surprise in the NBA, leading the Eastern Conference with a 26-8 record that is the best in franchise history through 34 games. Most striking, they have won seven straight on the road, wrapping up a sweep of their West Coast road trip with a 107-98 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night.

“We’ve got a good group of players, who play unselfish and play hard,” said second-year coach Mike Budenholzer, who learned at the knee of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and is looking to build another powerhouse in Atlanta.

The Hawks have won 19 of 21, but their play over the last three weeks has been especially impressive. Atlanta has twice beaten the Clippers and LeBron James’ Cavaliers, sending a bit of a shockwave through the league with a 29-point blowout at Cleveland. The stretch also includes wins over Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Portland, so this is looking less and less like a fluke.

The Hawks are facing all sorts of uncertainty off the court, from ongoing efforts to sell the franchise to what will become of disgraced general manager Danny Ferry. But the turmoil seems to have brought the team together, and Budenholzer — a long-time assistant with the Spurs — has instilled many of the same principles that work so well in San Antonio.

Atlanta ranks among the league’s top clubs in steals and assists, scoring about two-thirds of its baskets off passes from teammates. All five starters are averaging at least 11.6 points. There’s not one true superstar, but Jeff Teague is emerging as one of the league’s best point guards, Millsap can do a bit of everything, and Horford’s return after missing most of last season with an injury has been a huge boost for the inside game.

Budenholzer and his staff have also gotten surprising contributions from DeMarre Carroll, who bounced around to four teams before finding a home in Atlanta, and Kyle Korver, who has proven to be a lot more than a 3-point specialist. The bench is deep, too, with players such as Schroeder, Sefolosha, Mike Scott and Pero Antic making important contributions.

Sounding very much like his mentor, Budenholzer talks constantly about “activity” at the defensive end, pushing his players to get a hand on the ball and cut off passing lanes. The Hawks aren’t a pick-and-roll-focused offense like the Spurs, but they feed off their defense, run at every opportunity, and wind up with a lot of easy baskets.

“We know if we make plays on the defensive end, everything else will take care of itself,” Teague said.

Teague’s development has been a huge key. He flashed plenty of potential over his first five seasons, but he’s finally demonstrating the sort of consistency that Budenholzer demands. Over the last five games, the 26-year-old is averaging 23.2 points, 8.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals while shooting 52 percent from the field.

Horford and Teague are the only players who’ve been with the Hawks longer than three years, the roster almost totally overhauled the last two summers by Ferry. While the GM successfully turned things around in Atlanta, there’s no indication he’ll ever return to his job after making racially charged comments about potential free agent Luol Deng.

Ferry is on an indefinite leave of absence, watching from afar as the roster he built keeps piling up the wins. Budenholzer is now in charge of player personnel, though it looks as if the bulk of the work is done.

Once the Hawks get to the playoffs, the lack of one dominant scorer could prove to be a weakness. It certainly cost them last season, when they squandered a chance to knock off top-seeded Indiana in the opening round.

For now, it’s not an issue.

“We’ve got a good group of guys in that locker room,” Budenholzer said. “We’re playing well on both ends of the court.”

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AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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