Hawks have rocketed to top, too

ON THE NBA

November 30, 1993|By JERRY BEMBRY

A lot of the early-season talk in the NBA has focused on the Houston Rockets and their 13-0 start, and the 10-1 start by the Seattle SuperSonics (who lost for the first time at Cleveland on Saturday).

But quietly, the Atlanta Hawks have established an impressive streak of their own.

With back-to-back wins over the Washington Bullets on Friday and Philadelphia on Saturday, the Hawks have won eight straight -- the second-longest winning streak in the league behind the Rockets. After a 1-4 start, the Hawks are 9-4 and in first place in the Central Division for the first time since November 1986.

Much of the team's success can be attributed to the hiring of Lenny Wilkens, who left the Cleveland Cavaliers last season after seven years. The second-winningest coach in NBA history with an 878-753 record (next season he should pass the all-time leader, Red Auerbach, who has 938 career wins), Wilkens has installed a system in Atlanta that stresses defense. As a result, the Hawks have held 10 of their past 11 opponents to under 100 points, something that happened just 16 times last season.

"We play one of the better team defenses in the league," said All-Star forward Dominique Wilkins. "We play well together and rely on each other, something we haven't done in the past."

Wilkins helped create that lack of reliance in Atlanta, causing friction with his "every shot is a good shot" attitude. But unlike previous coaches who have allowed Wilkins to shoot at his desire -- which was often -- the new coach has not been hesitant to yank his All-Star.

Wilkins was pulled out of games for long stretches twice last week, including Friday's game against Washington in which he returned to score 24 third-quarter points -- all within Atlanta's offensive system. His 24.6 scoring average is sixth in the league, less than his 29.9 average last year. Chances are Wilkins won't win the scoring title that many predicted he would, but he doesn't seem to mind.

"The difference this season is like night and day," Wilkins said. "Lenny teaches the game, and doesn't allow players to just go out there and play. And I don't have to get 30 points a night because we have so many good offensive players on the floor."

They will be put to the test Friday, when the blasted-off Rockets touch down in Atlanta.

Knicks stand in Rockets' way

Speaking of Houston, the Rockets' 13-0 start is the third-best in NBA history. The best start in NBA history is 15-0, accomplished by the Auerbach-coached Washington Capitols in 1948-49.

It's within reach, but getting the record won't be easy.

The Rockets will beat the 2-10 Milwaukee Bucks tonight -- how can they not beat a team whose starting front line of Ken Norman, Anthony Avent and Derek Strong went 0-for-17 from the field against Atlanta last week?

That sets up Thursday's matchup with the New York Knicks, who are 9-2 and were the preseason favorites to win the NBA title. To tie the record at Madison Square Garden would be a big accomplishment against a Knicks team whose 37-4 record at home last season was the best in the league. New York has lost just one home game this season, and that was when center Patrick Ewing was out with a sore neck.

"I don't care about that," Knicks forward Charles Smith told the New York Daily News when asked about Houston's record. "All I care about is that they have a loss on their record when they leave here."

Should the Rockets go into the game shooting to tie the streak, don't expect much scoring. The Rockets have the league's best defense, allowing 89.2 points, and the Knicks are second at 90.7. The game also matches the league's top two centers, Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon.

The outcome could depend on the play of Houston rookie guard Sam Cassell, who has started in place of Kenny Smith, whose status is day-to-day with tendinitis in his left knee. Cassell, a former star at Dunbar and Florida State, played sparingly in the first four games. But he has started the past three, and increased his scoring average to 7.6.

Dunk the comparisons

Turn on the television, and there's Shaquille O'Neal pushing products. Watch the late-night sports shows, and there's always highlights of O'Neal throwing down yet another dunk. Tired of seeing him, you turn on the radio and there's Shaq Daddy with the No. 9 rap song in the nation.

In rap lingo, Shaquille "You know I got Skillz" O'Neal is large. But is he the heir to Michael Jordan?

O'Neal probably will start in his second straight All-Star Game simply because of his popularity. OK, it probably doesn't hurt that O'Neal is the NBA's top scorer with 29.0 a game, is third in the league in field-goal percentage (60.6 percent), fourth in blocks (3.64 per game) and 12th in rebounding (11.2).

But let's face it: O'Neal is just the third-best center in the Eastern Conference behind Ewing and Charlotte's Alonzo Mourning.

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