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Hawks hit another high note in low-key style

ATLANTA -- Jeff Teague wants to let the basketball world in on a secret about his coach.

"He never smiles," the Atlanta Hawks point guard said of coach Mike Budenholzer. "I mean, never. He's really hard to impress. He’s never really satisfied. I think a lot of that has rubbed off on us."

That pretty much explains the Hawks' demeanor after they set a franchise record by extending their winning streak to 15 games with Friday's 103-93 overwhelming of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. As the impressive and dominant wins pile up for the Hawks, the reaction rarely changes.

First come the postgame showers, then the polite shoulder shrugs when asked to put the streak into perspective and, inevitably, there's a comment or two looking ahead to the next opponent on the schedule. That's typically been the low-key Atlanta way for the Hawks this amazing season.

But something was different Friday.

Teague sat in his corner locker a bit stunned by the latest developments.

"I've never seen anything like this here before," Teague whispered as he hurried to get dressed before the crowd came his way. "We must be winning. This is bigger than what we see in the playoffs."

As nearly two dozen reporters entered the locker room, at least one thing became clear: For all of the Hawks' accomplishments so far, flying under the national radar is no longer an option they can execute. Atlanta is no longer a fun little story in the NBA.

This team -- and it is truly a team in every sense of the word -- is on an absolute tear. The Hawks have led by double figures in every game during their winning streak and improved to 31-1 overall this season when they've gone ahead by at least 10 at some point in a game. The recent list of victims features a who's who of playoff contenders, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and now OKC.

Before Friday's game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked which Hawks player is toughest to defend. His initial hesitation to answer not only spoke volumes but proved prophetic. The 19 turnovers committed by Atlanta insured Budenholzer wouldn't quite be in a smiling mood afterward, but the rest of his team's stat sheet was a thing of basketball balance and beauty.

The Hawks defense left OKC scrambling and settling for jump shots on the way to shooting just 41.4 percent from the field. Atlanta shook off a sluggish start and grew stronger as the game wore on, while Durant and Russell Westbrook seemed to wear down as the Thunder looked every bit like a team that was playing its third road game in four days.

Atlanta won the inside battle, with Paul Millsap and Al Horford both finishing with double-doubles and combining for 36 points and 22 rebounds. And Teague was never rattled by Westbrook on his way to collecting 17 points and nine assists against just two turnovers.

Teague capped his night by swiping the ball from Westbrook near midcourt and racing in for an uncontested dunk in the final minute of the game. It was a fitting end to a performance in which the Hawks scored 54 points in the paint, another 30 from 3-point range, accumulated 27 assists and made all 13 of their free throws. It culminated in a 10th straight win against a Western Conference team.

In other words, the next team that exposes a weakness in the East-leading Hawks (36-8) will be the first team to do so. That Atlanta team that was 7-6 back in November has since won 29 of its past 31 games. While the players and coaches will insist their approach hasn't changed during the streak, the reaction to their success has over the past two months.

On Thursday, Budenholzer was named the Eastern Conference coach of next month's All-Star Game, and early Friday, the team announced the game against OKC was Atlanta's sixth sellout in the past eight home games. That followed the release of last week's numbers that showed crowds at Philips Arena have increased by 2,200 fans per game over last season and ratings are up 61 percent on local TV broadcasts.

Perhaps the biggest sign of progress is that, aside from a couple of loud cheers after ferocious dunks by Westbrook and Durant, the fan support was overwhelmingly in favor of the Hawks. That hasn't routinely been the case in this town, which for decades has supported star players from opposing teams.

"Their home crowd has gotten better," Durant said. "I guess they've jumped on the bandwagon."

A fifth-year veteran, Teague has been around long enough to appreciate the attention and support.

"It's a beautiful thing, man," Teague said. "I always said if you put a good product on the floor, they'd come out and support you. That's what we're doing right now, and they're coming out in full throttle."

There's been more of a homecoming atmosphere in the building lately. The corridors and hallways outside the locker rooms Friday seemed more like a scene from the Staples Center, TD Garden or AmericanAirlines Arena from big games during the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat runs to championships.

Down one hallway, Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and other former Hawks were laughing and sharing stories from their days in the league. In another hallway, local and national politicians mingled with performing artists and NFL stars who hung out near a room for team family members.

That was the type of crowd Budenholzer had to push through to get to the standing-room-only space where he held his postgame news conference. Facing the largest media contingent the Hawks have had all season, Budenholzer said he's confident his team won't get distracted by the additional spotlight.

"Our guys have a great focus every day," Budenholzer said. "They come to work and enjoy being with each other, enjoy competing. I just kind of think their minds and their priorities are on the right thing. So hopefully, I'm not naive, but that's what we'll just keep doing."

Those priorities have been in the right place since the Hawks began the season and tried to distance themselves from a controversial offseason that included racist comments and emails that left general manager Danny Ferry exiled and ownership putting the team up for sale.

Those dark moments have given way to the best start in franchise history, with the Hawks flooded with nothing but positive attention and energy these days. It's developed into a breakout season that has felt too much of a blessing to make maintaining this streak feel like any sort of burden.

"You can't have a burden winning," Horford said of handling the pressures of success. "We'll see. We've never been through this. It will be interesting to see. We have a tight group here, and as long as we stay together, we'll see where this goes."

One place the Hawks success obviously hasn't gone is to their heads.