ATLANTA -- The No. 657 northbound car on the MARTA train left the downtown Five Points station just after 11 p.m. without a seat available and jammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder.
If anyone was tired, it hardly showed.
If anyone was uncomfortable, you'd never know.
About 60 percent of the passengers on this Gold Line train to Doraville were white and the majority of the rest were black. And just about all perked up when the train pulled into the next station, where a middle-aged black man who just got off work stepped on and immediately asked the question after spotting noise-making sticks and replica jerseys.
"Did the Hawks win?"
The answer was shouted from four rows of seats away by a white man with a beard and brown hair.
"We were the best team in the league before tonight's game," he said loudly enough for the entire train car to hear. "And we're definitely the best team in the league after what we did to those Warriors."
Loud cheers and laughter erupted. By the time the train pushed into the North Avenue stop at11:08, the "Let's Go Hawks" chant ripped through the car. Although the Hawks were roiled by questions of racial insensitivity in ownership and management during the offseason, the only version of race that seemed to matter on No. 657 northbound to Doraville was the one to the best record in the NBA this season.
This is just a small slice of the Atlanta that these Hawks are playing for as they took another step in a magical season in Friday's showdown between the two best teams in the league. The Hawks ran away from the Golden State Warriors 124-116 in a game that was widely billed as an NBA Finals preview -- and certainly drew the media coverage of a playoff series in June.
Since having their franchise-record winning streak snapped at 20 games Monday with a loss in New Orleans, the Hawks have regrouped by beating the rugged Wizards on Wednesday and then taking out the swift, sharp-shooting Warriors on Friday. Atlanta's gantlet of a week wraps on the road Sunday against a Memphis team that has the second-best record in the West behind Golden State (39-9).
The Hawks (42-9) have won 35 of their past 38 games, have already eclipsed their win total from 2013-14, have dominated the best teams in both conferences so far and eventually wore down a Warriors team that boasts the most explosive backcourt in the league. The always humble Hawks didn't celebrate or get too emotional about Friday's victory, but 3-point specialist Kyle Korver did take a little aim at skeptics who might still be reluctant to believe in what his team is capable of accomplishing.
"I feel like last year, we kind of put the bones in of who we were going to be," Korver said. "We've been confident. We feel like when we're healthy, we have a lot of unique pieces. It's a lot of talk of us not having a so-called superstar. But we have good players, man. And we fit well together."
There was indisputable evidence of that on the way to making their latest league-wide statement. Seven Hawks players scored in double figures, led by their All-Star trio of Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. During a pregame ceremony, they were presented their official All-Star jerseys for next week's game in New York. Then Teague went out and scored 23 points and forced Stephen Curry into a rough start after the MVP candidate came off a 51-point effort in Golden State's previous game.
Millsap did what he always does -- a little bit of everything on both ends of the court -- and finished with 21 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. And Horford, perhaps the one irreplaceable player on this team, added 12 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.
The good pieces extend far beyond those three and to a supporting cast that saw Korver knock down five 3-pointers, Mike Scott come off the bench for 17 points on a combination of dunks and long-range daggers, and both Kent Bazemore and DeMarre Carroll provide essential defensive energy. Backup point guard Dennis Schroder had nine points and dished seven assists.
This is who they've been all season, and that balance and brilliance were rewarded when the league office made an unprecedented decision to award the NBA player of the week award to the Hawks' entire starting unit of Teague, Horford, Millsap, Carroll and Korver.
Carroll said Atlanta is successful because everyone keeps the formula simple. There's no showboating or gloating after dunks, no excessive celebrations during timeouts after big plays, no nonsense.
"We go out there and handle business," Carroll said. "You go out there and do your job. Then you go home to your family. We don't try to humiliate anybody or show anybody up. We let the ATL fans do that. This was two of the best teams playing. It's one of those games that you dream about."
Both teams tried to downplay the significance of the matchup. But that didn't last very long. Before the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr saw the massive media presence at the morning shootaround and greeted reporters by saying, "welcome to the Finals."
"It's one game out of 82," Kerr said. "I think in the end, win or lose, it probably doesn't mean that much. But whenever you play the team from the opposite conference that is clearly the best team and has been dominating ... it's a great challenge."
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer also acknowledges there was a measuring-stick element to the game.
"You learn more about yourself," Budenholzer said. "There are some things we can build on. You always look forward to these games when you're going to be really tested and really challenged. You learn how much focus it takes to beat a team like this."
Teague said the Hawks didn't need the victory to validate anything.
"We already know we're a good team," Teague said. "We come out every night and just try to play like we're supposed to play. We do that and everything really does fall into place."
Yet still, this is a franchise that draws motivation from the doubters.
Seconds after the final buzzer sounded, the arena announcer posed a question over the loud speakers.
"Now do you believe?" he said. "Any questions?"
That swagger spilled into Atlanta's downtown streets Friday night.
And it permeated the city's train transit system.
Back on the No. 657 train car, a Warriors fan among the dozens of Hawks supporters was asked by someone in the group how it felt to root for "clearly the second-best team" in the league.
"I like the Hawks, too," the fan said. "I grew up here in Georgia, but I went to college with Steph Curry."
Another Hawks fan seated near the front of the train overheard the conversation and chimed in.
"So you were going to get on here after the game in a win-win situation, no matter what," he said.
Both men, initially strangers, got off together at the Lenox having agreed on at least one thing.
Inside the arena and out, these high-flying Hawks are taking this city on a harmonious NBA ride.