The best in the East and the best in the West collide tonight in Atlanta. Who's the better team? Is this a Finals preview? Our expert panel breaks down all things Warriors-Hawks.
1. Who's the better team right now -- Warriors or Hawks?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: At the moment, the Hawks. They've been more consistent through the NBA's dog days while the Warriors hit a little stretch of malaise and fell into some bad habits. The Hawks have lost only three games since the middle of December.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: What, there isn't enough love to go around? If I have to pick, I'll go with the Warriors on statistical grounds. Golden State is scoring about three points more per 100 trips down the floor and giving up just shy of three points fewer on the other end. The Warriors held that advantage even during the Hawks' streak, which says more about how absurd the Warriors are than anything the Hawks aren't doing.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Warriors. It's hard to argue against the team tied for the league lead in offensive efficiency and tops in defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. But even without looking at the numbers, the Warriors feel like the more explosive team offensively, able to overcome poor defensive efforts far easier. Even when Golden State was down 22 early to the Mavs on Wednesday, you kinda knew it'd be a one- or two-possession game by halftime.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The Power Rankings don't lie, gents. I appreciate the fact that Golden State has been a juggernaut all season in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But we're talking right now. And the Hawks, right now, are in the midst of a 34-3 run and lead the league with the most wins over .500-or-better teams. So they get the nod as we speak. Barely.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Warriors. Golden State is ranked first on offense and defense. I'm sure there's a case to be made for the Hawks, but I can't pick against first in both major categories.
2. Steve Kerr or Mike Budenholzer, who ya got?
Adande: Mike Budenholzer. It's not that Kerr is doing anything wrong; he's close to maximizing the potential of his team. It's just Kerr got the better job, but Budenholzer's doing the better job. The Hawks were in the process of a remodel when Budenholzer got to Atlanta and his was the rare construction project that finished ahead of the deadline. In Year 2 there's a full buy-in from his players, and the Hawks look like a completed product.
Arnovitz: Budenholzer, with the disclaimer that Kerr would be the rightful front-runner for coach of the year any other season. The absence of a clear pecking order on an NBA roster can be combustible, but Budenholzer has helped to turn egalitarian basketball into a defining feature of the Hawks' identity -- much the way Kerr has made versatility a hallmark of the W's.
Gutierrez: Budenholzer. This is based strictly on what each coach has to work with. Budenholzer took a roster very few would consider elite and turned it into a well-oiled machine in just his second year on the bench. Kerr is in the enviable position of taking over those ultratalented Warriors with the best backcourt in the league either in or approaching its prime.
Stein: Splitting my vote. Not ashamed to say that, just like the last time you asked me, I still can't call it. How do you separate these two in the NBA Coach of the Year voting? Who knows? Maybe I'll have it figured out by April. Choosing one here feels like you're diminishing the other and they've both been too good, in vastly different circumstances, to judge so declaratively.
Strauss: This is tough because I see Kerr all the time and Budenholzer is all the way across the country, but I'll go Budenholzer because his supporting staff is less renowned. Kerr has done a fantastic job, but it's one helped by top assistants like Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams. I'm less clear as to the assistance Budenholzer's getting.
3. Steph, Klay or Korver for the 3 to win the game, who ya got?
Adande: Steph. He's the shooter who's best at creating his own shoot, thanks to his dribbling skills and that cold, cold stepback. He could find a way to get open in a crowded subway car. If the defense knew he had to take a 3, I'm most confident he could get it off.
Arnovitz: If there's at least five seconds to run a set that can run Korver off a couple of screens into open space, then I'll go with him. If there's less than that, Thompson's quick release has the edge. And if there's a full possession, with enough time to bring the ball up and tease a defender one-on-one for a heave off the dribble, then it's Steph.
Gutierrez: Clearly the most difficult question here, but I'll roll with Klay. If I were some kind of video-game designer trying to create the perfect form for a jump shot, it would look exactly like Klay's. He's like a jump-shooting robot. So I'll take that over Korver, who could go several long stretches a game without touching or shooting the ball, and barely over Curry, who's a tad shorter and might not get off as clean a look.
Stein: Steph. Another uncomfortable question, but it's tough to ignore Steph's ability to not only shoot with range as well as Klay or Korver or anyone else you want to name but also create shots for himself. He's arguably the best shooter we've ever seen off the dribble. So I'm giving him the slightest of edges on versatility.
Strauss: I'm taking Korver, who might be a robot. He's the only guy who offers me a 53 percent chance at success, after all. I still can't believe that's a human being's actual, real-life 3-point percentage. Someone check Korver for bolts and wires.
4. True or False: Warriors-Hawks is the likeliest Finals matchup.
Adande: False. The Warriors will be there, the Hawks won't. Golden State's the more playoff-tested of the two. The Warriors have won a series as a group. The Hawks haven't won a series since 2011 (Al Horford and Jeff Teague are the only players from that team left on the roster). The Hawks aren't even the hottest team in their conference right now. That would be the Cleveland Cavaliers, winners of 12 straight.
Arnovitz: True. This isn't much of a reach. The Hawks are eight games better than their closest competition in the East. If a team can run and hide before the All-Star break, that's an indication that it's a favorite. The Warriors have a tougher road out of the West, but at present it's hard to find compelling arguments that they'd be an underdog in any matchup this spring.
Gutierrez: False. It's tricky, because I'd consider both of these favorites at the moment in their respective conferences, but there are too many variables to consider it "likeliest." The Cavaliers look like they can easily make a case for Finals favorites in the East at the moment, and out West, the Warriors can't even feel comfortable getting out of the first round if they somehow face a potentially red-hot Oklahoma City team as an 8-seed.
Stein: False. You are always advised, in the West, to take the field over any one team. Sorry, Warriors. It's not all that hard to picture a Hawks-Cavs showdown in the Eastern Conference finals that would leave Atlanta just one step away. But what if the Warriors wind up seeing Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round?
Strauss: True. They're the two best teams in their respective conferences. I'm sure they have their doubters on account of never having been there, but this is how new teams win championships. Also, I don't buy that Atlanta needs some hero-ball crunch-time scorer to prevail -- the league has changed. Bottom line: Both squads are more than capable of making the Finals.
5. Who wins tonight?
Adande: Hawks. They've become just as tough in their arena as the Warriors are in theirs. It's amazing what happens to the atmosphere in a building when fans just show up. Of course, it's amazing how many more fans show up when the team wins games. Those who go to Philips Arena tonight will be rewarded with a home-team victory.
Arnovitz: The broadcast audience, because it'll be treated to some high-grade hoops played by two teams who know how to max out what's great about NBA basketball. The Hawks win, because they're a dominant 24-3 at home going up against a team that flew more than 2,100 miles and lost three hours yesterday -- and there's a lot of evidence that those things matter.
Gutierrez: Hawks. Feel like I have to take the home team in what is going to feel like their biggest game of the season. Plus, the Warriors just gassed themselves in that comeback against the Mavericks, only to fly across the country to play in what should be an insane Philips Arena. If the Dubs are going to have a rough game, this has the makings.
Stein: Hawks. Tough turnaround for the Warriors to go from a late West Coast shootout with Dallas that required a huge comeback to a 4:30 p.m. tipoff -- based on Golden State's body clocks -- against a geeked-up Hawks squad in front of the most amped-up home crowd in the ATL in decades. Tall order for the Dubs. Atlanta winning is the "likeliest" outcome. If you insist.
Strauss: The Warriors. The Hawks give up a lot of 3s, which isn't an ideal strategy for a team playing the Warriors. The Warriors have an excellent perimeter defense, which is crucial if you're playing the Hawks.