The Atlanta Hawks' best start in more than a decade has the team brimming with confidence. The loss of one of its most important players, however, has tempered the excitement.The Hawks look to overcome the absence of Josh Smith as they look to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 1997-98 with a road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night.
Atlanta took the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the teams' first-round playoff series last season, perhaps an indication the young Hawks were finally past their rebuilding phase and ready to contend.
The Hawks haven't disappointed early this season despite a challenging schedule. They've won their first four games - all against teams that made the playoffs last season - by an average of 11.8 points. It's their longest undefeated start since winning their first 11 games in 1997-98.
"It seems we have kind of turned the corner," said shooting guard Joe Johnson, the team leader with 25.3 points per game. "I think we can shift into another gear."
To do so, however, the Hawks will need to survive the temporary loss of Smith. The high-flying forward, who recorded a double-double in each of his first three games while averaging 3.0 steals and 3.3 blocks, sprained his left ankle in the first quarter of Atlanta's 110-92 win over Toronto on Friday night.
The Hawks said Smith is likely miss two-to-four weeks.
While the injury is certainly a blow, it hasn't completely taken the shine off Atlanta's hot start. The Hawks opened the season with a road win over defending Southeast Division champion Orlando, followed by victories over much-improved Philadelphia and reigning Southwest Division champ New Orleans before their rout of the Raptors.
"You can see it, the swagger. We're coming out executing," said Johnson, who had 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists Friday. "The four teams we opened with, we've had problems with in the past. We have to validate that by bringing this same effort day in and day out."
The Hawks will put their perfect start on the line against an Oklahoma City team coming off an uneven effort in a 104-97 loss to Utah. The Thunder (1-4) gave up 21 straight points in one stretch of the first quarter and were held to 29 points in the first half before exploding for 68 in the second.
"We can't start out like that," said reigning Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant, who had 24 points and went 9-for-15 from the field. "The second half we did a much better job of going out and being the aggressor. We've just got to do that early on and we'll be all right."
Durant was the hero in the Thunder's first meeting with the Hawks last season. In his 10th career NBA game, he made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Thunder a 126-123 double-overtime victory in Atlanta.
The Hawks won the teams' second meeting 99-90 on Jan. 25 behind a career-high 33 points from Marvin Williams.