The Atlanta Hawks took a step in the right direction last season when they reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years. That momentum seems to have carried over into 2008-09.The Hawks look to improve on their best start in 11 years as they host the Toronto Raptors on Friday night.
Atlanta (3-0) is one of four remaining unbeaten teams in the NBA, along with Detroit, the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah. All four reached the playoffs last season, although the Hawks did so with a losing record at 37-45 before losing in seven games to Boston in the first round.
While Atlanta's start - its best since going 11-0 in 1997-98 - may be the most unlikely of the four teams, the Hawks aren't surprised.
"That just shows the maturity of the program," said forward Josh Smith. "The players have another year under their belts. ... I just think it's the growth process of us playing another year and knowing how to win on the road."
On Wednesday, Smith and the Hawks handed New Orleans its first loss of the season, 87-79. Joe Johnson led Atlanta with 24 points, while Smith had 11 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
The Hornets came in as the NBA's top scoring team at 106.7 points per game, but faced a Hawks team that is holding opponents to one of the league's lowest scoring averages with 84.0 points.
"It shows a lot about our character," Johnson said. "We've just got to stay focused. We can't get caught up in the hype and we'll be all right, as long as we keep playing with this amount of confidence and this intensity."
Johnson is second in the NBA in scoring this season with 28.0 points per game. He averaged 25.3 points in three games against the Raptors last season.
Toronto (3-1), meanwhile, is coming off its first loss of 2008-09 after falling 100-93 to Detroit on Wednesday. Chris Bosh had 26 points and 13 rebounds while Jose Calderon added 24 and eight assists. The other three starters combined for 22 points.
"If we just play a little better, maybe we could have won the game," coach Sam Mitchell said. "We didn't shoot the ball particularly well. We didn't capitalize on our opportunities."
Jermaine O'Neal struggled, finishing with eight points on 3-of-10 shooting. O'Neal, who was the centerpiece of a six-player deal with Indiana in the offseason, is averaging 10.3 points with his new club. He averaged 13.6 points in 42 games during an injury-plagued 2007-08 with the Pacers.
"I knew it was going to be a process but I didn't know I was going to be four games in and still looking for my rhythm," O'Neal said. "You want to do well, you want to dominate at your position, it just really hasn't worked out for me yet."
O'Neal is averaging 17.4 points in 29 career games versus the Hawks.
The Raptors play five of their next seven on the road, where they've won twice this season. Atlanta lost two of three to Toronto last season, with their only win coming in overtime at home.