ATLANTA (AP) - The Atlanta Hawks were a work in progress much of the season, a team that went from relying on a dazzling, spread-the-ball offense to a grittier, defensive-minded bunch.
They're hoping that will serve them well heading into an NBA playoff rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Feeling confident after an opening-round win over Boston but a big underdog against the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks returned to practice Saturday to begin preparations for the best-of-seven series.
Game 1 is Monday night in Cleveland.
"Defense has been our staple throughout the season," said Atlanta's Kent Bazemore, who figures to have the unenviable task of guarding James much of the time. "When you aren't making shots, you have to continue to get stops and weather the storm."
A year ago, the Hawks set a franchise record with 60 wins and claimed the No. 1 seed in the East. For much of the season, they were unstoppable at the offensive end, spreading the wealth among all five starters (four of whom made the All-Star Game), working the ball inside and out for the open shot, making defenses look as though were playing a man short.
By the playoffs, though, Atlanta was no longer a dominant team. The first two rounds were a struggle, and it really wasn't that much of a surprise when Cleveland took out the Hawks with a dominating sweep in the conference final.
This season, the offense never really got going. Much of that was due to the struggles of 3-point specialist Kyle Korver, who fought to regain his shooting touch after two offseason surgeries. Atlanta slipped to 48 wins and the fourth seed in the East, heading into the playoffs viewed more as an afterthought than a serious championship contender.
But a renewed commitment at the defensive end kept the Hawks from slipping even more. The Hawks surrendered the sixth-fewest points in the league (99.2 per game), while ranking 12th in scoring (102.8). The transformation was more gradual than sudden, the team slowly coming around to the idea of stopping teams rather than outshooting them.
"For a while, we were just waiting for last year to happen again, like all of a sudden we're going to get open shots and things are going to be easier for us," Korver said. "There was a good healthy realization that, hey, we've got to evolve. We've all got to evolve in life, right? You can't just keep doing the same thing forever."
In the playoffs, where teams have to slog it out for every basket, the Hawks are counting on their defense to keep things competitive against the multi-talented Cavaliers.
It won't be easy. Cleveland beat the Hawks in all three regular-season meetings.
"We feel like we're playing our best basketball," Korver said. "But this is a huge challenge. We know that."
The 6-foot-5, 201-pound Bazemore will be giving up 3 inches and nearly 50 pounds when matched against James, which means a lot of defensive help will be required on the King. Led by Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers wiped out the Hawks on the boards in last year's series, and that could be an issue this time around as well. If Atlanta attempts to pack the lane, Cleveland has plenty of players — J.R. Smith and Kevin Love among them — capable of knocking down the long-range shot.
The Hawks, it would seem, are still trying to figure out the best way to handle Cleveland's myriad options.
Paul Millsap suggested that everything starts with stopping James, or at least limiting his offensive chances. Even then, he can still break out as he did in the next-to-last game of the regular season, scoring 34 points in three quarters of work against the Hawks.
"You start from the top," Millsap said. "You go for the head of the snake, which is LeBron, make it tough on him. Get out to the shooters when possible, but just make it tough on him all around. I think we have the ability to do it."
Korver, on the other hand, said the Hawks can't just focus on James.
They learned that lesson the hard way in last year's playoffs.
"He just found every shooter, and they 3-pointed us to death," Korver said. "There are a lot of other things we need to worry about."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry