The Atlanta Hawks were one of the best, if not the best, stories of this NBA season. A 38-win team last season under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, the return of Al Horford from injury and a complete buy-in of Budenholzer’s system turned the Hawks into a 60-win juggernaut, the most wins in franchise history. The phenomenal season earned Budenholzer Coach of the Year honors.
These Hawks went an entire month without losing and won 19 in a row at one point. They went 33-2 over one stretch to go from 7-6 to 40-8. They not only beat up on the Eastern Conference, but they handled the Western Conference behemoths as well. One stretch of games had them winning at Cleveland, at Houston, at Dallas and then beating the Clippers in Atlanta.
These Hawks were a breath of fresh air, with their emphasis on ball movement, floor spacing and shooting making for beautiful offense without a true “star” player. (All five starters were named Eastern Conference “Player” of the Month for January.) This coupled with an elite defense made them a joy to watch, but that has all come crashing down in these playoffs, and especially in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even throughout the Hawks’ dominant regular season, there were a gaggle of non-believers in the team, with the familiar trope that their formula wouldn’t work in the postseason. It’s unfortunate that those people are being proven right to a degree, as Atlanta has never really looked like itself in the playoffs, outside of a few great quarters here and there.
The warning signs came early (even dating back to the end of the regular season), with two closer than expected wins to start the playoffs against the mediocre Brooklyn Nets. That was followed by two bad losses in Brooklyn, and while the Hawks closed out the series in style, the concerns were there.
We’ll never know what would have happened in the second-round series against the Washington Wizards if John Wall didn’t get hurt, but something tells me it may have turned out differently. The Wizards won Game 1 in Atlanta in a contest where Wall broke his hand and Bradley Beal was banged up as well. Wall missed the next three games and the Hawks took advantage by winning two of the games before winning the final two in thrilling fashion.
But now, the Hawks are just about finished after a heartbreaking Game 3 overtime defeat against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, Atlanta’s first Eastern Conference Finals ever. That 60-win juggernaut is long gone, with Thabo Sefolosha out, Kyle Korver now done for the season with an ankle injury and DeMarre Carroll playing through what looked to be a serious knee injury when it first happened.
Things were made even worse in Game 3 by the ejection of Horford in the first half. All this led to guys like Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack getting key minutes with the Hawks’ season on the line. Sure, Cleveland is dealing with key injuries as well, but it helps having LeBron James on your team, and James put forth a historic performance in Game 3 with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.
Atlanta deserves all the credit in the world for battling hard despite being short-handed. Jeff Teague scored 30 points and Paul Millsap added 22. Bazemore made some key plays down the stretch, while Mack shot well from three before missing two potential game-tying threes in the final seconds. It was a gritty effort, but ultimately not enough against LeBron’s greatness.
Now 15 games into the postseason, Atlanta has a mediocre offensive rating of 101.5, per NBA.com. Their offensive rating is just 99.3 in this series and 95.5 in the 15 fourth quarters in these playoffs. The Hawks’ shooting has abandoned them at the worst time, as they’re shooting just 43.1 percent overall and 32.9 percent from three in the playoffs (42.2 percent overall and 26.6 percent from three vs. Cleveland), down from 46.6 percent overall and 38.0 percent from three in the regular season.
Hopefully people can still appreciate what these Hawks did in the regular season, but most will likely just remember them as a “fraud” that flamed out in ugly fashion, even though they did reach their first ever Eastern Conference Finals. It really is a shame, because this team was a treat to enjoy all season.