Since they won 19 games in a row, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t looked like the same team that won 19 games in a row and ripped through most of the rest of the NBA.
Since losing to the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 2 to snap their streak, the Hawks are just 14-8, and their point differential per 100 possessions has fallen to just +1.4, compared to the a difference of +7.3 points during their first 49 games, per NBA.com. At the time, Atlanta’s record was a pretty 40-9, tied with the Golden State Warriors for best in the NBA.
On Wednesday night, the Hawks beat down the Orlando Magic in the second half to pull away for a 95-83 win. It wasn’t a pretty win, but it snapped a three-game losing streak, Atlanta’s longest of the season, so it was very necessary. It also whittled the Hawks’ magic number for clinching the No. 1 seed in the East down to two games, which all but ensures they’ll wind up with it, despite Cleveland’s impressive run in this season’s second half.
Atlanta was obviously already ripe for doubters trying to poke holes in its squad––first-time success, no star player, play in the East––but the recent three-game skid has really let the haters out. Picking up a win against the Magic won’t do much to quiet them, either, despite Orlando’s feisty young team.
The way Atlanta won the game was encouraging, as they were able to clamp down on defense and force Orlando into an abysmal second-half shot chart:
This is what great teams are supposed to do: take lesser teams out of their comfort zone and force them to settle for tough shots. Grantland’s Zach Lowe tweeted that the Hawks had something of a “switch-flipping” game, and while that would probably draw ire from ATL fans, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and in Atlanta’s case, a bit of fatigue, both mental and physical, would be understandable.
As mentioned, the Hawks have been running through the Eastern Conference with ease this season, and they staked out an enormous lead for the top seed months ago. Having a sense of urgency is a bit more difficult when you know that you’ve been essentially waiting for the playoffs to start since the middle of February.
Until a recent injury to Kyle Korver, the Hawks have been blessed to avoid injury this season (to starters at least), which is a great thing and a huge part of the reason they’re at the top of the standings. It also means that your rotation guys are playing every night, and even though coach Mike Budenholzer has granted his key guys some rest this season, we now have a better understanding of the toll the NBA regular season takes on players, so seeing a bit of a slump as Atlanta nears its 82nd game is expected.
The idea that the Hawks have already peaked is one idea that’s a bit of a concern, especially given their inexperience. Atlanta has never been in this situation before, at least not with this group, so it’s very difficult to guess whether they have another gear available to them in time for the playoffs.
Taking it up a notch against the Magic in March is one thing, doing it against the Cavaliers in May is another. Contenders need to be able to bear down and get difficult buckets in the half-court. These are situations where it’s nice to have a star player, a guy who can dial 1-800-GET-BUCKETS and actually deliver; the Hawks are hoping their system will do that for them.
If the Hawks’ recent three-game skid was concerning for any reason, it was because it showed just how crucial Korver is for this offense to function fluidly. His efficiency had fallen off since the All-Star break, but without him, Atlanta completely flat-lined, then got run off the floor during his limited return against San Antonio.
For the Hawks to make a deep run into the playoffs, their system has to stay strong on offense. The Hawks have solid defensive personnel, so as long as they bring proper playoff intensity to accompany that, they should be fine on that end of the floor. It’s when the other teams take up their defense a notch, when dudes like Paul George are just a little more up in Jeff Teague’s grill, that’s when the concern sets in for Atlanta.
Korver is the force that keeps that moving. His out-of-this-world shooting during the first half––52 percent from three––practically gave him a gravitational pull against opposing defenses. Defenses aren’t used to constantly having to account for a shooter off the ball like that, so they were constantly being bent by Korver, then eventually broken by the Hawks’ ball movement.
There are great three-point spot-up shooters in this league, and then there’s Korver. It’s no coincidence that the Hawks’ efficiency has ticked downward in conjunction with Korver’s diminished shooting since the break, which stands at 42 percent from three.
That’s still a great number, but it’s not the game-plan-altering clip that he was torching nets with earlier in the season. The Hawks need that kind of force on their offense, no matter who it’s coming from, so it’s crucial that they get Korver and his injury right before the postseason.
If that can happen, guys like Teague and Al Horford, both of whom have struggled offensively as of late, will suddenly have jobs that are once again much easier, and the team should be able to go back to the humming, pass-and-shoot-happy club that they were before. If nothing else, at least they still have defense and home-court advantage.
Sadly, that still might not be enough to get past the likes of the more experienced and equally talented Cavaliers, but that’s the flip side of the uncertainty surrounding the Hawks heading into the postseason: we won’t know until they show us.
One thing they have shown us, however, Atlanta isn’t doing anything without a 100-percent healthy Kyle Korver. What a weird sentence to write in 2015.