Evaluating the Hawks’ ups and downs with two-thirds of NBA season over

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11)shoots over Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11)shoots over Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

Credit: AP

Mentally, Hawks coach Nate McMillan carries a loss with him until the next game.

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Given that the Hawks won’t play another game for a week, it’s a good thing they head into the NBA All-Star break on two consecutive wins. All isn’t rosy for the Hawks, who are in the No. 10 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, far lower than their preseason hopes of getting homecourt advantage in the playoffs (a top-four seed) after a trip to the conference finals last year.

But, after losing four of five games, two consecutive wins against the Cavaliers and Magic make the next few days less daunting.

“It’s always good to end a situation like this on a good note,” McMillan said after the win in Orlando on Wednesday. “The fact that we were able to get these last two games, Cleveland and Orlando, before going into the break, we start out next week with Chicago and Toronto, two really tough teams that have given us trouble, but it’s good. Feels good. We’ll take this break and get some rest and come back ready to finish the season.”

The Hawks have only one player being kept busy by the All-Star weekend, with Trae Young participating in the 3-point contest Saturday and the All-Star game Sunday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland. Everyone else gets a physical and mental break for one week.

Then, when the regular season starts again, the Hawks will have only 24 games left to accomplish their goal of finishing in the top six, which would earn them a guaranteed playoff spot instead of having to enter the play-in tournament. That feat seems highly unlikely, given they’re still two games under .500 (28-30), five games behind the red-hot Celtics in the No. 6 spot.

Regardless, in their next 24 games they’ll aim to position themselves as best as possible for the postseason. This roster, almost identical to the group that had massive, franchise-revitalizing success last season, gets the chance to prove it can do it again, as general manager Travis Schlenk recently said. If not, personnel shakeups could follow in the offseason.

This group has shown it can get hot before, finishing last season on a 27-11 run from when McMillan took over in March after coach Lloyd Pierce was fired. As you can tell from the numbers, they had a little more time to work with. And, the Hawks face a brutal first five games out of the break, facing the Bulls (No. 1 in East) twice, the Celtics (No. 6), the Raptors (No. 7) and the Wizards (No. 11), the team directly behind the Hawks in the standings.

But Young remains confident the Hawks will get hot again.

“I have confidence in our team that we can go on a run and string together some wins,” Young said. “We’ve done it before, so I have a lot of confidence in this team that we can do it again. So it’s just about going out there and doing it and not just saying it. It’s going out there focused and trying to get it done.”

Before the Hawks’ stretch run begins, let’s take a look at what went wrong and what went right for them in their first 58 games of the season.

What went wrong

Defense, defense and more (or lack thereof) defense.

The Hawks are so good on offense that merely league-average defense would make quite a difference for them. For most of the season, though, that’s not what they’ve produced.

Despite pleas from Clint Capela and John Collins to bring more heart and passion on that end of the floor, the Hawks haven’t done so consistently. But, it seems that when shots aren’t falling, the offensive-minded Hawks get disheartened and can’t buckle down on defense.

A good example is the second half of the Hawks’ loss in Boston on Sunday, when they led 55-45 at halftime but were held to 40 points in the second half, giving up 42 points in the third quarter alone.

“We lose our focus, and then we start focusing on offense too much, offensive-minded a little bit too much, and this is how we lose the focus on how we started the game,” Capela said.

Sometimes, particularly when trailing, the Hawks’ shot selection starts sputtering, with too many long or midrange jumpers instead of 3-point attempts or shots at the rim. Cam Reddish, traded to the Knicks in mid-January, was scoring more this season but contributed to this issue, though he wasn’t the only culprit.

Overall, that pales in comparison with perimeter defense, which likely has been the Hawks’ main concern.

Teams shot 36.2% from 3-point range against the Hawks (No. 24), who give up the fifth-most 3-point shots per game (13.2). Overall, the Hawks are No. 27 in the league with a 113.3 defensive rating (that still gives them an 0.5 net rating, given their offensive production).

Having De’Andre Hunter back from injury helps, but even so, the Hawks haven’t gotten the defensive production they need, whether that stems from not having enough defensive-minded personnel or not getting that consistent defensive effort, like Capela talked about.

Capela, for his part, had a slow start to the season coming off injury but still is the defensive anchor for the Hawks, ranking third in the league in rebounding at 12.1 rebounds per game.

“Really, to get in that urgency mode right away,” Capela said of what he wants to see from the team on its final stretch. “I know that it hasn’t been easy for us to always be in urgency mode this season. But we know that now with like 25 games left, we have to bring it right away. We know we have it. We just need to have it every night and not get bored. Respect every team because every game we play is going to be important for that top six.”

What went right

On the bright side, as much as the Hawks have underperformed, they’ve also shown that when they get hot, they can pretty much beat anyone.

A seven-game win streak Jan. 17-30 pumped some desperately needed energy and good vibes into the team, as did an impressive Feb. 3 win vs. the Suns, who by far own the best record in the NBA this season (48-10).

The defense has been better since that win streak began, with Hunter and the Hawks’ ability to rotate Capela and a now-healthy Onyeka Okongwu at center. Okongwu (age 21) has tended toward foul trouble and could improve rebounding (8.7 points, 5.5 rebounds per game), but his defensive instincts, far beyond his years, have been a huge bright spot for the Hawks.

But, a letdown loss to the then-20-win Spurs, giving up 136 points in an ugly defensive performance, muddled those stats. They’ve had the No. 16 defense (112.1) from Jan. 17 to the All-Star break but still are No. 27 overall.

Unsurprisingly, paved by Young’s scoring (No. 5 at 27.8 points per game) and playmaking (No. 4 at 9.3 assists per game), the Hawks’ offense is dynamite and the main thing going right. This is a stellar offensive team (No. 2 in offensive rating at 113.9, No. 1 in 3-point percentage at 37.7%, No. 8 in points per game at 112.2).

Since returning from injury Jan. 26, wing Bogdan Bogdanovic has come off the bench, and McMillan’s decision to add him to the second unit (keeping Kevin Huerter as a starter) has worked wonders. Bogdanovic is featured on that unit and is thriving, averaging 16.2 points, four rebounds, four assists and 1.6 steals in 28.8 minutes per game, shooting 41.6% from 3-point range.

Looking ahead

Though even great teams don’t make the conference finals every season, it’s still a disappointment that the Hawks haven’t been more competitive this season. It may be too late for them to fully rectify things, but a strong finish could still bump them up in the standings and give them better odds in the play-in tournament.

A bumpy finish could mean they have no postseason at all. Only 1.5 games ahead of the Wizards, the Hawks have a slim margin for error and can’t afford many losses down the stretch.

Despite an underwhelming first two-thirds of the season, McMillan is encouraged that the Hawks aren’t out of it.

“We need to get to this break and get some rest and come back focused,” McMillan said. “We understand exactly where we are and what we need to do. We’re still in the race to get to the playoffs, and as I told the guys, go home, get some rest, relax because we have to be better to finish up this season to play ourselves into the playoffs.”