The No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference, play-in tournament bound, facing a win-or-go-home game against the No. 10-seed Hornets on Wednesday.
This is not the position the Hawks hoped to find themselves in this season. And it’s not a regular season (43-39) they plan to repeat.
“It’s pretty much what I said to our guys, this feeling of what we’re going through is not the feeling I expect next season,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Sunday in Houston, after his team’s 130-114 win concluded their regular season. “Fighting for our lives for a playoff position, a play-in position. So taking care of business, having that mindset from the start of the season, is really important because every game does matter, whether it’s your first, second, third, fourth, fifth or it’s 79, 80, 81, 82.
“They all are important games. So just take a moment to think about where we are right now, and we were able to get ourselves to this position where we are in the play-in tournament, but next year we don’t want to experience this.”
For now, though, this is the Hawks’ reality. It may feel like a letdown after last year’s epic run to the Eastern Conference finals, but the Hawks still have a chance to advance to the playoffs and go on another run. They’ll host the Hornets at 7 p.m. Wednesday at State Farm Arena, and if they win that one, they’ll face the loser of No. 7 Nets and No. 8 Cavaliers on the road Friday to determine the official No. 8 seed (the winner of Nets-Cavs nabs the No. 7 seed). If they make it out of the play-in, they’ll face No. 1-seed Miami.
The Hawks went 2-2 against the Hornets in the regular season, though their final game, a 116-106 Charlotte win March 16, was a doozy. With the score tied at 97 with 4:44 to play in the fourth quarter, the Hornets’ P.J. Washington got hot, and coupled with some untimely turnovers, the Hawks trailed by 11 three minutes later. So, mark down “late-game execution” as key in this one.
John Collins (right ring finger sprain/right foot strain with a plantar fascia tear) will not be available, though he did play 4-on-4 during the recent road trip, so that’s an encouraging sign.
Two things are for sure, though. First, the Hawks have been excellent at home, going 19-3 at State Farm Arena since Jan. 17, averaging 121.4 points and 26.8 assists per game over that span, shooting 38.9% from 3-point range.
Second, this game pits two high-powered offenses against one another, to borrow Hawks center Clint Capela’s words.
“We have to know their tendencies,” Capela said at practice Tuesday. “We’ve been working today on their tendencies, so we all know what they’re trying to do, what they want to do, what they’re good at. … We know that this team is definitely high offensive powered, so we’re going to have to rely on those tendencies and force them to do what we want them to do.”
The Hornets score 115.3 points per game, third most in the NBA, and the Hawks score 113.9 points per game, sixth most. The Hornets shoot 36.5% from 3-point range, No. 6 in the league, with the Hawks No. 2 at 37.4%.
For most of the season, the Hawks have had the No. 2 offensive rating behind Utah (finishing the regular season at 115.4), led by the stellar playmaking of Trae Young, who became the first player after Nate “Tiny” Archibald (who did so in the 1972-73 season) to lead the league in total points (2,155) and assists (737). He also led the league with 42 points/assists double-doubles.
This season, the Hawks were the only team to have seven players average 10-plus points in scoring, minimum 50 games played, per Elias Sports Bureau: Young at 28.4 points in 76 games, Collins at 16.2 points in 54 games, Bogdan Bogdanovic at 15.1 points in 63 games, De’Andre Hunter at 13.4 points in 53 games, Kevin Huerter at 12.1 points in 74 games, Danilo Gallinari at 11.7 points in 66 games and Capela at 11.1 points in 74 games.
Charlotte, meanwhile, has the No. 8 offensive rating at 113.6. The Hornets won’t have Gordon Hayward (out with pain in his left foot), but they’re still jam-packed with shooters and ballhandlers, with Miles Bridges (20.2 points) their leading scorer and LaMelo Ball their main playmaker (20.1 points, 7.6 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, named an All-Star at age 20).
“They are fast,” McMillan said of Charlotte, which ranks fifth in the league in pace at 100.5, compared with the Hawks who are 17th at 98.7. “They get up and down. They have a lot of guys that can create offense, so they are a team that can put up a lot of points, put a lot of points on the board and multiple ballhandlers. One through five can handle the basketball for them, and they are always on attack mode.”
In that loss to the Hornets on March 16, Charlotte did everything it could to keep the ball out of Young’s hands, double-teaming him like crazy. Young finished with nine points (3-for-12 FG, 0-for-6 from 3-point range, 3-for-3 FT), well below his average of 28.4 points per game, though he tallied a game-high 15 assists, getting off the ball to find open shooters.
That’s not the first time Young has seen that sort of defense, and though he had an off-night shooting, he’s only grown more familiar with navigating that throughout the season, as teams gun for him.
Charlotte has a 113.1 defensive rating, No. 22 in the league, and the Hawks are at No. 26 at 113.7. The Hornets mix up their defense, something the Hawks will have to look out for, McMillan said.
“(Young has) done some big things for us, and that’s going to be a big key,” McMillan said of how Young draws so much attention from opposing defenses. “They do change their defense a lot. They go from box-and-1 to zone, from full-court press to man to zone, so they’re constantly trapping out of timeouts; it’s going to be important for our guards, not only Trae, but make sure that we are ready for that and that we get organized and that we have proper spacing and that we attack that. It’s not anything that we haven’t seen all season long, but it can’t be a surprise to you. You have to anticipate it. That’s their game plan, that style of play.”
As the Hornets try to speed up the game, trap and press, the Hawks aim to have proper spacing, so they can move the ball and get some quality looks.
The Hawks may have put themselves in a tough position, needing two consecutive wins to advance to the playoffs, but at the very least they’re in control of their fate.
“Now we know that our destiny is in our hands, and we’ve got to use that to our advantage and get there,” Capela said. “Obviously, one game at a time, so our next step is (Wednesday) at home, and we have to get it.”