Hawks looking for strong finish to first half of the season

Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and guard Trae Young (11) and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort (5) watch the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

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Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and guard Trae Young (11) and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort (5) watch the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

After losing seven of eight from early to mid-February, the Hawks (14-19) have been all over the board the past few games.

They looked completely lifeless in a loss to Boston on Feb. 19, with Cam Reddish, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari combining to go 10-for-47 from the floor (21%), then five days later thumped the Celtics, setting a franchise record with 23 3-pointers, with Danilo Gallinari setting a franchise record with 10 himself.

They picked up a quality win against a good Denver team Feb. 21, holding MVP candidate Nikola Jokic to 12 points under his average of 27, then settled into a familiar pattern of collapsing in the fourth quarter in a loss to Cleveland on Tuesday.

In Friday’s loss in Oklahoma City, they narrowed a 16-point deficit to six with three minutes late, but faded quickly down the stretch, prompting Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce to call out the team’s physicality after the game, implying players were looking forward to the NBA All-Star break about a week too early.

“I think we have a team that looks fatigued and is playing fatigued, and we can’t afford to do that,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to finish strong. We know a break is coming in a week. And we can’t look at the break. We’ve got to find ways to finish these three games with some effort and some competitiveness and a level of physicality that wasn’t here tonight, and that’s from everyone, top to bottom. It’s unacceptable.”

After watching the film on the loss to Thunder, Pierce said Saturday he doesn’t attribute the loss to the All-Star break looming. Heading into that game, he hadn’t reminded the team to lock in for this final stretch of the season’s first half, but it acted as a reminder.

The Hawks will play all three of their final games on the road: at Miami on Sunday, at Miami on Tuesday and at Orlando on Wednesday. They’re hoping to make the playoffs this year, and despite a tumultuous first half and long-term injuries to Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter and Kris Dunn, they find themselves at No. 11 in an Eastern Conference that has three teams with winning records (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Milwaukee), as of Saturday afternoon. They’re one game out of the play-in tournament.

“I’ve said it in every year prior to this,” Pierce said. “I kind of kicked myself for not saying it about a week ago. It’s just every coach that I’ve been with in the NBA has kind of reminded the team about two to three weeks prior to lock in. This is a tough phase, when you know there’s a period coming up where you’re going to have some down time. Sometimes you can check out early. I don’t think our guys have checked out. … We didn’t have that kind of fight in yesterday’s game, for whatever reason.

“Sometimes it’s due to the All-Star break looming, so you always want to remind your guys of the importance of finishing strong before the break, at the end of the season, before Christmas, all of those little periods where you’re going to have some time off. I don’t attribute yesterday to that, but it is a reminder that we have three games, we know a break’s coming, let’s really, this is where you dig in and find an opportunity to find some toughness, some perseverance, to just make these three games as competitive as you can and appreciate the break for what it is, and come back feeling refreshed.”

When it does arrive, the All-Star break will be a much-needed one, given the Hawks’ long list of injuries, the grind of the NBA in general and the added difficulty presented by this compressed schedule, which adds up to about four games a week and minimal rest.

The way they worked out Saturday, though, the Hawks seem energized heading into this three-game stretch, per Pierce. This season’s schedule doesn’t allow for much practice time, so it was fortunate to get a designated practice day, as well.

“You’d think we’re on a 10-game winning streak right now, with the energy of being in Miami and being on the court and actually having a practice,” Pierce said. “It’s been a good day thus far.”

For third-year wing Kevin Huerter, the Hawks finishing the first half of the season strong is important so they can set themselves up well for the second half, in which they’ll hopefully get some injured guys back.

There’s some good news on that front, as Bogdanovic has started practicing one-on-one with contact.

“Obviously mentally, going into that break and trying to put yourself in a good position for the second half of the year to really reach the goals that we set for ourselves for the beginning of the year,” Huerter said. “Obviously we know hopefully in the second half we get a little bit healthier and get some guys back so these last three games before we finish, we definitely want to come out strong.”