The meeting came on the heels of an odd sequence of events for the Hawks. They followed two of their best wins of the season, their first time winning both games of a back-to-back, with one of their worst losses in a listless 39-point blowout at home to the short-handed Grizzlies.
The Hawks have yet to win three games in a row this season. With their youth, injuries, John Collins’ 25-game suspension and a lack of production from veterans such as former players Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Chandler Parsons, they haven’t found consistency or achieved much success. They’ve been one of the worst teams in the NBA on defense (114.2 defensive rating, ranked 28th in the league as of Friday).
But Pierce believes in the Hawks’ young core (Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Collins), all of whom will be back next season, and the team seemingly will receive a boost from the addition of center Clint Capela.
“We’re going to level up,” Pierce said. “This team is a playoff team, and I told our guys (Wednesday). We’re a playoff team. The guys in that room that will be back here understand that. Now it’s about understanding what that means. We know it.”
It's a sharp change from comments Pierce made at Media Day before this season began: "'Expectation' is a word that won't come out of my mouth. This is a low-pressure environment that our players will have."
The Hawks hoped to take a step forward this season, with owner Tony Ressler saying in December that winning more games than last season (29-53), in addition to the young players continuing to develop, would define a successful season in his eyes. At 19-44 with 19 games to go, that improved record seems highly unlikely, although their 11-12 record the past 23 games is an improvement over their 8-32 record through their first 40.
Fortunately, though, the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference, which allows for much more upward mobility than the Western Conference.
Of 15 teams in each conference, the top eight qualify for the postseason. As of Friday, the Orlando Magic (27-35) are in that eighth spot, with only a marginally better record than the Hawks, who are 14th.
“If you just look at the East and the standings and you look at the teams, I feel like we’re not that far away. … If you look at the West, it’s a totally different race,” Collins said. “So I feel like even if we were to make a run at the end of the year, a huge run, and we were to be in contention, we would still be right there.”
For Pierce, it’s a matter of starting those winning habits sooner rather than later, whether it’s improved ball movement (the Hawks had just 20 assists in the loss to Memphis, compared with 17 turnovers), holding each other accountable more or just overall playing with more intensity. Even if their season ends in mid-April this time.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t start really processing, what does it take for us to become a playoff team?” Pierce said. “We have to be grittier, we have to be more about team, we have to be more about the commitment to making each other better. We have a ton of talent in that room.”
The team was receptive to Pierce’s message, with Huerter calling the brutal loss to Memphis a “teaching moment.”
“We all have aspirations to not have another season like this again next year, and we’ve got to figure out a way to win games when we’re not playing our best,” Huerter said. “We didn’t play our best against Memphis, but you can’t lose by 30 at home. It’s a lot of the little things. It’s coming together, it’s being on guys more, not being afraid to get in confrontations with teammates and holding each other accountable and playing a little bit harder.”
Capela, who is out with an injury but made five consecutive trips to the postseason while with the Rockets, shared his thoughts with the team Wednesday.
Skill and talent is nice, but in the playoffs, it’s the intangibles that matter more.
“I added how important it was to be consistent, to compete,” Capela said. “We have a tremendous talented and skilled team, but now our goal is to, of course, next year go to playoffs. We’re going to have to compete more, have that mindset on being more consistent.”