Hawks good so far but check back after this week

“No,” the Hawks coach said, smiling, “but I know it’s there.”

Marvin Williams didn’t, either.

“I haven’t,” Williams said, “but I’ve heard about it from one of the assistants.”

It’s here now: Monday night at Houston starts a demanding four-game stretch for the Hawks as they try to stay at the top of the Southeast Division and keep pace with the Eastern Conference elite. After facing the Rockets, the Hawks play at San Antonio on Wednesday, return home to face the Celtics on Friday and then play at Orlando on Saturday.

Houston is the kind of tough, high-effort team that can give the Hawks problems. The Spurs are 12-4 against East opponents despite an uneven season. And the Celtics recently got Kevin Garnett back from injury and surely will be geared up to beat the Hawks after losing the first three meetings.

So even though the Hawks were 27-14 in the first half of the season, their fortunes could change by the end of this week. Then again, after Hawks beat Charlotte by 14 points on Friday night to start the season’s second half, they will take on the next four games with their chests puffed out.

“It’s definitely a tough week,” Hawks guard Joe Johnson said. “But we know we are capable of winning every game. We’ve just got to bring our ‘A’ game every night and focus on what we’ve got to do and we’ll be all right.”

The Hawks now are 42 games into the season, but with the 4-1 homestand just completed and a challenging week ahead, now is a good time to assess them at midseason (plus one).

What went right

  • The standings are the bottom line and they say the Hawks are among the East elite. When the Hawks took the Southeast Division lead from Orlando after beating Phoenix on Jan. 15, it was the first time they led their division since April 28 of the lockout year of 1998-99.

The Hawks were a half-game ahead of Orlando after 41 games (the teams are tied now) and within a half-game of the Celtics for No. 2 in the East.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Woodson said. “I gauge everything based on the teams sitting at the top: Cleveland, Boston and Orlando. This year we have somewhat closed the distance.”

  • “The Difference” might be a bit too literal as nicknames go, but it’s easy to see how offseason acquisition Jamal Crawford has made the Hawks a better team. Crawford is second on the team in scoring and is playing more minutes than starters Marvin Williams and Mike Bibby. The Hawks are a deeper team than last season in large part because of Crawford’s offensive punch off the bench.
  • The Hawks are figuring out the Celtics. Though Boston was missing key players for the last two losses, it’s clear the Hawks were tired of Boston dominating the series -- the Celtics had won 11 of their previous 14 meetings -- and brought a little something extra to the meetings.

What went wrong

  • Woodson wasn’t ready to say those two victories against the Celtics in four days righted the ship after a four-game slide because the Hawks got blown out at Miami before that and at Orlando in between. Off-games happen. But the Hawks failed to compete against a team looking up at them in the East and then at their division rival. That’s not something that should happen to elite teams.
  • The Hawks haven’t been consistent starters or finishers and both trends have shown up lately. They seemed to lack focus and fire early against Miami, Washington and Oklahoma City. The Hawks also blew late leads to Cleveland, New York and Orlando and nearly let Charlotte creep back in what had been a runaway. The common thread was sluggish offense with little ball movement and poor shot selection.
  • After signing a five-year, $40-million contract, Marvin Williams’ production has declined. His points and rebounds are down and he’s the only Hawks starter with a negative plus-minus rating, according to stat Website 82games.com. While his length and athleticism make him a potentially great defender, opponents still too often push past him to get to the basket.

What we learned

  • The Hawks aren’t yet on Cleveland’s level. They were steamed about a shot-clock error in the loss at Cleveland Dec. 30 but they blew a 17-point lead before that. The night before, the Cavaliers beat the Hawks by shutting them down in the fourth quarter and quieting a record Philips Arena crowd.
  • The Hawks might be better than everyone else in the East. They’ve only had two losing streaks this year, two games in November and four games from Dec. 30 to Jan. 4. They’ve twice won six straight and are 18-5 at home.

If the Hawks ever figure out their meandering defensive focus and occasionally disjointed fourth-quarter offense, they could win the division and earn a No. 2 playoff seed. Now, though, they have to navigate the next four games against opponents that will recognize them as one of the top teams in the East.

“I like being at the top,” Hawks center Al Horford said. “It’s a good pressure. We’ve got to handle our business.”

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