They play hard. Sometimes.
They defend. Sometimes.
They make smart decisions, move the ball, make clean passes and don’t settle for lazy jumpers. Sometimes.
After inspiring the masses a year ago with uncommon focus, work ethic and resolve, the Hawks look hopelessly common again. They are Team Sometimes.
It may not always look as ugly as it did in their post All-Star break return Friday night, a home loss to a Miami Heat team that dressed only nine players and was missing three regulars, including Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But their periods of malaise and indifference makes them appear as if they’ve contracted some strain of a lingering Joe Johnson-virus that they can’t shake.
Forget that the Hawks won’t win 60 games again. It doesn’t matter. Regular-season records dictate only playoff seeding, not playoff results. The question over the final two dozen games is whether players will stop looking at each other, waiting for someone to take charge.
Cruise control doesn’t work in a competitive environment, particularly in this time of an NBA season. And if committing 21 turnovers and allowing the remnants of the Heat to shoot 50 percent and the vagabond Josh McRoberts to go for 19 points, six rebounds and 10 assists doesn’t scream, “Wake up, Sparky,” nothing does.
The Hawks were 31-2 in December and January last season. They went from great to very good to just surviving from there, reaching the Eastern Conference finals before getting waxed by Cleveland. If the playoffs opened today, they might get waxed in the first round by Miami (with Wade and Bosh).
Can they can begin ascending now and peak in the postseason? Or is that pure fantasy?
“It’s been an up-and-down season, but we can still turn it on,” forward Paul Millsap said. “The pressure — we have to let that go. We’re all just waiting for the light switch to go on, and that’s definitely not the way to approach it.”
Echoes from Kyle Korver: “We’re thinking, ‘We’re going to get on a roll.’ Everybody has just sort of expected it’s going to happen, and it hasn’t. There has to be a greater sense of urgency. I’m not doom and gloom here by any means. I still believe in our team. But we have to be a little more solid and we have to play with more fire.”
Three things stand out about this year’s Hawks:
• They miss DeMarre Carroll. Players and the front office will dispute this, saying this is a more talented team. But it’s not about talent or statistics. These Hawks are devoid of Carroll’s dive-on-the-floor-for-every-loose-ball mentality. They couldn’t realistically keep both Millsap and Carroll in free agency, but they haven’t sufficiently replaced the intangibles Carroll brought to the court and the locker room. That’s on coach Mike Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox.
• They’ve gotten lazy and soft at both ends of the court. Korver acknowledged, “We’ve got to be more physical.” Consistent defensive effort in particular isn’t there, certainly not up to the level it needs to be for the playoffs.
• Budenholzer often says, “I believe in the character of our group.” But he needs to find a new button to push. He took over for Danny Ferry as the team’s final decision-maker. I liked the move at the deadline for Kirk Hinrich, a veteran guard who can play physical, still shoot a little and maybe provide the Hawks with an element of toughness they need, even if from the backcourt. But ultimately success down the stretch and in the playoffs will be up to Budenholzer getting his players’ attention. With few exceptions, NBA coaches tend to have a short lifespan. Budenholzer did amazing things in his first two seasons, but this team has underachieved.
Budenholzer opted not to change the core of this team at the trade deadline. He shouldn’t have been expected to. They deserved a shot to get it together. But overall results are making him look bad.
Korver is among those in the locker room who believe, “We’re more talented,” than last season.
“People can argue that, but we’re a better team,” he said. “I believe that. But we have to go out there and not just expect it to happen.”
They’re running out of time.