Red-hot Hawks say there is still room for improvement

The Hawks appear to be peaking at the right time.

The NBA postseason is three weeks away and the Hawks are playing their best basketball. They have won three straight, eight of nine and 11 of 13 games. That’s just two losses since March 2, a day after an overtime loss at the Warriors.

“I think we are playing our best basketball right now,” Kyle Korver said Saturday night after a 112-95 win at the Pistons. “You look at a period of games, 10 games, 15 games, I think you can get a good grasp of where we are at as a team. The last 15 games has probably been our best stretch of the season.”

And yet, Hawks players said, there is plenty of room for improvement.

“We can keep playing better,” Jeff Teague said. “We aren’t really making shots, me myself I’ve missed a lot of open ones. But if we start making shots and continue to play defense like we have, the sky’s the limit.”

The defense has been solid for much of the season. It’s the offense that has lagged. While the Hawks think the scoring can be better, it’s hard to argue with recent results. They have scored over 100 points in a season-high eight straight games. In five of those game, the Hawks have scored at least 112 points.

The Hawks are 11-3 in the month of March. The win total and percentage (.786) are highs for any month this season. There are two games remaining in the month as they conclude a three-game road trip against the Bulls Monday and Raptors Wednesday. The Cavaliers are next when they return home on Friday.

The Hawks are nearly assured a playoff berth, their Eastern Conference leading ninth straight trip, with eight games remaining in the regular season. Their magic number sits at two going into Monday’s game at the Bulls and they could clinch a spot with a victory. Making the playoffs isn’t concern. The level of play headed into the postseason is what matters.

“I think that’s going to happen either way,” Korver said when asked of the possibility of clinching Monday. “We feel pretty confident about that. We are going to be a playoff team. It’s just where we are going to be. When it’s all said and down, no matter what the standings say, we want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. It feels like we are headed in that direction.”

Despite their winning ways, the Hawks have not been able to separate from a crowded middle of the pack in the East. They are fourth with a 44-30 record, a season-best 14 games over .500. Still, the Celtics are a half-game behind, the Heat are a game behind and the Hornets are 1-1/2 games behind. The Pacers and Pistons are not far behind and the Bulls are on the outside looking in.

The Hawks have the second toughest remaining strength of schedule of the 13 teams not eliminated in the conference at .586. Only the eighth-place Pistons have a tougher remaining schedule at .597. The NBA calculates strength of schedule as the remaining opponents’ winning percentage on the road or at home and whether or not either team is on the second night of a back to back. The Hawks have two games remaining with the Cavaliers and Raptors, first and second respectively in the conference, and one with the Celtics as part of their finish.

“Honestly, I thought that was a very good team that is really hittting their stride,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said after his team’s loss Saturday.

The Hawks’ schedule during their recent run of success was not easy either. Still, they handled business in an encouraging way.

“There is always room to go a little further,” Bazemore said. “The biggest thing is guys are laying it on the line. Everybody is out there playing hard. No one is taking plays off. Coach is doing a good job with the lineups, getting guys in and out. He’s just letting us play. We go over stuff before the game, our priorities and principles, and then we just get after it defensively and that turns into transition points and a lot of guys having good nights.”

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