It was a good day to be an Atlanta sports fan Thursday. The Hawks were off, the Braves were off and Liberty Media’s Braves stock dropped only 23 cents, which isn’t bad for the Hector Olivera of the New York Stock Exchange (overall down from $36 to $15.80 per share).
But while the Braves’ weaselly executives ponder what to do about manager Fredi Gonzalez with five months left in the season, the Hawks have more immediate concerns. They still have to play the Cleveland Cavaliers at least two more times, Friday and Sunday. Two more losses, and they’re done in the second round of the playoffs — or out of their misery, depending on your perspective.
“We watched parts of the tape,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said Thursday when asked if he dared to push “play” and review the 123-98 loss to the Cavaliers in Game 2. “To watch all of it was not needed.”
Cleveland had 74 points by halftime, 106 after three quarters and finished the game with 25 3-pointers. You would have thought the Hawks had blown the dust off of an old Washington Generals’ script (millenials: Google).
Newsflash: The Hawks are not going to win this series. The only question is whether they can win a game. They have lost nine consecutive to the Cavaliers dating to a sweep in the Eastern Conference finals last season. If it’s all about winning championships, the Hawks aren’t close because they can’t get past Cleveland. They’re not even a threat. There’s only one LeBron James, but the lopsidedness of the head-to-head series also speaks to the limitations of the Hawks’ core.
At the outset of the playoffs, I wrote about potential core-changing decisions the team faces after this season, including whether to re-sign impending free agents Al Horford and Jeff Teague. This is going over old ground, but the Hawks aren’t physical enough and remain undersized.
Horford isn’t ever going to be a bruising player, but he’s certainly capable of having a greater presence in the paint than we’ve seen. I’m not pinning the 0-2 start on him, but he hasn’t looked good in the playoffs, and too often he has played soft, and out on the perimeter.
Charles Barkley, the TNT analyst, might occasionally lapse into cartoon-speak. But even in overstatement, he made a valid point when he said during the “Inside the NBA” studio show, “You’ve got to take somebody out … when a team is just embarrassing you, shooting 3’s when the game is way over, just trying to set a record. If you keep shooting 3’s, I’ve got to take you down one time really hard. Come on, man. Whether America agrees with that or not, I don’t care.”
Budenholzer declined to respond. But he didn’t completely dismiss suggestions that his team needed to be more physical.
“I don’t think that’s why we’re not having success,” he said. “Having said that, I think the more aggressive team is usually the team that has the more success. The team that’s in attack mode at both ends of the court is the one that has the most success, and there’s a degree of physicality that’s involved in that.”
The Hawks pride themselves on defense. So you can imagine how humiliated they were watching Cleveland drain 3’s all night, and continue firing them up when the outcome was long out of reach. The Cavaliers claimed they were merely pursuing an NBA record (mission accomplished). But Paul Millsap apparently was among the Hawks players who weren’t thrilled. He was quoted by Cleveland.com as saying, “It’s a certain way of being a professional. I’m not mad about it, but just being professionals man. If that’s how you want to approach it, that’s how you approach it. I think our team and our organization has class, and I don’t think we would have continued to do that, but other organizations do other things. …”
It was a subplot to a massacre. But Budenholzer said he is “more focused on what we’re doing.” He alluded to his players’ pride and character, as is his norm. But if the Hawks’ don’t show themselves to be anything more than a doormat for the Cavaliers to wipe their feet on, they’ll be making no case to keep this core together.
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