Why the Hawks are the team to beat in the East

Today’s submission was intended to be a nuanced assessment of the Eastern Conference playoff grid. But such was the oomph with which the Hawks dispatched Cleveland on Friday that we can skip the nuance and jump to the conclusion.

The Hawks will win the East and play for the NBA title.

Even as the local five has lapped the conference field — the Hawks led second-place Chicago by 11 games as of Saturday morning — we’ve kept hearing that they’re only keeping the seat warm for somebody else. The Bulls will get healthy and win the East. LeBron will get serious and his team will win the East. The ’65 Celtics will reunite and win the East. It has become comical, this Anybody-But-The-Hawks blather, and here’s where we say, “Enough.”

The Hawks are the best team in the East, and it’s not even close. To suggest that anyone else should enter the postseason as the favorite in this half of the bracket is to ignore a regular season that has only 20 games to run. As of Saturday, they were 49-12, having gone 42-6 since Thanksgiving. They haven’t caught lightning in a bottle. They have become lightning itself.

Nobody who follows basketball closely could fail to note the difference Friday between the Hawks and the Cavs. The former did what it always does and, as ever, did it well. The Cavs, whom overmatched coach David Blatt described before the game as having learned how they want to play, played as if they had no idea. The Hawks laid some defense on them — for all the talk about the Hawks’ offense, their defense has become top-shelf — and the NBA’s latest Dream Team spit the bit.

LeBron James scored 18 points, but made nine turnovers and seemed content to let his mates do the heavy lifting. This produced the incongruous sight of Kevin Love, a 6-foot-10 power forward, taking 11 shots — 10 of which were 3-pointers. Even Josh Smith at his most petulant never had a night like that.

Entering the game, much was made of the Cavs’ new-ish inside tandem of Love and 7-1 center Timofey Mozgov and its ability to give Al Horford and Paul Millsap a rough go underneath. What became apparent after 30 seconds was that Mozgov can’t move and Love can’t guard. Mozgov played 21 minutes and had six points (one basket) and three rebounds. Love played 35 minutes and scored 14 points, 12 on treys.

As for Horford and Millsap: They had 35 points and 17 rebounds between them. As fashionable as it has become to suggest that size will trouble the Hawks, not many teams — Memphis is one, and maybe Chicago — have the sort of skilled size that’s apt to register. Horford and Millsap are smart and quick and resourceful, as opposed to just big, and they aren’t All-Stars for nothing.

The Hawks were built with a clear design. The Cavs were thrown together without knowing whether the pieces would fit. When Cleveland, which already had Kyrie Irving, signed James and traded for Love, the knee-jerk response was that a newer and better Big Three had been constructed. Such an appraisal was too optimistic. The triumvirate formed in Miami included Dwyane Wade, who’d been MVP of the 2006 NBA finals. Neither Love nor Irving has played in a postseason game.

The Hawks, by way of contrast, nearly upset No. 1-seed Indiana last season without Horford. They’d had a year to acclimate themselves in the joys of Pace and Space, and Horford’s return made everyone better on defense. The flowering of Dennis Schroder and the bargain additions of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha have energized the second unit, and the result is as complete a team as there is in the East and maybe the whole wide NBA.

That part — the team thing — isn’t going away just because the playoffs, as we’re often reminded, are different. They’re not that different. They still involve playing basketball, and the Hawks play better basketball than any other Eastern team, and not just better by a bit — better by far. To pick against the Hawks now would require a leap of logic that’s frankly illogical.

It’s possible that the Cavs could Figure Things Out over the next 20 games. It’s possible that the Bulls could get healthy and begin to play in a way they haven’t yet even with all hands on decks. It’s possible that Toronto, the one team that has beaten the Hawks more than once, could force an extended series on grit and guile. But it’s more likely that the Cavs will remain addled and the Bulls won’t find their feet and the Raptors, who’ve lost seven of eight, will lose to somebody else in Round 1.

If you’re still picking against the Hawks, you’re doing it for no good reason. They’ve lost six games since Thanksgiving. Do you really see them losing four times in the span of seven games while holding the home-court advantage? If you do, you’re seeing something that isn’t there. This is the team to beat in the East, and maybe not just in the East.