Hawks are inviting the buzzards to gather

New York Knicks' Alec Burks (18) is fouled by Atlanta Hawks' Danilo Gallinari (8), of Italy, during the second quarter Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
New York Knicks' Alec Burks (18) is fouled by Atlanta Hawks' Danilo Gallinari (8), of Italy, during the second quarter Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Credit: Jason DeCrow

Credit: Jason DeCrow

Following Monday night’s 11-point loss to the New York Knicks, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said his team was “a step closer.” But a step closer to what, exactly?

To a solution to its fourth-quarter disconnect, to being so reliably unreliable down the stretch?

To some miracle that overnight will cause the halt and lame on this roster to rise as one from their socially distanced seats and take triumphantly to the court, hallelujah.

To the cliff’s edge?

There comes a point in all seasons like this when the observer must make the choice between being a believer or a buzzard. So help me, I don’t want to shift into circling buzzard mode at this point, still nine games shy of a shortened season’s midpoint. Going full scavenger is such a bleak choice and not one I can face now. It is one with which we’ve all grown too familiar and should put off for just as long as possible.

The Hawks are providing fewer and fewer reasons to keep the faith. It is so tempting to find a thermal to ride and wait and watch for the next tough loss, the next coaching move to quibble over, the next smudge on the blueprint to build this team up to playoff worthiness.

What’s so badly needed here is for somebody, anybody, in Hawks clothing to make one decisive, dramatic end-of-game shot, just to clear the air. Call it a buzzard beater, if you will.

Monday night in New York was particularly tough, the 123-112 loss dragging the Hawks to five games under .500 and a tie for 10th in the NBA Eastern Conference. That’s four losses in a row, and seven out of their past eight. They have lost twice to the Knicks in two meetings this season. Didn’t we understand them to be the standing NBA punchline? When did they start experimenting with competence?

On Monday, New York had Julius Randle going for 44, including a rainbow, pool-hall trick shot of a jumper while falling away along the baseline. That was just showing off. Also, the most dynamic young guard on the floor that one night was the Knicks’ Immanuel Quickley, not Trae Young. Both Young and John Collins were strangely mute on the court in the final quarter, neither scoring, going but a combined 0-for-5 from the floor. The biggest guns went unfired.

The Hawks are looking at nine games in 15 days before the league takes a break for whatever the All-Star experience will be and configures the rest of the schedule. We have to hold out at least that long before picking over any bones, don’t we? Yes, that’s the plan.

Alas, De’Andre Hunter, out after having some knee repair, will not be walking through that door by then. The fact that the Hawks are thus far 2-7 in his absence speaks both to Hunter’s defensive importance and overall splendid development as well as to the Hawks’ still-brittle makeup. While Hunter is a most useful player, if walls are falling in his absence, then there must be other construction issues.

All those moves made by GM Travis Schlenk that seemed so shrewd in November seem so inconsequential in February. Relied upon to give just the kind of offensive goose needed by a team that can’t finish, Bogdan Bogdanovic is dealing with his own knee issues. Danilo Gallinari has scored only 15 points in back-to-back games for the first time this season, and more is required. Rajon Rondo has appeared in 14 of the Hawks’ 27 games, although more evidence of that beyond official NBA stats would be nice. Guard Kris Dunn was signed hurt, and hurt he remains.

This leaves the Hawks in the bravely-carry-on setting, where they might expect to struggle, but not struggle this mightily.

“We will miss Dre when he’s not on the floor,” Pierce said. “As we miss Rajon and his leadership when he’s not out on the floor and (Bogdanovic) and his shooting and leadership when he’s not on the floor. We’re just asking other guys to fill those roles in their capacity and play to the best of it.”

“You try not to think about it, you have the next-man-up mentality,” Collins said Monday night. “You want to have a full team. You want to experience your team fully healthy. You want to see what the chemistry can be. Everybody wants to see what our true potential is with everyone healthy.” Such an idyllic scenario continues to tease and elude.

The symptoms of a team that you could easily lose faith in are there. The Hawks are 0-7 in games decided by six points or less. They rank last in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring margin (minus-2.2), 20th in fourth-quarter scoring and 28th in fourth-quarter points allowed. Those are the kind of numbers to make a fan assume the fetal position when it’s all late and losable.

Belief can’t flourish when those are the trends, only buzzards can.

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