One year later, the so-so Hawks met a sobering end

So maybe we – and by “we,” I mean “me” – got carried away by the doings of the 2021 playoffs. The 41-win Hawks played above their station, upsetting the fourth-seeded Knicks and the top-seeded 76ers. Those Hawks came within two games of the NBA Finals. Those Hawks went from a deep rebuild to being all but rebuilt, or so we/I thought.

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The Hawks followed that breakthrough by backsliding. They won 43 regular-season games, a slight improvement that never felt that way. They landed in the NBA’s play-in tournament. As quickly as they played themselves in, they dealt themselves out. Through four games against Miami, the East’s No. 1 seed, they had done the minimum to stay alive: They won one game by one point.

Three hours before Tuesday’s Game 5, it was announced that Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s best player, was out with a sore knee. Point guard Kyle Lowry, who missed Game 4 with a tender hamstring, likewise was a non-participant. For a minute or two, we – again meaning “me” – thought: If the Hawks win Game 5, they would have Game 6 at home, and who’s to say if Butler/Lowry would be available for a Game 7?

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The Hawks led Game 5 three minutes before halftime. They trailed by 12 at the break. Max Strus, who began his NBA career as an undrafted free agent, scored 10 points on four possessions. Victor Oladipo, a former All-Star who has worked 60 games over the past three regular seasons, scored 10 in the second half. There would be no Game 6, let alone a Game 7.

This was reminiscent of those playoff wipeouts the Hawks suffered against Cleveland in 2009 and 2016 and Orlando in 2010, though those came in Round 2. In this Round 1, they were outscored by 60 points over five games. The Heat led by at least 16 points in every game; the Hawks managed a double-figure lead only in the game they won.

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At issue now: Which are the real Hawks – the team that won 10 playoff games in 2021 or the team that won once in its only playoff series of 2022? A year ago, Trae Young seemed capable of anything; in this series, he averaged 15.4 points on 31.4% shooting. He made eight more turnovers than hoops. The Hawks were outscored by 58 points with their All-Star on the court.

Granted, the Hawks weren’t at full health. When they played, Clint Capela and John Collins played hurt. Bogdan Bogdanovic, a major factor in last season’s run, missed Game 5. But when you lose an elimination game to a Butler-less Heat, you can’t have many complaints. The story of this series was that Miami guarded the Hawks, who topped 100 points only in Games 2 and 3. They averaged 113.9 over the regular season.

The Hawks finished 26th in defensive efficiency. They’d been 27th in their first two seasons under Lloyd Pierce, which was why he didn’t make it through Year 3. When Nate McMillan took over, he persuaded the Hawks – “persuaded” might be too gentle a word – to get serious about guarding. They were less serious this season. To borrow Tubby Smith’s description of a team that doesn’t defend, they’re eager to get to the other end.

We can see why. When not facing a team like Miami, the Hawks can really score. They were second – one spot ahead of 64-win Phoenix – in offensive efficiency. But Young is listed at 6-foot-1, 164 pounds. As much as he gives the Hawks at the other end, he’ll never be Dennis Johnson.

Heading into this season, the Hawks appeared to have built well around Young. Subsequent events – as of March 31, they were sub-.500 – have revealed that their inability to pressure the ball renders every game problematic. For the Hawks to win, they’ll have to prevail in a shootout. An opponent capable of pressuring Young can lessen the Hawks’ capacity to score. Ergo, fewer shootouts.

Counting play-ins and playoffs, the Hawks were 1-17 in games when they didn’t break 100 points. The best teams have multiple ways to win. The Hawks have one way. Maybe we should have seen it a year ago, when they were 0-3 in playoff games when they didn’t hit triple figures, but we see it now.

Those Hawks surprised us. These Hawks surprised us by not being last year’s Hawks.