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.