The Hawks open the playoffs facing two elimination games

Hawks guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot reacts after scoring during the second half earlier this month against the Nets in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

Credit: AP

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Hawks guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot reacts after scoring during the second half earlier this month against the Nets in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

Credit: AP

The best thing about an NBA regular season is that it ends. This one ended with the Hawks, who were two games from the 2021 NBA Finals, slipping into the play-in tournament. Everyone hates the regular season because it means nothing. Everyone hates the play-in because it’s a blatant attempt to energize an audience numbed by five months of load management.

ExploreHawks enter play-in tournament as No. 9 seed

The Hawks’ regular season was underwhelming. They did as much as was needed to qualify for the play-in and no more. They went 43-39 – a winning percentage of .524. Last season’s was .569. This team had the 16th-best record among 30 NBA clubs. The biggest move made over 82 games was to dump Cam Reddish, who’s a talent but not quite a player. (Check his subsequent Knicks stats.)

If the newish play-in didn’t exist, the Hawks wouldn’t still be playing. Its creation rendered two-thirds of the NBA playoff-eligible. You’d have to be ragingly mediocre not to qualify for this expanded postseason. For much of the season, the Hawks weren’t far from that. Not until March 28 did they nose above .500 to stay.

It wasn’t that they couldn’t score – they finished second to Utah in offensive efficiency. It was, yet again, that they couldn’t defend. They rank 26th in defensive efficiency. That offense gives them a fighting chance in any tournament. That defense, or the lack thereof, is the reason they could be one-game-and-done.

In their first postseason run since GM Travis Schlenk arrived from Golden State and began tanking in earnest, last season’s Hawks gave every impression of a finely functioning unit. They upset the Knicks in five games. They faced down top-seeded Philadelphia in a Game 7 on the road. They won Game 4 against Milwaukee without Trae Young, tying the Eastern finals at 2. Since moving to Atlanta in 1967, this club had never been so close to an NBA title.

ExploreHistoric regular season for Trae Young

That they dropped Games 5 and 6 only whetted the market’s appetite for more and better. This regular season didn’t satisfy that craving, not that regular seasons do. As the playoffs commence, we’re not sure what to make of the Hawks. Are they still the team of June 2021? If not, why not? Aren’t good young teams supposed to get better with time?

Young is great. Clint Capela hasn’t been quite as good this time around. Due to injuries, John Collins hasn’t played in a month. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, working for his fifth team over six seasons, has become a starter. This remains a deep and skilled roster, but these Hawks have seldom appeared as irresistible as they did over those giddy weeks last summer.

It’s possible the Hawks treated the past 82 games the way demonstrably good NBA teams do – with measured disdain. You can’t win anything of consequence until the playoffs start. Once they do, nobody cares how good you were or weren’t over the first 82. The Hawks were in no peril of falling off the expanded playoff grid. The final spread between them and the East’s top non-qualifier was six games.

For anything good to happen, they must beat Charlotte here Wednesday. They should. Their next assignment will be a road date with the loser of the Nets-Cavaliers 7-vs.-8 game. The Hawks would rather not play Brooklyn in Brooklyn, though they just beat the Nets on a night Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined for 86 points. (The Nets have issues of their own, not least being the one that perplexed Philly last June: What to do with Ben Simmons?)

Win two play-in games and the Hawks will face Miami, the East’s No. 1 seed. The Heat won 53 games. Since 2003, no top seed in this conference has had a worse record over 82 games. There’s no club on this side of the bracket that looks anywhere close to invincible.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Hawks

The Hawks were 1-3 against Miami in the regular season, which matters not one whit, which itself is a major issue. Commissioner Adam Silver admits his greatest concern is “a trend of star players not participating in a full complement of games.” Giannis Antetokounmpo missed 15 games. Joel Embiid missed 14. Luka Doncic missed 17. Stephen Curry missed 18. Durant missed 27. LeBron James missed 26. (To his credit, Young missed only six.)

Playoff seeding has become a point of non-emphasis. So long as you get in, you’ve got a shot. The Hawks are in. The guess is that they won’t be out soon. It’s only a guess, though.