Hawks still can surge to All-Star break, despite ‘ups and downs’

The Hawks blew a game at draft lottery-bound Cleveland on Tuesday before coming home Wednesday and blowing out playoff-contending Boston. The Hawks, especially Danilo Gallinari, seemingly made all their open shots, but it wasn’t a case of great shooting covering up ills. The Hawks simply dominated the Celtics, who had handled them in Boston six nights earlier.

“It’s big for all of our guys that we are capable of putting a performance like that together,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “How do we back it up is the question.”

We’ll get some answers before the NBA All-Star break. The Hawks (14-18) are scheduled to play four road games over the next six days. They start the trip Friday at Oklahoma City, which owns victories over Eastern Conference-powers Milwaukee and Brooklyn. The Hawks then play three games against teams that are bunched up with them near the middle of the East standings: two at Miami and one at Orlando.

If the Hawks win all those games, they’ll reach the break with an even record despite injuries to key players. Win half of the four, and it will be evidence that the Hawks can go on a run once they are healthy and their newer players are fully integrated. If the Hawks lose more than they win on the trip, then I’ll be back to wondering just how good they can be even when whole.

The loss at Cleveland raised some familiar doubts about the Hawks after they earned a good home victory over the Nuggets on Sunday. Their defensive miscues at winning time included allowing the Cavs an uncontested dunk for the deciding points. After the Hawks beat the Celtics, a questioner asked Gallinari what the victory means considering the bad losses the Hawks have suffered lately before retracting that phrasing.

“You can say ‘bad losses,’” Gallinari said, smiling. “I always said in the beginning when you have a new group there is always going to be ups and downs. ... The most important thing we haven’t been able to do night in and night out is to play 48 minutes.

“To win an NBA game is tough and to have a winning record in the NBA is tough. To do that you need to play for 48 minutes and not have any (letdown).”

The Hawks haven’t been good at that. The blown game at Cleveland came after the Hawks faded late in losses this month to the Lakers, Mavericks and Pacers. That’s four of their seven losses this season that came after holding a lead through three quarters. The Hawks also lost by 11 points at the Knicks last week after trailing by two with less than four minutes to play.

It’s possible those fourth-quarter troubles can be attributed to a relatively young team still figuring how to win. The five core Hawks players all are 23 or younger. One of them, second-year forward De’Andre Hunter, was on a star trajectory when he suffered a knee injury that’s kept him out since Feb. 1. And some veterans who can provide stability have spent a lot of time on the injured list.

Bogdan Bogdanovic (knee) has been out since Jan. 10. Kris Dunn (ankle surgery) has yet to play a game. Gallinari has moved slowly in the 18 games since recovering from an ankle injury. He said he only recently had his minutes restriction lifted.

“Hopefully, we get everybody back so we can approach the second part of the season with a full squad,” Gallinari said.

The Hawks will be a more talented team when that happens. Their best lineups include Hunter, and Bogdanovic’s savvy is needed for the second unit. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a better team when those players return. The Hawks need to be much better defensively late in games to win consistently. There’s no simple personnel fix for that.

The Hawks rank last in the league in fourth-quarter defensive efficiency. Hunter helps with that. The Hawks allowed about five points less per 100 possessions in the fourth quarters of games he’s played. But that just means they were merely bad instead of awful on defense late in games. That’s not good enough to consistently close out victories.

Capela does outstanding work protecting the basket behind his teammates. The Hawks need more from the defenders playing in front of him. After their loss at Boston last week, assistant coach Nate McMillan (subbing for Pierce) noted that the Hawks “never established that we could keep this team in front of us, which puts a lot of pressure on Clint at the basket.”

That’s been a theme for the Hawks late in games. Their conundrum is they don’t have many two-way players on the perimeter to close out games. The Hawks have to improve their team defense with scorers on the floor late in games.

Young is among the best scorers and playmakers in the league, but his defense suffers from a combination of size mismatches and his wavering intensity. Cam Reddish can defend but still can’t shoot (so many of his misses aren’t even close). Kevin Huerter can shoot but defends inconsistently. Rajon Rondo’s defense seems to depend on whether he’s in the mood for it.

Perhaps the best way for the Hawks to be better in the fourth quarter is to be so good on offense that they mitigate any lapse on defense. That’s Brooklyn’s formula. The Nets are near the top of the East despite being next-to-last in fourth-quarter defensive efficiency. Of course, the Nets can deploy three elite scorers and playmakers while the Hawks have one.

Hunter and Bogdanovic can give the Hawks more scoring punch without the defense suffering too much. Tony Snell’s shooting has made a difference since he’s joined the playing rotation. Gallinari’s ability to shoot over tight defense is a big advantage for the Hawks.

I believe Pierce and his players eventually will figure out how to be better late in games. If the Hawks get healthy, they’ll be among the four East teams to make the “play-in” format for the playoffs. I’ll feel better about that prediction if the Hawks have a strong finish to their pre-All-Star schedule.

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