‘Confident’ Hawks looking like last year’s contenders

Hawks center Clint Capela reacts after dunking the ball against the Hornets on Wednesday night. Capela and his teammates will try to earn the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a win Friday at Cleveland. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Hawks center Clint Capela reacts after dunking the ball against the Hornets on Wednesday night. Capela and his teammates will try to earn the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a win Friday at Cleveland. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

It was only one game against an overmatched opponent. The Hawks aren’t always going to shoot the ball like that. They were playing at home. Let’s not get carried away.

But, man, did you see what the Hawks did to the Hornets on Wednesday night? They hardly looked like a No. 9 seed just trying to get into the playoffs. I’m sure I’m not the only one tired of hearing about last year, but there’s no way around it after that performance.

The Hawks opened their 2022 postseason looking like the intense and determined team that made it to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals. They’ll have to win again at Cleveland on Friday to earn the East’s No. 8 seed and a first-round series against top-seeded Miami. It’s a road game against a gritty opponent instead of a home game against a squad that prefers to run and shoot.

“It’s going to be tight; it’s going to be loud,” Hawks center Clint Capela said.

I still have some questions about how the Hawks would respond in a hotly contested elimination game on the road. I have fewer of them after the 132-103 victory over the Hornets. The Hawks are on the come.

The Hornets tried to make Hawks star Trae Young a nonfactor by forcing him to give up the ball. Young thwarted their plans with a masterful floor game, and his teammates converted most of their scoring chances. The Hornets wanted to run at every opportunity. The Hawks didn’t give them many chances because they took care of the ball and ran back to recover before the Hornets could attack.

Again, it’s only one game. This season the Hawks have made a habit of following good victories with clunkers — the tanking Pistons blew them out only three weeks ago. But, apparently, I’m not the only one who saw the Hawks dismantle the Hornets and thinks they have something going.

Bookmakers had the Cavs favored by 1 ½ points when they opened the point spread. About an hour later, the Hawks were two-point favorites. By Thursday afternoon, the line was Hawks plus-2 ½. The Hawks are favored to win on the road against a higher-seeded opponent. That’s also reminiscent of last year’s playoffs.

The Hawks were the lower seed in the 2021 first round against the Knicks but were slightly favored to win the series. They won at Madison Square Garden in Game 1 and again in Game 6 to finish the best-of-seven series. The Hawks won at Philadelphia in Game 1 of the semifinals and again in Game 7. The Hawks won Game 1 at Milwaukee in the conference finals before succumbing in six games.

If the Hawks really have rediscovered their 2021 postseason form, then expect them to win at Cleveland and then give Miami trouble in the playoffs.

“We are definitely confident right now,” Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter said. “We also have a lot more work to do, so we are not satisfied yet.”

The Cavs are a tough out. They don’t give in. They lost standout point guard (and Marietta native) Collin Sexton to a season-ending knee injury in November. All-Star center Jarrett Allen (finger) missed the final 18 games of the season. The Cavs wobbled late in the season, but still managed to secure the East’s No. 8 seed and get two shots at making the playoffs.

The Cavs opened the play-in at the Nets on Tuesday. Brooklyn had them down by 20 points after one quarter. The Cavs made a game of it in the second half. They got the margin to six points five times in the fourth quarter before Brooklyn secured the victory with free throws in the final minute.

“It took us to get banged up a little bit before we flipped the switch,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters. “That’s part of our learning process is understanding these moments and finding your composure and your poise.”

Tough-minded opponents can give the Hawks fits even if they don’t have as much talent. Too many times this season the Hawks built big leads in the first half, only to quickly squander it when their foe comes out of the locker room with more spirited play. I half-expected that to happen again Wednesday after the Hawks led by eight points at halftime.

Instead, the Hawks buried the Hornets with 12 minutes of sharp passing, accurate shooting and engaged defense.

“Whenever we get the lead, sometimes we start being passive,” Capela said. “We’ve got to sustain that lead, not get too excited, make sure we take control of the game. We did a good job of it (Wednesday). Especially on the road, we’ve got to make sure we keep our composure defensively.”

The Cavaliers didn’t have all their starters healthy for any of the four regular-season games against the Hawks. That could be the case again Friday. Allen is questionable to play because of a fractured middle finger on his left (off) hand. He didn’t play against the Nets.

Cleveland’s defense has suffered without Allen as the anchor. The Cavs had the fifth-best efficiency in the NBA before Allen’s injury. They slipped to 22nd in the 18 games without him. Rookie Evan Mobley is a good backup but doesn’t have the same defensive impact as Allen, who also is the team’s second-leading scorer. Lauri Markannen and Kevin Love aren’t bangers, so Bickerstaff can’t deploy his favored big lineup if Allen is out.

Capela could take advantage of Cleveland’s thin frontcourt. He was slowed by nagging injuries for much of the season but seems to be rounding into form. Capela did everything against Charlotte: 15 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals. The Hornets got to the rim, but Capela made it hard for them to finish.

That was one of many signs that these Hawks are looking like last year’s Hawks. It was one game, but I expect to see a similar effort by the Hawks on Friday in Cleveland before they move on to Miami.