Hawks headed back to NBA playoffs, where they’ll be a tough out

The Bucks didn’t expose the Hawks as pretenders Thursday at State Farm Arena. The visitors didn’t get the home team’s best shot. The Hawks were down two starters and three other rotation players. And Trae Young looked rusty after missing the previous two games with a calf injury.

Still, Milwaukee did show the difference between the Hawks and a team with “championship visions,” as Hawks forward Solomon Hill put it. The Bucks were one spot ahead of the Hawks in the Eastern Conference. Their commanding 120-109 victory came with two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo limited to 25 minutes in his return from a knee injury. Even when healthy, the Hawks aren’t on Milwaukee’s level.

I don’t say that to dismiss the Hawks. It’s remarkable that they are even in position to have their playoff mettle scrutinized. They still have work to do over their final 16 games. The Hawks entered the weekend closer to 11th than first in the East. The teams that finish 7-10 will participate in the play-in tournament for playoff spots.

But the Hawks have shown enough to conclude that they won’t collapse over the final month. It’s no reach to predict the Hawks will be a problem for any team except the East’s top three of Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Brooklyn. That’s a great development for the Hawks (30-26).

Remember, they didn’t win more than 29 games in any of the past three seasons. They were supposed to be better this season after adding good, veteran players. But I’d say they’ve beaten expectations given the circumstances. The Hawks have made hay against the softer part of their schedule, but so what? It’s hard to win in the NBA.

The Hawks have done it despite significant injuries. When general manager Travis Schlenk fired Lloyd Pierce despite the depleted roster, I opined that Schlenk was under pressure to show that he built a roster that’s good enough. He’s done that. Credit Schlenk for making good moves to improve the team’s depth.

Interim coach Nate McMillan has gotten more out of the Hawks since replacing Pierce on March 2 (the schedule’s pace makes it seem much longer ago). The Hawks have built chemistry on the fly because COVID-19 restrictions make that process harder. They’ve kept winning. Now I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll do in the playoffs.

It’s been four years since they made it. I miss big-time NBA basketball in these parts. Also, that 2016-17 Hawks team wasn’t as fun because players from the 2014-15 East finalist had started to scatter. This Hawks team figures to be competitive and exciting in the postseason.

Opponents will focus most of their attention on stopping Young, who makes the Hawks go. He’s adjusted to double teams by “bending” the defense and creating space for his teammates to attack. A consistent floater is the only missing piece from Young’s offensive game. It’s important that he find it before the playoffs, when shots at the rim aren’t easily available for players with limited size and athletic ability.

Hawks center Clint Capela is the defensive backbone. He’s the difference between the Hawks being OK and terrible at that end. Capela’s amazing second-jump quickness makes it hard for foes to keep him off the boards. Count the duo of Capela and power forward John Collins as potential advantages for the Hawks in the postseason.

Hawks playoff opponents will have a hard time slowing those three players while also controlling the rest of the roster. The Hawks have a solid collection of complementary players. There are enough of them to believe one or two will have big games in the playoffs to offset off nights from Young.

Danilo Gallinari, like Collins, is a floor-stretching big man. Tony Snell is a good shooter who’s having a career season with 3-point accuracy. Forward De’Andre Hunter was emerging as a good two-way player when he got hurt. Bogdan Bogdanovic got healthy and now is on a tear. Lou Williams has provided scoring punch off the bench since arriving via trade at the start of the month.

That’s eight quality players for McMillan to deploy in the playoffs. There’s also Solomon Hill, whose competent play saved the Hawks as the injuries piled up. There might also be Kris Dunn, who has yet to play for the Hawks because of injury. Getting him back would be a big boost for the Hawks because good wing defenders are especially valuable in the playoffs.

McMillan has options when his roster is healthy. He’s coached nine teams in the playoffs with three different franchises. Only one of those teams, the 2005 Sonics, made it out of the first round. But nearly all of McMillan’s series losses were against teams with legendary players: Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James.

The Hawks are 16-6 with McMillan as coach. They’ve held their own against the league’s good teams during that time: 5-5 vs. opponents 10th or better in their respective conferences as of Friday. The top teams gave the Hawks problems: 1-4 vs. opponents standing sixth or better in the East or West.

That suggests the Hawks are significantly better than the lottery-bound teams, about even with marginal playoff teams and a notch below the true contenders. The numbers at the end of the week signal the same. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Hawks ranked 10th in point differential, ninth in offensive efficiency and 19th in defensive efficiency (garbage time excluded).

Matchups make a big difference in the playoffs. The Bucks showed a formula for slowing the Hawks. They got physical with Young to prevent him from getting to his favored spots. His frustration showed when he forced things and turned the ball over, leading to Bucks fast breaks. But it will make a big difference for Young when the Hawks’ injured list isn’t so lengthy.

Those injuries are why too much shouldn’t be made of the Hawks losing to Milwaukee or other good teams during their surge. ManGamesLost.com tracks the number of injuries and the quality of players missing games. According to its April 13 update, the Grizzlies and Hawks lead the NBA in games missed by good players.

If the Hawks are healthy for the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out for whichever team they face.