Hawks must be sharp at winning time, keep Hornets from running wild

The Hawks finished ninth in the Eastern Conference. It’s possible they are better than that.

The Hawks didn’t have a true NBA roster for a stretch of December because of COVID-19 protocols. Games were postponed for other teams facing similar circumstances. The Hawks had the bad luck of having their run of COVID-19 infections begin at the same time the NBA decided it was less concerned with fair competition than with putting a watered-down product on the floor.

So the Hawks played on. Nothing they can do about that now. Besides, those two weeks of makeshift rosters aren’t the only reason they need to win two elimination games just to make the playoffs. The Hawks had plenty of bad losses before COVID-19 decimated their roster and a handful of them since. They can point to any of those games while lamenting finishing three games behind Chicago for sixth place and the last automatic bid to the playoffs.

The Hawks’ troubles began with a lackadaisical approach to the start of the season, especially with defensive intensity. The Hawks rectified that problem weeks ago. Now their main problems are keeping opponents from getting easy scores in transition and executing late in games to create quality shots. The Hawks urgently need to kick those habits in the play-in tournament.

The Hawks face an elimination game against Charlotte on Wednesday at State Farm Arena. Survive and they’ll play another elimination game on the road Friday at Brooklyn or Cleveland. The Hawks likely will make it through to the playoffs if they limit easy baskets on the open court and make the right plays at winning time. Fail to do either and chances are the Hawks will miss the playoffs a year after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Hawks understand the assignment. They lost twice to the Hornets this season because Charlotte was better late.

The Hawks were tied with the Hornets with five minutes to play on March 16 in Charlotte before poor shots, sloppy passes and inattentive defense sent them to a 116-106 loss. The Hawks led short-handed Charlotte by a point with five minutes to go Dec. 5 at home until fading to another loss. The Hawks won the other two meetings against Charlotte by comfortable margins.

Late-game failures have been a persistent issue for the Hawks. They rank among the NBA’s worst teams in “clutch” situations, defined as the final five minutes with a margin of five points or less. Only six teams had a worse net rating in those circumstances (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). Two of those teams, the Celtics and Mavericks, are in the playoffs. But those squads are so good during the rest of the game that they don’t have to rely on “clutch” performances so much to win.

The Hawks are working with a smaller margin for error. That’s the reality for a team that scores a lot but doesn’t get stops consistently enough to create breathing room. When games get tight late, the Hawks haven’t quite found the right balance between letting Trae Young go to work against mismatches and moving the ball. The Hornets likely will repeat their strategy of denying Young the ball whenever possible and, once he gets it, making him give it up before he’s ready.

Said Hawks coach Nate McMillan: “It’s going to be important that our guards, not only Trae, make sure we are ready for that and that we get organized and have our proper spacing and we attack them. It’s not anything we haven’t seen all season long. It can’t be a surprise to you.”

The same is true for Charlotte’s approach at the other end. The Hornets have dribble, pass and shoot guys at every position. They want to play fast and force the Hawks to match their pace. When the Hornets get out and run, they score more points per possession than any team in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

The Hawks are a bad defensive team in transition: 26th in points allowed per possession. They are a below-average defensive team in the half court: 19th in points per play allowed. The problem isn’t just live-ball turnovers. Opponents frequently run on the Hawks after collecting rebounds and score at a high rate.

The Hawks have been better on defense in the second half of the season. Over the final 41 games they ranked 18th in overall efficiency, 14th in the half court and 19th in transition. During their 12-5 finish to the season the Hawks ranked 14th in defensive efficiency overall and 11th in the half court. But their problems defending in transition didn’t get much better even as the Hawks were winning.

Winning the play-in game and beyond will be about better defense.

“It’s about everything,” Young countered Tuesday. “You’ve got to have good offense, too, to win games.”

The Hawks should have little problem with that. They had the East’s most efficient offense this season despite three of their four top scorers sitting out a combined 76 games because of injuries or COVID-19 protocols. No point guard produces as a scorer and passer like Young. The Hornets are a lackluster defensive team, too. If Wednesday’s game is a shootout, the Hawks are well-equipped to win it.

The Hawks still have a chance to create a happy ending for an unpredictable season. It took them a while to find their footing and, once it seemed they had, the COVID-19 wave hit them. The Hawks had as many as 13 players on the COVID-19 list in December into January. Every regular except De’Andre Hunter ended up in quarantine, and he was out with an injury during that time.

The Hawks ended up filling out their roster with eight players signed to 10-day contracts. The Hawks were 3-5 during that stretch. Then they lost five in a row against tough opponents as regulars returned from the COVID-19 list. Once the roster was whole, the Hawks formed some cohesion and won seven games in a row and nine of 10 with six victories against teams in the playoffs or play-in.

The Hawks just didn’t have enough rotation-quality players available for that December stretch. If they had, then it’s not unreasonable to believe they would have won a few more games and avoided the play-in tournament. But the same is true if they’d been better early in the season or in late-game situations all season.

Now the Hawks must win twice just to get in the playoffs. This wasn’t what they expected after their deep playoff run in 2021.

“You have to live in the moment,” McMillan said. “We can’t think about all of that. We have a game we have to win (Wednesday) night, and that’s where our focus is at.”

It says here the Hawks will do it by preventing the Hornets from running wild and erupting for enough points on their home court to turn back the visitors.