Hawks should fear no play-in foe, but best to avoid Brooklyn

The Hawks should fear no foe in the NBA’s play-in tournament. Their 15-9 record since Feb. 15 includes eight quality wins and really only three bad losses. The Hawks have the NBA’s fifth-best point differential over the past two weeks. They have some significant flaws, but the Hawks have a good chance of getting through to the playoffs with Trae Young as the engine for the Eastern Conference’s best offense.

Still, some matchups are better than others for the Hawks. They’d like to see the Cavaliers. The Hawks beat Cleveland three out of four times this season, including a 131-107 drubbing March 31. It would not be ideal for the Hawks to face Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a win-or-go-home game. There are still several permutations for the four play-in seeds on the final day of the regular season, but an eventual elimination game against the Nets is possible for the Hawks, should Sunday’s results go a certain way.

There are two scenarios in which the Hawks earn the No. 8 seed. That’s crucial because then they could lose the play-in opener and still get another chance to advance. Both eight-seed possibilities require the Hawks to win at Houston, which owns the NBA’s worst record, while either the Cavaliers or Nets lose.

The Nets will be the No. 7 seed if they win a home game against the lowly Pacers. The Cavaliers will be the eight seed if they win a home game against the Bucks. Milwaukee needs a victory to secure the No. 2 seed but may prefer No. 3 so they’ll draw the Bulls in the first round instead of (potentially) the Nets.

At best, the Hawks will open the play-in at the Nets with the lifeline of another chance should they lose. At worst, the Hawks will host a win-or-go-home against the Hornets and, if they survive, play an elimination against the loser of the seven/eight game. The Hornets aren’t an easy out — they split four games with the Hawks this season — but they aren’t the Nets.

Charlotte can give the Hawks problems with their length on the perimeter. Point guard LeMelo Ball is 6-foot-7. Backcourt partner Terry Rozier is 6-1, but he’s a good scorer. It won’t be easy for Hawks coach Nate McMillan to avoid a difficult defensive assignment for Young. The Hawks can be slow-footed when guarding in transition. Ball, Rozier and Charlotte’s deep group of athletic wings can take advantage, and the absence of Hawks forward John Collins (foot) is a potential problem against Charlotte’s bouncy big men.

But Hornets can have trouble guarding the Hawks, too. Young is the NBA’s best combination of scorer and passer. His electrifying shot-making during Friday’s loss at Miami was a reminder that he can take over as a scorer even against good defensive opponents. Young doesn’t have scoring support as good as Ball’s, but Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Co. get plenty of good chances because of Young’s ability to manipulate defenses.

I’d take the Hawks in a home game against the Hornets. Ideally, that would earn them an elimination game against the Cavs. But it also could mean a one-shot chance against the Nets. That’s where things would get dicey for the Hawks.

Brooklyn is not the typical play-in team. The Nets are getting the third-shortest odds to win the NBA championship even though they must win just to get in the playoffs. Three-time All-Star Ben Simmons (back) has yet to play for Brooklyn since arriving in a February trade for James Harden. Simmons isn’t available for the play-in games and may not play at all in the postseason.

The reason the Nets are title contenders is obvious. Harden is gone and Simmons is out, but they still have Durant and Irving. That’s a 6-10, long-armed scoring machine and a lighting-fast point guard with airtight ballhandling. Durant and Irving combine to average nearly 60 points combined while making 40% of their 3-point tries.

Durant is 33 but putting up numbers like he did when he was league MVP in 2014-15. He missed the entire 2019-20 season because of a torn Achilles and somehow came back as good as before. Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine hurt the Nets because he wasn’t allowed around the team to begin the season and later could play only home games. New York changed its vaccination law last month, so now Irving is back to doing his thing home and away.

Good defensive teams have trouble dealing with Durant and Irving. They present a particularly difficult problem for the Hawks to solve. They don’t have many long perimeter defenders to challenge Durant’s high-rising jumpers. The Hawks struggle to keep ballhandlers out of the paint, and probably no point guard has a quicker first step than Irving.

The Hawks lost two of three games against the Nets this season. The Nets beat them here in November with Durant and Harden, and without Irving. The Nets won again at Brooklyn in December, when the Hawks were without starters Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter. The Hawks beat the Nets last weekend at home despite Durant scoring a career-high 55 points and Irving adding 31.

That game was evidence that the Hawks can conquer the Nets even if Durant and Irving go off. It was only one game, but this could come down to one game, Hawks vs. Nets. That’s better odds for the underdog Hawks than besting them in a series. The Hawks needed 36 points and 10 assists from Young to beat Brooklyn, but that kind of performance has become routine for him.

Still, it’s better for the Hawks not to have to do that again with a playoff berth on the line. I don’t like the play-in tournament. If the idea is that the best teams should make the postseason then it makes no sense to play an entire season only to decide spots on one or two games. MLB’s wild-card games were the dumbest thing in sports. Baseball thankfully got rid of them, so that leaves the NBA’s play-in tournament as the dumbest thing in sports.

In this case, it works for the Hawks. Without the play-in, they’d be eliminated from the playoffs Sunday with a loss or a Cavaliers victory. Now they’ll get an opportunity to make the postseason no matter what happens on the final day. I like their chances to get through.

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