It’s getting late for this year’s Hawks to become like last year’s Hawks

Hawks coach Nate McMillan is called for a technical foul by referee Brett Nansel during the team's game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Credit: AP

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Hawks coach Nate McMillan is called for a technical foul by referee Brett Nansel during the team's game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Credit: AP

I keep waiting for this season’s Hawks to become like last season’s Hawks. The expectation that it would happen is why I was fine with general manager Travis Schlenk standing pat at the Feb. 10 trade deadline. The Hawks were finding their way and more internal improvement seemed inevitable. We’d seen the same group do it before, after all.

A month later, I’m wondering if the Hawks have it in them.

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The loss at Milwaukee on Wednesday night is the latest evidence that this season is never going to be like last season for the Hawks. I never bought the notion that there was a small gap between the two teams in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Now there’s no question about it. The Hawks are in danger of missing not only the playoffs, but the play-in tournament for the sixth- through 10th-place teams in the Eastern Conference.

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is a great player. The Hawks made it too easy for him with help defense that was late, disorganized or both. That’s nothing new. Later, teammates Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis took advantage of suspect defense on the perimeter. That’s also a trademark for the 2021-22 Hawks, who are getting the results they deserve.

The Hawks (31-34) haven’t been above water since they were 13-12 on Dec. 6. They stand 10th in the East with 17 games to play. The Wizards (29-35) are right behind them. The Knicks (28-38) aren’t finished. The Hawks have gone from thinking about avoiding the play-in with a strong finish, to trying to avoid getting caught from behind and being left out altogether.

“We’ve just got to show fight, and we’ve got to scrap,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said after the 124-115 loss at Milwaukee. “We can’t play back on our heels. We’ve got to show fight when we take the floor in these remaining games.”

The biggest indictment of the Hawks is that their lax effort from the start at Milwaukee wasn’t a surprise. Disinterest has been one of their themes. Trae Young set the tone when the Hawks were scuffling in November. He said they had to find motivation because they are no longer the “hunters” and regular-season games are boring compared with the postseason.

It’s a strange attitude for a group that hasn’t proved much. Maybe that’s why the Hawks haven’t been able to find the spirit that carried them on their run in 2021. Then again, sometimes when their energy is good their late-game execution is bad. That’s a recipe for the draft lottery. That outcome was unimaginable when the Hawks brought back every key player from last season and added depth.

If the Hawks miss the playoffs, then their 2021 run will be written off as a fluke. That should be extra incentive for them to go all out every night. Yet the Hawks went to Milwaukee and came out lifeless against the defending NBA champs. That was two days after the Hawks blew a game at Detroit, which is headed for the draft lottery. It was a week after the Hawks got worked by the Celtics on TNT.

In between, the Hawks scored a victory against the Bulls. They’ve also beaten the Cavaliers and Raptors over the past three weeks. But the occasional victory against good teams isn’t enough. The Hawks need a sustained run of good play. The Hawks aren’t good enough to pencil in victories against the struggling opponents left on the schedule.

A month back it seemed the Hawks were on the come. They’d won seven games in a row and eight of nine. Half of those victories were against teams that are above the play-in line. The Hawks handed the Suns one of their four losses over the past two months. The Hawks looked ready to make up some ground on the teams ahead of them in the East.

Instead, the Hawks are 6-8 since beating the Suns. They’ve become static at a time when they need to surge. The NBA has always separated good teams from pretenders after the All-Star break. The Hawks are 3-4 since the league rested.

The Hawks are a great offensive team overall, but their scoring has slipped in the past month. It’s not enough that their defense has improved from awful to merely bad. Young is one of the NBA’s best scorers and playmakers. He’s also been the main culprit in some of the late-game scoring issues. Young remains a defensive liability — McMillan subbed out his All-Star point guard when the Hawks needed a stop late in regulation Monday at Detroit.

The Hawks rarely win games when Young has an off-night. They are supposed to be deep enough to avoid that. The bench is one aspect of the team that’s been good all season. But among players expected to help Young do heavy lifting, only Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari have produced consistently over the past month.

Schlenk decided to give this group a chance to coalesce rather than make changes at the trade deadline. The Hawks weren’t really candidates for blockbuster deals. Trading Young is a non-starter, and the Hawks aren’t in position to sacrifice first-round draft picks. The Hawks also didn’t make any smaller moves, with the idea that better health would mean improved chemistry.

Schlenk may have miscalculated. I may have erred in thinking that he didn’t. The Hawks are still trying to rediscover the formula that worked for them over the final four months of last season. It’s getting late. They may never find it.