Cunningham: Time to take scrappy Hawks seriously

They’ve persevered through injuries
Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, right, celebrates with guard Kobe Bufkin after scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in Chicago, Monday, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, right, celebrates with guard Kobe Bufkin after scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in Chicago, Monday, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

I still don’t believe this Hawks season will amount to much. That was out of the question once Trae Young had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left hand five weeks ago. He may not play again this season. Even if he does, the best-case scenario for the Hawks is taking a game or two from the Celtics in the playoffs.

However, I admit the thought I could be wrong has entered my mind now. The Hawks deserve to be taken seriously. That’s not only because the Hawks beat the Celtics twice in four days last week. There’s nothing fluky about the way the Hawks have played without Young and several other key players on the injured list.

The Hawks have played like an average NBA team while deploying marginal NBA players for major minutes. Coach Quin Snyder’s Hawks are a scrappy, determined bunch. They are not the kind of team that will make a postseason run. They are the kind of opponent that can give better teams trouble.

The Young-less Hawks not only have held position above the cut-off line for the play-in tournament, they could even host a game two weeks from now. They increased those odds with a convincing victory at Chicago on Monday. Their fifth win in six games left them one-half game behind the Bulls for ninth in the Eastern Conference with seven left to play.

The No. 9 team hosts the No. 10 team in the play-in. The winner advances to face the loser of No. 7 vs. No. 8 for the final playoff spot. The Hawks pulled it off in 2022, thanks largely to Young, but that was a much better team. These Hawks (35-40) will have a hard time getting through the play-in.

The Bulls (36-40) own the tiebreaker against the Hawks. The Sixers are eighth in the East. They are that low only because league MVP Joel Embiid (knee) has been out since Feb. 1. He’s expected to return this week. Seventh-place Miami beat the Hawks twice with Young on the court this season.

I don’t see the Hawks getting through Chicago and then the 76ers or Heat. They’ve got a near-zero chance to win a seven-game series against the Celtics. But, as Boston discovered, the Hawks have something going. They’ve been better on defense without Young and, after an offensive lull in the wake of his injury, they’ve figured out how to score enough, too.

Dejounte Murray and Bogdan Bogdanovic have been excellent with Young out. That’s expected. They’ve been good players for a long time. More surprising are the strong contributions from third-stringers Bruno Fernando, Vit Krejci and Garrison Mathews. Snyder has found depth when there didn’t appear to be any.

Now the injury situation is improving. Jalen Johnson and Kobe Bufkin returned to play against the Bulls. Johnson, the team’s best forward, had missed six games and rookie Bufkin was out for nearly a month. Reserve center Onyeka Okongwu (toe) has resumed individual workouts.

It’s not clear when or if Young will be available (the team said he began finger exercises last week). The Hawks have won 11 of 19 games without him. They’ve ranked 18th in defensive efficiency in those games. They were 27th in the previous 56 games. The offensive ranking is the same (ninth).

The Hawks have punched above their weight without Young. Their ceiling is higher with him. Young has had more good postseasons (2021 and ‘23) than bad (2022). He’s why the Hawks pushed the Celtics to six games in last year’s playoffs. Young was brilliant during the Game 5 victory at Boston, when Murray served a suspension for bumping a game official.

After Young went down in February, the Hawks won five of the next seven games. They mostly were beating lottery-bound teams and good opponents missing key players. Then the Hawks lost four of five during a West trip. A good victory at the Clippers was offset by losses to bottom-four teams Utah and Portland.

The Hawks came home and kept grinding. They blew out the Hornets and avenged the lost to Portland. Boston may be bored while running away with the East’s No. 1 seed. Also, Celtics coach Joe Mazulla said he was experimenting with new defensive schemes against the Hawks. Still, the bottom line is the makeshift Hawks beat the mighty Celtics twice in four days.

There was no shame in the Hawks losing to Milwaukee to end the homestand. The Bucks are a bad matchup,and the Hawks had played six games in 10 days. They got one day off before traveling to face the Bulls. The Hawks recovered from a bad start in Chicago then led by a double-digit margin over the game’s final 20 minutes.

It was more evidence that the Young-less Hawks are not to be trifled with. I doubt they’ll go far even if he returns. But already the Hawks have made something out of what looked like a lost season.