Sunday, March 20, 2016

Backdoor Cut

Just before the trade deadline, there was talk of starting a rebuild.  The Hawks were having a middling season, nestled in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race and playing largely uninspired basketball.  Rumors had longtime franchise cornerstones Jeff Teague and Al Horford on the block.  Moving either or both would have altered the immediate trajectory of the team and the season for the worse, but the thinking was understandable.  It was easy to feel that this current iteration had reached its ceiling.  It was also reasonable to look at the Cavs and Raptors (possibly even the Celtics) and see too-long odds going forward.  Maybe it was time to take a step back and retool.

Or maybe not.  Other than a negligible move that sent Shelvin Mack to Utah and brought Kirk Hinrich back to Atlanta, the Hawks ultimately chose to stand pat.  They stumbled through the end of February, going 2-3 after the deadline, and looked pretty much resigned to a .500-ish end of the season.  Then, quietly, something started happening on a west-coast road trip.  It began with a loss.

For a team that was one of the NBA's surprise darlings just last year, scant mention has been of Atlanta this season.  The focus has, quite understandably, been on the Cavs in the East and the Spurs and Warriors in the West.  As you may have heard, neither of the latter two have lost at home yet this year, and it's an easy narrative to fit the Hawks' loss to Golden State on March 1st into that framework.  But I believe that defeat galvanized the team.  They walked into the impregnable fortress that Oracle Arena has been for the Dubs, traded punches with a juggernaut of literally historical proportions, and juuuust came out on the wrong end of a measly four-point margin in overtime, 109-105.  Granted, Steph Curry was in street clothes nursing an injured ankle, but it was still an affirmation that Atlanta could contend with the best team in the league.  The script has flipped for the Hawks ever since.

They've won eight of their last nine games, including four against playoff teams (Clips, Griz, Rockets and Pacers) and two more against squads that could easily make the postseason (Utah and Detroit, both sitting just out of the 8-seeds in their respective conferences.)  Last night's win over Houston, their 5th in a row, gave them the third best record in the East.

Over that 5-game win streak, Al Horford and Paul Millsap have combined to average 34 points and 16 rebounds per game.  Kyle Korver, who has struggled at times to regain his torrid marksmanship from last year, has shot 53.8% from deep.  Jeff Teague has put up 13 points and 8 assists a night, and backup point guard Dennis Schroder has notched 10 and 4 in just under 17 minutes per game.  Recent acquisition Kris Humphries has made solid contributions off the bench and given the team some interior depth.  And hoo boy, let's talk about Tim Hardaway Jr.  The much-maligned Draft Day maneuver that brought Hardaway to Atlanta is finally paying some dividends, and he's been absolutely blistering in his last two games: 59.05 FG%, 60.7(!!!) 3FG%, 93.75 FT%, and 20.5 PPG.  Good gawd.

As a team over that five-game stretch, the Hawks have outscored opponents 108-93 on average.  They're +10 in turnover margin, and playing the same hellacious defense that's had them ranked second only to the Spurs in Defensive Efficiency for most of the season.  They're still atrocious on the glass, particularly on the offensive end (dead last in the league in ORR with a paltry 19.4), but otherwise they're playing superb all-around basketball and cohering at precisely the right moment.  Which raises an interesting question: what of the Hawks' postseason chances?

Look, just hear me out on this for a second.  Last year was lightning in a bottle.  60 wins, the top seed in the East, four All Star selections, a COY for Bud, and the team's first ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Then LeBron and the Cavs decimated us in a clean sweep, and everyone remembered that all that sublime team basketball doesn't usually pay off without at least one elite-caliber player to take on the onus come playoff time.  But there was so, so much pressure and scrutiny on that team.  They had the weight of unfair expectations pressing down on them, and they folded.  This year, no one is talking about Atlanta.  The pressure is elsewhere, on the Warriors chasing 73 and the Cavs' myriad chemistry issues both on and off the court.  The Hawks are in a position they're much more accustomed to: flying under the radar.  Barring a massive shakeup in the standings, they'll likely face either the Hornets or Celtics in Round 1, both very winnable series with a home court advantage.  If they can survive a second-round matchup with someone (Miami? Indy?) and get back to the ECF, what then?

Everyone's been saying for months now that the Raptors are the sole legitimate threat to Cleveland in the East, but the way they're playing right now, couldn't Atlanta beat either of those teams?  They're deeper than Toronto, and have none of the dysfunction that's been threatening to implode the Cavs all season.  They've also been through the crucible of a Conference Finals now, a year older and wiser and more battle-tested than they were.  Could they ride hot shooting and lockdown defense through seven games with the Raps?  Could they beat a Cavs team whose internal struggles may overwhelm or at least hamper LeBron's individual brilliance?  You wanna bet Mike Budenholzer can't outcoach the bejesus out of Ty Lue in that series?  We'll get a decent preview of both possible matchups before the end of the season, as the Hawks have two games apiece left against Toronto and Cleveland, one home and one away for each.  If they can show up strong in those four contests, I'll be ready to believe.  For now, Atlanta can continue to play carefree basketball, oblivious to the noise of the league, knowing exactly how dangerous they are and how few people are acknowledging that fact.  Sometimes it's better to be sneaky good; to let the league keep their collective eyes on the titans holding the ball while you make a backdoor cut.