Atlanta enjoyed one of its biggest wins of the season Thursday night by defeating Boston on national TV, 123-116.
It was a stirring victory, particularly because Atlanta entered the contest having won just two of its last 11 games. As it stands, the Hawks are now 40-38 and currently shaking off the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. (Note: with that record, they’d be contending with Portland for the final playoff spot in the West. Seriously, when is the Eastern Conference going to get its act together?)
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So, here’s a serious question: are the Atlanta Hawks serious title contenders? Or another team destined to get sent packing early? After all, if the playoffs started today Atlanta would square off with Washington in the first round and then (if it won the series) take on the winner of Cleveland/Indiana.
For the record, the Hawks only beat the Wizards once out of three games this year, and that victory came on Oct. 27 on opening night. They split the season series with Indiana, and face them once more on April 12, and likewise went 1-1 with Cleveland — which they square off against tonight and tomorrow.
Atlanta hasn’t exactly been dominant this year, despite featuring superstars like Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroder. Though, to be fair, Atlanta’s front office can’t seem to decide whether to rebuild the franchise from the ground up or continue to vie for title contention with the aforementioned players.
Case in point: in the offseason, the team sent superstar point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana for the No. 12 overall pick and the rights to Taurean Prince. They also signed Dwight Howard (?) … Then, they parted ways with sharp shooter Kyle Korver in exchange for Mike Dunleavy (5 points, 2.3 rebounds per game), Mo Williams (traded to Philly) and a protected first-round pick.
After the Korver trade — which effectively added even more talent to Cleveland’s already jam-packed, star-studded roster (despite what LeBron will tell you) — I remember thinking, “Well, Atlanta’s packed up the tent and headed home.” You don’t send one of your best (and most popular) talents to the competition — a team that’s beaten you the past two postseasons to boot — unless you’ve given up.
And yet, after watching the Hawks dismantle Boston on Thursday, I couldn’t help but wonder if this team could be one of those sneakily good playoff teams that surprise a lot of people. Let’s look at the stats!
The Hawks rank in the bottom tier in points per game (21st with 102.9), offensive efficiency (28th overall) and fast break efficiency (24th). On the flip side, they rank ninth in points allowed (104.2) and fourth in defensive efficiency. They also rank third in total rebounds per game (53.9) and fifth in steals per game (8.3).
The Hawks offense flourished against Boston and shot 49.4% from the floor on 44-of-89 shooting and 47.8% from 3-point range. Millsap, in his second game back following an eight-game absence due to injury, exploded for 26 points in 29 minutes (in a reserve role, no less), while Taurean Prince added 20 and Tim Hardaway, Jr. chipped in 23.
Of course, Boston ranks 15th overall in points allowed (105.4) and 13th in defensive efficiency, so it’s not like this was a rock-solid matchup. Remember, the Hawks lost to the hapless Brooklyn Nets 91-82 the night before.
And, despite featuring a top-tier defense, the Hawks allowed Isaiah Thomas to score 35 points against them, which makes me wonder how Schroder will fare against the likes of John Wall, Jeff Teague and Kyrie Irving in the postseason.
Of note, Schroder produces a net rating of 1.3, per nbawowy.com, when Paul Millsap is on the floor, but is minus-9.7 without him. Yikes. Sure, he’s young, but that doesn’t bode well for a playoff run in a conference jam-packed with All-Star caliber guards. It wouldn’t shock me if Schroder’s disappointing first season as starting PG was the catalyst for the Hawks decision to kick start the rebuilding process. But maybe that’s just a wild conspiracy.
As for Dwight Howard, the former All Star talent hasn’t exactly lit it up with his new team. Against Boston, his plus/minus was -5. Against Brooklyn it was -1. Before that, against Chicago, it was -8. Occasionally he shows bursts of power, such as his 22 point, 20 rebound performance against Philly on March 29, but more often than not he looks like a star on the decline — more out of disinterest than anything.
Millsap’s presence will likely keep Atlanta competitive during the postseason, especially if they square off against Washington — a team that ranks 22nd in points allowed (107.4) — in the first round, but likely won’t be enough to get past the second round (if they’re able to even make it that far).
So, while the win against Boston was a nice bounce back for the Hawks, it was likely an outlier and, unfortunately, not a sign of things to come.