Where were the Hawks around this time last season? At 34 wins and 27 losses through 61 games. So after 60 games this season, the Hawks stand at 39 and 21. If they win this Friday night against Golden State, then they’ll have shown a 6 game improvement over the exact number of games as last season.
With 22 games remaining in the regular season, the Hawks have but to play .500 ball to make the “magic” mark of 50 wins. But isn’t that last season’s goal? Will 50 wins mean THIS season, what it would have last season? I don’t think so, and the main reason has to do with playoff position. Last year, Atlanta surprised many people with 47 wins and a 4th seed playoff position. In winning their first round series, they proved that they were there by no mistake. As we all remember, an injury-plagued second round series was something far less pleasant.
This season is different. The Hawks know that they have to improve in a number of ways. One of the goals was to play at least .500 ball on the road. The Hawks have done that and a smidgen more, but need to finish out the season strong to ensure that they meet that goal. Twelve of these last twenty-two games will be on the road. Guess what? Not a single one of them will be a cake walk, although some are arguably easier than others. For instance, it was obvious that the Sixers were no match for us at Phillips Arena, but what happens if we let them shoot over 50% at home? Other games have shown us that we can’t take anything for granted (Detroit and New York), regardless of how bad the opposing team is. The Nets are the league’s worst team this year, but didn’t those guys just knock off the Celtics? Nothing is guaranteed. For the Hawks to reach their goal of going .500 or better on the road, they have to win a minimum of 6 out of the last 12 road games, which would make them 21 and 20 on the road. Would you be satisfied with that, or do you want more?
50 Ain’t Enough
I can’t say this more plainly. 50 wins is nice, but it won’t be enough to maintain a #3 seed for playoff time. It won’t be enough to catch the Orlando Magic and win the southeast division, either. Would it be an improvement? Sure. Is that improvement really enough? Not if you want to accomplish one of the two things mentioned earlier (#3 seed, divisional champion/leader), and not if you’re fully healthy. So how many wins is enough? Let’s start by doing a little math (I’m not going to go in the number of directions that this can take us, everybody can pitch in on the numbers game). Let’s say the Hawks win just 6 out of their remaining 12 road games. That puts us at 45 wins before we begin counting home games. There are 10 more home games, so the Hawks would have to win half of those just to make it to 50 wins. But wouldn’t going 11 and 11 for the rest of the season be a serious indicator that something is wrong? If it weren’t key injuries (let’s say that VERY quietly, we’ve been very fortunate to this point), then it would have to be something else. Something we don’t want to see, but probably fixable. Well, I don’t like that math, and the Hawks are way better than a .500 team at home.
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question: how many wins is enough? We’re not liable to know until we get closer to the end of the season, though I’m sure some of us can give some pretty good projection numbers. I’m going to say 54 wins at a very minimum, if not more. 54 may be enough to hold off Boston at the #3 seed. But, it may not be enough to catch and pass Orlando (and make no mistake, we have to PASS them, as they win any season tie-breakers hands down). Why that number? Truthfully, it’s just a guess. But here are three accompanying guesses that I’ll use to explain my pick:
1) I’m guessing Boston really, really, REALLY doesn’t want to get stuck in a fourth seed spot with a very tough (and hungry) fifth seed opponent. Their pride is wounded, and nothing would be worse for them than losing official “Big Three” status in the win/loss column to none other than the team they swear isn’t good enough to be one of their rivals. The Celts are struggling, but they can never be counted as a badly wounded animal. Just ask the Bobcats, who thought they might be able to catch them after a loss to the Nets. Boston will work hard to wrest third place in the East back from us, but do they have the strength and will to do it? Time will tell. But time begins to run short.
2) I’m guessing that Orlando really wants to hold onto that #2 seed and as an aside, prove that each dominating win against us was as real as it gets. How do you totally dominate a foe when you play them, then lose the division to them? Orlando doesn’t want to found out the hard way, and pay the price in the form of an unwanted playoff seeding. They’ll be watching the standings as well, and there will be first round opponents that they’d rather not face, too. Besides, they’d like to prove to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second year in a row that having the conference’s best record, doesn’t make you the conference’s best team. Orlando is not likely to catch the Cavs in the standings, but they don’t want any upstarts sneaking up behind them, either.
3) I’m guessing the competition for the 5th through 7th playoff slots will continue to be pretty nasty. Whether Boston likes it or not, the “Big Three” have become the “Big Four”, even if only in the standings. 5th seeded Toronto is a whole 7 games below 4th seeded Boston, who only trails us by a half game. Unless one of these teams goes on one hell of a tear, or Atlanta/Boston takes a serious nose dive (or any combination of the two), the fight won’t get any closer than the 5th seed. As it stands now, Toronto has a scant half game lead over Milwaukee and Chicago, who have identical records. 8th seeded Miami is just two games away, and Charlotte is but three games away (and fighting for that 8th spot). Beyond that is the dregs of the East, teams that are highly unlikely to make the playoffs at all. But among those teams, one has beaten us twice (Miami), two have beaten us once (Chicago, Charlotte), and one has come close (Milwaukee).
Having said that, those teams will be facing us and the other top three teams in the East fairly often here, in the last quarter of the season. Wins against us will be the difference in where they are seeded for the playoffs. We’ll face a desperate-to-make-the-playoffs Charlotte squad twice more this season. Same for Milwaukee and Toronto. These may be some of the toughest games we have towards the end. Same can be said for the other three members of the Big Four. Each team may approach this differently. Boston will be playing with a sense of desperation, whether they admit it or not. Cleveland probably figures they have it in the bag, but with Shaq out, will they get serious again? Orlando might see a chance to overtake Cleveland, so we can’t expect them to mail it in at the #2 seed. The Hawks? They need to be locked in and sharper than ever.
HAWKS VS. WARRIORS
We owe these guys, plain and simple.
The Warriors gave us a wake up call at their place, but did we hear it? It wasn’t that we couldn’t score the ball. Joe did it plenty by shooting over 50% enroute to another 30+ point night. Al Horford and Josh Smith were all but unstoppable down low (though Josh didn’t shoot so well), combining to pound the Warriors for 40 points and 28 rebounds. But we missed shots when we needed them. Mike Bibby was all but a non-factor, Marvin Williams was efficient but disappeared, and Jamal Crawford missed more than he hit. The rest of the bench contributed next to nothing.
All that, and the offense wasn’t even half of the problem. Atlanta’s continuously declining defense allowed the talented Stephen Curry to get where he wanted, when he wanted, and to take whatever shot he wanted. In the end, the rookie outdueled Joe Johnson, while Monta Ellis posted solid stats of his own, and CJ Watson came off the bench to basically neutralize anything Jamal Crawford did on offense. Rotations were missed. The whole thing was ugly, to put it plainly. Did the Hawks learn their lesson at all?
…And This Time?
It’s important that we get decent contributions from our bench, as we have in the last two games. But there is something else about the last two or three games. Mike Bibby has still been up and down in his production, but he finally seems to have found his 3 point shot, going 11 for 27 in the last six games. That, and his play has been just a bit bette overall, though he is still not getting many assists. Jamal Crawford seems to have found his rhyth as well, averaging 20 ppg over the last two games, and hitting just over 50% of his field goals over that short stretch. Perhaps more importantly, Marvin Williams has brought both energy and production when he has been in the game. How does 15 ppg and 8 rpg for the last three games grab you? Is it a coincidence that all three games have been wins?
Really, while Jamal’s offense is needed off the bench, it’s Bibby and Marvin who need to produce in the starting lineup. If both are playing badly, their minutes are automatically reduced. Sounds like that’s what should happen, right? The only problem with that is simple. Jamal Crawford will get the bulk of those minutes, and two things happen then: One, the team will automatically lose defensive and rebounding capability (Marvin is out). Two, the team will lose ball movement likelihood and offensive efficiency. Worse yet, if Jamal is struggling with his shot, you now have three problems – defensive deficiency, stagnant offense (which will only perpetuate more ISOs), and lack of scoring punch. What happens next? Gee, I wonder…
Like it or not, Marvin Williams is a better defender and rebounder any day of the week he choses to be, than is Jamal Crawford. By the same vein, Mike Bibby facilitates ball movement and offensive efficiency better than does Crawford, and it doesn’t always necessarily show in the form of assists. Is this a knock against Crawford? Absolutely not. But Crawford does not play the role of either of those two starters. He is a hired gun first, last, and foremost. And like Flip Murray was, Crawford is a stop-gap at the guard position if the starting pg (or sg) goes down. It’s both his assignment and his nature to be the hired gun.
Let’s run over this again. Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams are both in the starting lineup for a reason: because they fit. But when they are playing badly, coach Mike Woodson goes to his security blanket (Crawford), which cuts down on the efficiency of the team at both ends. If both are playing reasonably well, then Crawford’s role and effect are magnified, and this team is hard to beat….even when they’re playing crappy defense.
Solid contributions throughout the starting lineup should mean a win, especially in Phillips Arena against an inferior opponent.
See if you can take a shot at the question above: How many wins do the Hawks need to finish ahead of Boston, or to win the Southeast Division? Is either one possible? How about both?
What do the Hawks need to do to beat the Warriors? Can Marvin keep up his intensity and production? How in the world will the Hawks fix their defensive struggles? Does Bibby finally have his shot back, or is he all but done being a consistent contributor?