After a 19-6 start that led us to wonder about a ceiling and a post-slump, 8-2 run in January that seemed to indicate resiliency, the Hawks are back confusing us again.
Maybe this should be expected. Maybe this is still a team still trying to figure out what it is with a star (Joe Johnson) still trying to figure out how and when to take charge and a coach (Mike Woodson) still trying to acclimate himself to his team’s pieces (Woodson admitted to under-utilizing his bench the other night after a loss at Phoenix). But when it’s almost March and contending teams should be establishing direction and the Hawks still resemble a car tooling around a perimeter highway — 6-6 in the past 12 games, 16-14 in the past 30 — you start to wonder.
The Hawks open an important stretch of games Wednesday night at home against Minnesota. Five of the next six games are at Philips Arena. This would be a fine time for clarity. Following this stretch, the team plays five of the next six and seven of 11 on the road, when playoff positioning figures to be set.
Yes, there is a comfort in assuming the postseason at all. You’ve probably noticed: We don’t get that a lot in Atlanta.
But should the expectations be limited to one playoff series win again? Because it’s starting to look like that.
Cleveland has the best record in the Eastern Conference. They’ve added Antawn Jamison, and might wind up getting him for nothing if center Zydrunas Ilgauskas re-signs there. Orlando has the second-best record in the East. But the Magic dropped the Cavaliers in the playoffs last season, and they just beat them again Sunday.
We can debate all day which team is better — just not that they’re far and away the two best in East.
Hawks general manager Rick Sund chose to stand pat at the deadline. If the playoffs opened today, the Hawks would open at home against Toronto in the first round and then probably travel to Cleveland in the second. But what tells us it will be a different story from a year ago, when the Hawks were swept?
Sund said he never seriously considered any trades at the deadline. As he put it, “Now is not the time to shuffle the deck.” Big-picture decisions come after the season.
Nor is he concerned about any perceptions that the team has leveled off since a 19-6 start.
“I wouldn’t take anything from that,” Sund said, “just like I wouldn’t take anything when Boston goes 3-7 or Cleveland loses three in a row. It’s a marath0n. Y0u’re going to have those type of situations. What they’ve done is they’ve shown the ability to bounce back from things, like [Monday] night in Utah. Of course, you want to be able to win every game y0u play. But going into that [four-game] trip, you think: A playoff team wins one game, a good team wins two, a great team wins three. We won two.”
Sund’s concern now isn’t expectation, but whether the team is ready for the postseason, whether they’re seeded second or fifth.
Others are looking for a more tangible sign. Two weeks ago, some Hawks players spoke enthusiastically about the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl and how that showed anything could happen in a postseason. But it’s safe to say the Saints didn’t lack believers in their town. Not the case here. The Hawks (35-20) have the fourth-best record in the East and seventh-best in the NBA. But their home attendance ranks 20th. That’s barely ahead of the Clippers (and that’s believing the announced average: 16,036). For whatever reason, the city hasn’t fully embraced this team. That all can’t all be explained by the economy.
On this trip, the Hawks won at the Clippers but then fizzled in Phoenix. The team started well at Golden State, but blew an 18-point lead and lost. The win at Utah ended the trip on a high note, even if the Jazz were missing starters Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko.
From one night to the next, we’re still not sure what we’ll see from Johnson. Marvin Williams floats in and out. Mike Bibby has been MIA most of the year. Josh Smith and Jamal Crawford have been the team’s best and most consistent players.
Fans are still at a prove-it-to-me stage. The team seems to be going in circles. This would be a good time to establish direction.