Let’s not spend too much time on the obvious right now, because the core of this team isn’t going to change before the summer. These are your Hawks: some mismatched parts and personalities and a head coach who says all of the right things but unfortunately too often comes off as the second-grade teacher who constantly screams at the kids, “I said, ‘Line up!’”
This time of season is about more than mismatched parts and personalities. It’s about all of those things the Hawks too often have lacked in difficult moments: heart, desire, resolve.
It’s why they almost got knocked out of the playoffs last year by an undermanned Milwaukee team.
It’s why 17 of their 30 losses this season have come by double digits.
It’s why in these past several weeks – a stretch of the season when good teams are sharpening minds and elbows for the playoffs – the Hawks are 7-1 against teams currently with losing records but only 3-12 against clubs with winning marks.
We saw the good and the bad again Sunday at Philips Arena. The Hawks led the remains of the Detroit Pistons by as many as 14 points in the third quarter, putzed around as the lead shrank to two, and eventually won 104-96, partly because it’s just not in the Pistons’ DNA to win a lot of road games (they’re now 7-28).
Ready for the playoffs?
Don’t think so.
“If there’s anything that needs to be fixed, it’s our mental state,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said before the game. “It’s 70 games into the season and I know mental fatigue has settled in. We have to push through that.
“This is not the first stretch of games where we’ve let games get away from us. Teams that play that grind-it-out, blue-collar style have been a thorn in our side. Oklahoma City grinds it out. Miami, they’ve had their struggles, but they play physical basketball. They set screens. They bang. They play a little dirty, not dirty in a bad way, but it’s a way that you play as you prepare yourself for the playoffs. Good teams that have come through here are playing at that level.”
The message being: The Hawks are not.
There was some good Sunday. When the Pistons came back, the Hawks didn’t fold. Guys fought through screens. Josh Smith even dove for a ball.
But those moments can’t be video rarities.
Barring a meteoric rise or a complete collapse, the Hawks (40-30) will finish as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and face Orlando in the first round. The Magic certainly are beatable. The Hawks have done it the last two times the teams have met.
But this isn’t about just how certain teams match up and whether the Hawks have an answer for Dwight Howard. It’s about consistency and toughness.
Drew was asked before the game how a team can avoid being known as soft. Some coaches would take just the question personally because it suggests the obvious.
Drew didn’t. What does that tell you?
“You make it known that it’s going to be a physical game,” he said. “You stand toe-to-toe and you slug it out. You get to the loose balls. You get bodies on people. You set hard screens. You may get called for some illegal screens — so what? But you set the tone for the kind of team you want to be. If you don’t, you can be labeled as a soft team. You can’t be a team where when the other team smacks you, your body language shows defeat.”
He sees what we all see.
Marvin Williams was encouraged by how the team responded Sunday but acknowledged: “Sometimes we’re not as tough as we can be.”
Al Horford said, “Sometimes we just need to play with a little more fire, a little more passion.”
There are only 12 games left before the playoffs. That shouldn’t be a problem right now.
By Jeff Schultz