After losing at home by 16 points to the lottery-bound Toronto Raptors one night and then body-slamming the very same team by 22 points the next, it’s less certain that the Hawks are a serious playoff threat right now than they are a case study for an abnormal psychology class.
Then again, every team is a little psychotic this season. This is the byproduct of a post-lockout schedule that allows for water breaks roughly every 27 quarters. Even the Chicago Bulls, the league’s best team, just lost at home to the 14-46 Wizards. (The box score now hangs in the Smithsonian, adjacent to a picture of Stonehenge.)
But let’s try to apply a little bit of logic here: The Hawks have clinched a playoff berth. They have five regular-season games remaining. They probably will finish fourth or fifth overall in the Eastern Conference. That would set up a likely first-round match-up against Boston.
If the Hawks play poorly down the stretch, they could tumble below Orlando into sixth place and play No. 3 Indiana, which doesn’t seem nearly as daunting.
So I must ask: Would a late-season skid be so bad?
“Skid” is a much nicer four-letter word than “tank.” But there’s such a shell game going on among the league’s coaches and general managers this season regarding injuries that it’s difficult to know which ailments are truly debilitating and which ones require only “rest” for players until the really important games begin in two weeks.
The Hawks are playing without center Al Horford (who had his first “contact” workout Tuesday since suffering a torn pectoral). They also are without Zaza Pachulia (sprained foot). Coach Larry Drew is somewhat evasive on Pachulia’s future. He said he expects him to miss at least the next two games. But he also said, “He’s day-to-day.”
Could Pachulia play if this were a playoff situation?
“He’d be a game-time decision,” Drew said with a laugh.
I get the sense a lot of players are game-time decisions these days. Orlando’s Dwight Howard is out “indefinitely” with a herniated disc. We’ll find out how hurt he really is when the playoffs begin. It follows that it just doesn’t pay for the Hawks to play Pachulia right now. If they lose most or all of these last five games, it’s really no big deal. It might even be a benefit.
What looks better: A potential home playoff series against Boston or a road playoff series against Indiana? At the very least, it’s close.
There’s blatant tanking, which should never happen, as in Jeff Teague turning to an opponent and saying, “Take my pass — please.”
Then there’s something more subtle: a team not taking any risks with its lineup.
The Hawks are 0-2 against Boston, losing one by three points and the other by two in overtime. They struggled on offense in both games. The Celtics are old, but they’ve reached the finals in two of the past four years (winning one title). Also, there’s something about a veteran team in the postseason.
The Hawks are 2-1 against Indiana. Their offense flows better against the Pacers. Indiana is hot, winning nine of its past 10. But the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004-05, which was Reggie Miller’s final season.
Predictably, Drew expressed no preference of opponents.
“I don’t think our guys are concerned, no matter who we play,” he said. “We haven’t played our best against Boston, but I don’t know if that’s been about us or them. What I’ve told our guys is Boston did a better job of taking advantage of our mistakes. Veteran teams can do that. But we were in a position where we could’ve won both games.
“I know everybody looks at the season series and says we match up better against Indiana, but I really don’t feel that way. If we have our bodies in the lineup, I like our team no matter who we play.”
He would like it even more with Horford, who went through contact drills Tuesday. Drew said, “It’s probably wishful thinking,” that Horford could play some minutes in a regular-season game. But he also left the door open to that possibility.
“It depends how he feels and he progresses,” he said.
This isn’t the time of year for definite answers, in lineups or results. The settling effect will begin in two weeks.
By Jeff Schultz