Twelve days ago Mike Woodson said of his Hawks: “We’re right where we want to be. We’ve closed the gap on the top three teams, and now we’ve got to make a serious push and be committed. After the All-Star break, we have to really concentrate on trying to win our division … Somehow we’ve got to try to get the second spot [in the East].”
File that under “message not received.”
The night of Woodson’s call for commitment, his team lost by 18 points at home to the sub-.500 Miami Heat. The Hawks have since lost two of three on their Western swing, which can happen. But it shouldn’t happen when the second of those comes against a lousy Golden State team missing Corey Maggette on a night when the Hawks hold an 18-point lead. And now we have to ask: Has this club hit the wall?
After Jamal Crawford beat Phoenix at the buzzer on Jan. 15, the Hawks were 26-13. They’re 8-7 since. They’ve dropped from first place in the NBA Southeast to fourth in the Eastern Conference, which is where they don’t want to be.
Woodson’s point about needing to win the division is self-evident: If you finish ahead of Orlando, you’ll probably be second in the East, which would keep you clear of Cleveland until the Eastern Conference finals and give you the homecourt edge for two rounds, not just one. Instead the Hawks have fallen 2 1/2 games behind the Magic.
Yes, it’s a long season and every team hits lulls — Cleveland is 0-3 since the break — but the Hawks are the youngest of the East’s Big Four, and if any team figured to be fresh after the All-Star Game it was this. But the Hawks were chased down by the Warriors, who are 16-39 and who had eight healthy players. (Then again, Woodson played only nine men himself. No minutes for Mo Evans or Joe Smith.)
Joe Johnson got blindsided by Monta Ellis for a steal and tying hoop with a minute left. Golden State took a lasting lead on a free throw resulting from Jamal Crawford’s technical foul. (T’ed up with 34 seconds left in a tie game? Are you kidding me?) The Hawks mustered 14 fourth-quarter points against the team that ranks last in the NBA in defense.
It was exactly the sort of loss a team positioning itself for the playoffs cannot have. Even if the Hawks win tonight in Salt Lake City, Sunday’s game in Oakland cannot be retrieved. The schedule is about to get softer, but the questions now aren’t about the opponent. They’re about the Hawks. Are they as good as they seemed in January? Or have they gone as far as they can go?