Here’s a sobering thought, but only for the rest of the NBA: Despite much goodness this season for the Hawks, including their current streak of greatness with victories over the splendid likes of Detroit, New Orleans, Utah and Portland, they still have a long ways to go.
It gets better: They know it.
Said Joe Johnson, the Hawks’ extraordinary player who suddenly is operating at a level much higher than that, “We’ve got to get better in closing out quarters and in being aggressive and putting teams away when we’ve got them down. Those are things that we really have to work on.”
Let that sink in, especially since the Hawks have been adept at slaying the elite this season. Take Sunday at Philips Arena, for instance. With much help from Johnson’s 35 points, the Hawks won for a fifth straight time by cooling that previously hot Portland team with a 98-80 rout. They were energetic from start to finish against their long and athletic twins from the West.
As a result, the Hawks solidified their hold in the East on fourth place, which guarantees the last spot for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
It gets even better: The Hawks have prospered without Marvin Williams, who watched the likely end to his renaissance season after he damaged his back five games ago against Detroit. He has missed seven games overall. They’ve also survived missed games by Josh Smith (12), Mike Bibby (2) and Johnson (2).
Here’s where it gets worse: Folks are expecting too much from a Hawks team that has improved in victories during each of the five years that Mike Woodson has coached them. “No, people aren’t being realistic,” said Woodson, with one of the Hawks’ eight owners suing his peers, no true point guard until recently, the death of a player before a season and overwhelming youth. “Since we pushed the Celtics to seven games in the playoffs last season, expectations were flying high coming into this season. And I expect them to be high from a coach’s standpoint.
“There is no excuse for our basketball team not to compete on a night in and night out basis. We’ve done that pretty much this year. But I think sometimes people expect too much too soon. This team gradually has grown, but we’re not an elite team. Are we heading that direction? Yes.”
It’s just that, despite the Hawks’ 39th victory on Sunday after 37 last season, they remain a work in progress. So this is impressive: In the increasingly impatient NBA, the folks who count the most for the Hawks realize the truth.
That is, the Hawks are about where they should be.
“We’re not a veteran team right now, and if you watch young teams through the history of the NBA, they start off by first learning how to win at home,” said Michael Gearon Jr., one of those Hawks owners, whose team is 25-7 at home. They are brutal on the road, but only elite teams win there.
Then again, we just told you that the Hawks aren’t an elite team.
Not yet, anyway.