The two games against Cleveland showed that the Hawks can compete with the best team in the East. Atlanta was one point down to the Cavs in the game at Philips and then led for almost the entire game in Cleveland before a positively horrendous call cost them the game. Then, the Hawks played like the veteran bunch of winners against Boston. There is a classic NBA archetype where a young team will compete with an experienced, superior team for 2-3 quarters before the experienced team turns on the jets late to snatch victory. We've seen the Hawks fall victim to that formula time and time again. So, with that context, you can imagine how gratifying it was to watch a third quarter run dispatch the Celtics on Friday night and then a fourth quarter run do the same on Monday, eradicating Paul Pierce in the process. (Credit to Marvin Williams for stellar defense? Is Pierce having mental problems? Combination of both?)
If Cleveland and Boston were the elite in the East, then life would be grand. The Hawks are 3-2 against that pair and have been in every game. If only Orlando didn't exist. After a good first half against the Magic on Thanksgiving, the Hawks have played their six worst quarters of the year against Orlando in the second half on Thanksgiving and then all game on Saturday night, when they laid a 48-minute turd on the court. The Hawks have now lost five in a row against the Magic since beating them in Orlando in the opener last season. I think it's fair to say that we have a problem with that team, which is why the half-game deficit that the Hawks face in the division seems so much bigger. As far as explanations go, I think that this one is obvious: unlike Boston and Orlando, the Hawks don't have a true center and the Magic's best player is their center. Dwight Howard controls the Hawks offense by blocking shots and, more importantly, giving assurance to Orlando's perimeter defenders so they can get out on the Hawks' perimeter players. Add in the fact that Mike Woodson has never been the best offensive tactician and you have a recipe for problems. The solution would be Al Horford developing a perimeter game to draw Howard away from the hoop, but I don't see that happening in the space of months. (You know whom the Hawks could really use? A modern-day Bill Laimbeer. Now that's a sentence that I never thought I would type.) So let's just agree that we don't want the Hawks to play the Magic in playoffs. Agreed? Excellent. Let's move on.
As usual, I agree with Mark Bradley's take on the Hawks coming out of the eight-game test:
I know it was no fun watching the Hawks lose back-to-back games to Cleveland before New Year’s or seeing the teensy Nate Robinson light them up for 41, but the NBA season is loooonnnngggg. Bad nights happen. The bottom line is that the Hawks are nearing the midpoint having had roughly twice as many good nights as bad. This isn’t the best team you’ve ever seen, but it’s the best bunch of Hawks any of us has seen in two decades.
Look, this Hawks team is probably not going to win an NBA title. With rare exceptions, NBA teams do not win championships if they don't have a truly elite player (top five or ten in the league) and the Hawks don't have one, nor do players like that fall out of the sky. As has been mentioned a time or two, the Hawks had their shot at such a player in the 2005 Draft and passed. If we accept that point and appreciate this team for what it is - a well-balanced, talented, likeable team that will win 50+ games and have a puncher's chance of coming out of the East - then this season and the seasons to come will be fun.