After holding the third seed for much of the beginning of the season, injuries and poor form saw the Atlanta Hawks limp into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a below .500 record.
The Story So Far
The Atlanta Hawks began the season as “the best of the rest” in the Eastern Conference, holding down the third seed – aka the first seed after the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers – for the first three months of the season.
Unfortunately, after losing their star big man Al Horford for the season with a torn right pectoral muscle, the Hawks swiftly slid down the standings and snuck into the playoffs as the only team with a record below .500 (38-44).
After owning a 25-21 record on Feb. 1, Atlanta lost 14 of their next 15 (including streaks of eight and six-straight losses). They had a small resurgence, bouncing back with five consecutive wins, but responded with another six-game losing streak.
Thankfully for the Hawks, their only competition for the eighth seed was the equally bad New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Knicks almost snatched the final playoff berth at the death, but a win against the reigning champion Heat saw the Hawks officially eliminate Carmelo Anthony and Co with two games to spare.
Beating the Heat also saved the Hawks from facing the titleholders in the first round, the loss denting Miami’s chances of reclaiming the first seed and setting up a showdown with the Pacers in round one for the Hawks.
In the absence of Horford, first-year Hawk Paul Millsap has battled admirably as the focal point of Atlanta’s offence, averaging 17.9 points (a career-high), 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Millsap, who was selected to his first All-Star team midyear, also finished the season ninth amongst power forwards for double-doubles with 30, and notched his first career triple-double earlier in the year.
New head coach Mike Budenholzer was great for the development of point guard Jeff Teague (16.6 points – career high, 6.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game). Budenholzer, who spent 18 seasons under Gregg Popovich, moulded Teague into a Tony Parker-lite for the Hawks, his speed and ability to get into the paint sparking comparisons with the French superstar.
The other big story for the Hawks was the shooting of marksman Kyle Korver. The deadeye gunner extending his NBA-record of consecutive games with a made three-pointer to 127 – beating the previous record, held by Dana Barros, by 38 – before the streak came to an end in a blowout loss to Portland (Korver going 0-5 from deep). Korver also recorded career-bests in points (12.0) and assists (2.9) per game for the season, while leading the league in three-point field goal percentage for the second time at 47.2%.
Meanwhile, DeMarre Carroll (11.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per night), Mike Scott (9.5 points and 3.5 rebounds) and Pero Antic (7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds) also provided some frontcourt depth for Atlanta.
Postseason Performer to Watch
Since joining the Hawks, Louis Williams has failed the regain the form that saw him lead the Philadelphia 76ers in scoring (despite not starting a single game) for the 2011-12 season and finish second in Sixth Man of the Year voting.
To be fair, Williams tore his ACL on 39 games into his first season in Atlanta, and was averaging a respectable 14.1 points and 3.6 assists at the time.
But he has struggled in his return from injury, his shooting percentages and raw statistical output is down across the board, including his lowest points production per game (10.4) in six seasons.
However, his play has improved late in the season. In 31 games through Jan. 31, Williams was averaging 9.7 points per game on 37.8% from the floor. In the 27 games since then, he has upped that production to 11.3 PPG and 43.3% field goal shooting.
The Hawks are a middle-of-the-road offensive team – currently 15th in points per game (100.9) and 18th in offensive rating (105.8) – and they would hugely benefit from adding a prolific bench scorer to their lineup.
If Atlanta are to stand any chance of upsetting the Pacers in the first round, they need Williams to rediscover his scoring ways to give their offence a more dynamic flow.
The Hawks finished the season with a record that would place them 11th in the Western Conference and were a beneficiary of their weak Eastern Conference competition in making the playoffs.
However, they are a better team than their record suggests. They lost a two-time All-Star when Horford went down, and Teague (79 games), Millsap (74), Korver (71), Carroll (73) and Williams (60) all missed crucial stretches during the season.
As mentioned above, the Hawks don’t exactly light it up on the offensive end, which is something that could play into the hands of the defensive-minded Indiana Pacers.
However, the two teams split their season series 2-2 and Indiana has hardly been in inspiring form as of late, winning just six of their last 15 games.
If the Pacers’ funk continues, the Hawks have a realistic chance of causing an upset, but the likelihood is that their season comes to an end after six games.
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