The Atlanta Hawks have been underwhelming this season and hit a new low point last week when a five-game losing streak dropped them to 17-25 in this campaign.
This same team made a surprising run to last year’s Eastern Conference finals and was expected to compete for one of the top seeds in ‘21-’22. While missing De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic for extended periods of time this season gives them somewhat of an excuse, the group of Trae Young, Clint Capela, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter have all enjoyed a rather clean bill of health.
Despite their poor performance, the one thing that has not wavered with this team is the sometimes irrational swagger that stems from Young and trickles down to the rest of their roster. It can hurt them at times, but it is also what has kept this team resilient amidst all the rough patches that they have had to endure this season.
Back in November, they tumbled down the standings with a six-game losing streak then immediately made up for it by winning seven consecutive contests. They then proceeded to seemingly alternate wins and losses over December before their most recent string of poor performances in January. These kinds of streaks could break any other team’s morale, yet these Hawks have proven once again that they cannot be kept down.
Atlanta has now won their last three games and it all started with a 121-114 win over the team that eliminated them last season, the Milwaukee Bucks. Though the Bucks did not have their starting point guard and Young’s main defender Jrue Holiday, it was still an impressive win for the Hawks.
They played the game with playoff-level intensity and it carried over to their two succeeding matches where they beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 134-122 then eked out a 110-108 victory over the Miami Heat who came into the game as the second seed in the East.
As he has all season long, Young has been brilliant over these past three games with averages of 31.6 points and 10.6 assists per game while Collins has also been solid as expected. However, it seems that the biggest difference between this week’s impressive victories and the string of losses from the prior two weeks has been the play of Hunter and Huerter.
The 24-year-old Hunter finally returned last week after suffering a wrist injury in their November 13 loss to the Denver Nuggets and has wasted no time since his return. He has scored in double figures in five of the six games that he has played in January and it is no coincidence that the Hawks have hit their stride as he has reacclimated himself following his two-month absence.
Hunter, who is a versatile 6’7 wing, was unavailable for most of their playoff run last season and may very well be the piece that determines how high Atlanta’s ceiling can go this year. He is hitting 41.5% of his threes this season and can play both forward spots which makes him the perfect player to have in the modern landscape of the NBA.
The fourth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft had 20 points and nine rebounds against the Bucks, followed it up with 22 points and five rebounds versus the Timberwolves, and capped it off with 13 points and 10 rebounds in the win over the Heat.
Meanwhile, the fourth-year player Huerter seems to have finally found stability in the new calendar year. His infuriating inconsistency has been well documented, with the most prominent example coming from last year’s postseason where he would oscillate between being the best player on their team and practically invisible for entire games.
The 6’7 guard’s best game from those playoffs was his 27-point showing in Game 7 versus the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. While these kinds of performances are not expected from him every night, he has finally found a steady level that is a close approximation.
Huerter’s ascendance factored into the Hawks’ decision to trade away Cam Reddish and he has played with a renewed confidence since then now that he has less competition for playing time.
The 23-year-old guard has scored at least 11 points in eight of their 10 January games and will continue to be needed by Atlanta, especially for his secondary playmaking abilities, if they are to make another second half push back into the playoff picture.
The Hawks have now gained momentum through their three-game winning streak and with a relatively soft schedule coming up, a run up the standings is plausible. They are currently 20-25, which puts them only two games behind the Boston Celtics for the last play-in spot with still almost half of the season remaining. As a point of reference, the Hawks started 11-16 in the shortened 2020-21 season before finishing with a record of 41-31.
With the winds of the second half of the season finally coming in, it looks like these up-and-coming Hawks are ready to spread their wings once again. The talent level on this team suggests that they are much better than their current record and with the pair of Hunter and Huerter looking readier than ever for primetime roles alongside Young, it’s only a matter of time before they become the talk of the league once again.