This season has not gone as planned for the Atlanta Hawks.
After making a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, they were expected to be in the mix for one of the higher seeds this season. Instead, they are 37-37 and 10th place in the East with eight games remaining in the regular season.
The silver lining for them is that they have a 4.5 game lead over the 11th place Washington Wizards which practically guarantees their spot in the play-in tournament three weeks from now.
The order of the four teams involved in the play-in has yet to be decided as the Hawks, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Charlotte Hornets are only separated by 1.5 games. It will be interesting to see how things turn out among these teams in their scramble for the eighth seed which will give them two chances to secure one of the two postseason spots that are up for grabs.
The Nets are highly favored to secure one of those two slots and the Hawks need to be taken seriously in this conversation as well despite what seems to be, on the surface at least, a down year for their team.
Their two time NBA All-Star guard Trae Young remarked earlier this season that the regular season was “boring” compared to what they experienced a few months earlier in the playoffs and it has shown in their record.
If last year proved anything though, it is that you cannot take Atlanta lightly and the same has rung true this year. When matched up with the best teams in the league, the Hawks have walked the talk and delivered key victories. Their most recent win came over the Golden State Warriors who entered their match-up in third place in the Western Conference with a 48-25 record.
Although Steph Curry was sidelined, the Warriors were no pushover and came in on the heels of a 118-104 victory over the East-leading Miami Heat. Jordan Poole came in playing the best basketball of his career Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have been showing signs of regaining their championship-caliber form.
Trae Young answered the call and was masterful in their win. He put up 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting, four rebounds, 15 assists, and two steals while he only committed three turnovers. These types of performances have become rather routine for Young, especially in big games, so the challenge has always been on his teammates to give him consistent support.
This was exactly what they did versus Golden State as all five starters scored in double digits. Most notably, Danilo Gallinari, starting in place of the injured John Collins, dropped 25 points and Kevin Huerter added 20 of his own.
Atlanta has also beat the two teams ahead of the Warriors in the West standings which is further proof that they rise to the occasion when faced with a daunting opponent. The Hawks beat the league-leading Phoenix Suns, 124-115, last February behind 43 points from Young.
More recently, they upset the second place Memphis Grizzlies, 120-105, just two weeks ago despite not having Young suit up. Bogdan Bogdanovic led the way with 30 points for Atlanta and he has begun to rediscover his form over their past few games before missing their Golden State outing with a non-COVID illness.
The Hawks also beat the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks and the Heat a mere four days apart last January which should only instill more optimism in their chances when the games begin to matter.
There is no doubt that Young will show up when the stakes are high so the onus will be on Huerter and Bogdanvoic to produce at a consistent level in order to provide him with ample support. These two swingmen played a crucial role in their deep playoff run last year and they will need to reprise those roles over these next few weeks.
These games are slowly beginning to matter more and more and the Hawks will now have to back up Young’s brash claims from last November. They have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league this year and it will be compelling to see if they can pull themselves together for another underdog playoff run.
The play-in was designed to make the end of the regular season more entertaining and it seems like this novel format has found its muse in this ever-riveting Atlanta team.