The Hawks have not met their own expectations in 2015-16 after last year’s historic season. Atlanta has struggled to stay above .500 for the majority of the season until their recent hot stretch. The Hawks had won 9 of 10 prior to Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors, but Atlanta had a chance to redeem themselves on national television game against a struggling Cavaliers team on Friday.
The Cavs are undoubtedly the favorite to take the Eastern Conference crown once again, but with their recent struggles and the strengthening of the East, many believe they are much more vulnerable this season than they were last season. Cleveland came into the matchup with Atlanta on the second night of a back-to-back, so it seemed if their was ever a chance for the Hawks to prove that they are “back”, this would be it.
The Hawks began the game looking like the team that won 60 games last year. They played up tempo and with fluid ball movement to jump out to an early lead. The lead did not last long, as the Cavs three-point shooting and suffocating defense quickly turned the tables. Cleveland jumped out to a 20-point lead in the second quarter and went into the locker room up by fourteen. The feeling was all too reminiscent of the last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Atlanta could have easily laid down, but instead they came out in the second half with a fire lit under them. Whatever Coach Budenholzer said to the guys in the locker game, it worked. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap led a comeback that saw the Hawks take the lead in the fourth quarter. The game went back and forth until the last possession with the game tied, which saw Teague fail to even get a shot off as the time expired. Atlanta kept it close in OT, but eventually fell to the Cavs 110-108.
The loss was not at all embarrassing, and if you ask most NBA fans, they would have probably expected the result. The Hawks made a terrific effort in getting back into the game and at many times looked like a team that could be in for a deep playoff run. However, this game showed the one shining flaw in this team that will keep them from ever being a real championship contender.
The Hawks do not have a guy who can take the last shot. It even goes past that. Atlanta does not have a single guy that can take any big shot. The team seems to flow as a team. If the team starts to get cold, everyone is cold. Several times in last year’s playoffs, the Hawks went through long stretches where they could not buy a bucket. And during those times it seemed like player was just looking at each other to make a shot, waiting for someone to break the ice. Atlanta has had the same problems for the majority of this season and nothing shows us that problem better than their struggles at the end of games on offense.
Last night, Atlanta had the chance to put the Cavs away at the end of regulation. They opted to go with the hot hand in Jeff Teague and let him create something for himself with just under 5 seconds remaining. Teague got the ball on the inbound, stood idle for a few seconds, then finally took off and got the ball knocked away as the time expired. It was one of the worst plays I have seen at the end of a game. Atlanta fell to 0-12 since the start of last season when a game-winning shot is attempted in the final second. It is for this reason that the Hawks are still not a championship contender. When defenses lockdown, like they do in the postseason and at the end of the games, Atlanta has major problems creating consistent offense and is susceptible to long cold droughts. There are going to be several games in the postseason decided by last second shots, and in every situations, Atlanta has the worst odds of winning those games.
Atlanta is a very good basketball team, and I definitely think they have the best shot outside of Cleveland to win the Eastern Conference Finals. However, to beat the elite teams, you have to have a guy who can create his own shot, make something out of nothing and eventually hit a big shot with the game on the line. As good as the Hawks are, their best two players are in the post, and they cannot be relied on to consistently make clutch shots on their own at the end of games.