It is tough to predict which games are important before they happen. The results usually do far more than the build up for defining a games impact. Still, in the Hawks 30 remaining games pre-outcome, these five (in order of least to most) bubble up as the most important.
5. At Phonix on 2/19 or at Utah on 2/22
Pick one. This is called the road records are apparently important and these are two feasible wins against above average teams game. If the Hawks go 3-1 to come out of the all-star break, it is obviously not as good as they could do, but it does rise above the "as good as they have to do" line. Right now Atlanta is 13-12 on the road with 17 road games to go. 10-7 seems like a good goal. Winning one of these games would put them well on their way. Naturally, the one they (might) win is the one I will think is far less important.
4.San Antonio 3/21
The Spurs are certainly a barometer for anyone looking at what it means to be a successful franchise, but few teams are using them as barometer to measure their team this season. You can never tell with sneaky Popovich whether he is demanding his players to make every shot ever by simply saying "do it" or if he is fine with mailing in a 28 minute effort by saying "don't do it." All I know is the Spurs are definitely the only team that has mailing it in as an acceptable tactic.
And all that is to say, a Hawks fan could take the embarrassing defeat in San Antonio earlier this year any number of ways because no one knows for sure what kind of Jedi coaching trick Pop employed. Still, the end result is that our coach employed the blank stare and our team got rocked.
Out of this, the 3/21 game becomes a defining home court game. The Hawks have built up an advantage in Philips Arena. They are tough to beat there, but the Hawks often seem to play the Spurs franchise and not the Spurs team. Taking seriously the embarrassment of their first meeting and their own placement among the NBA elite, they need to expect to win at home. They need to play for payback. They need protect home court. This game is a self-awareness test.
3. At Charlotte 4/6
I am not overly worried about Miami (already beat as a worse team), Toronto (our reverse Orlando Magic team), or Chicago (when is 2010 free agency) in the playoffs. I would be shocked if the Hawks lost to any of them. They certainly could, but it just seems unlikely. Charlotte is a different story. They scare me. The acquisition of Tyrus Thomas is just another heap of coal shoveled into my coal powered train of fear engine. The Hawks just have never played well against this team. Now, they are better and still good at defense.
The final two games against the Bobcats could turn into message games. At the very least, they are winnable games, and down the stretch, all winnable games are important. The bottom four teams are so bunched up, who knows who the Hawks will play in the first round, but if you have a chance to exorcise a team demon (or at least a Hawksdawgs' demon) might as well do it. And you only exorcise demons on the road. That is a rule.
2. At Cleveland 4/2
The home game to end the season is probably going to be meaningless for the Cavs. It might be meaningless for the Hawks, but this one, on the road, when both teams will still most likely be playing full bore will have an eye to the playoffs. Throw in the shot clock malfunction game and the Hawks natural tendency to play up for big time opponents and this one is going to have some juice. And lets be honest, in the NBA, there are 82 games. A lot of importance is based solely on juice level.
Random aside, what if the Hawks were a half game back of Boston going into that final game with the Cavs and a win would give them the third seed and a second round match-up with Orlando. Do the Hawks try to win the game against the Cavs? Ahhhh make believe...so pointless, so fun.
1. Orlando 3/24
You have to win one out of four. Ok correction, you just can't get blown out four times. Come playoff time, all you need is a little hope to make noise. It only took a semi head butt in 2008 to find it so hope can be found. But right now, there is no hope for Hawks fans in a series with the Magic. This game needs to find some.