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The Hawks and the Bayern Munich Problem

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How does a team cope when it has nothing to play for?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The UEFA Champions League hit the quarterfinal stage this week with one giant shock.* Bayern Munich, the favorites after the group stage, were beaten 3-1 by Porto, a team that was and still remains a long shot to win the title. Bayern's defeat isn't fatal - a 2-0 win at home on Tuesday will see the Bavarians progress to their fourth straight semifinal. However, Bayern face an uphill battle and in light of how comprehensively they were handled in Portugal, it requires some assumptions to conclude that they will get the job done.

In the aftermath of Bayern's defeat, a variety of explanations have been offered as to how the tournament favorite could be thrashed by a dark horse. Bayern have a raft of injuries that have blunted their attacking power. For instance, they were missing both of their starting wingers - Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery - on Wednesday. However, a team that starts Thomas Muller (top scorer at the 2010 World Cup and second top scorer at the 2014 World Cup), Mario Gotze (scorer of the winning goal at the 2014 World Cup Final and the second-most expensive German player of all time), and Robert Lewandowski (the reigning top scorer in the Bundesliga and the only player in history to score four goals in a Champions League semifinal) ought not to complain about a lack of talent up front.

Instead, the best explanation is that Bayern have no domestic pressure. Pep Guardiola's side have a ten-point lead with six matches to play. Bayern had an eleven-point lead at the Bundesliga's winter break, which was a record gap at the midway point of the season. As a result, Bayern have gone into each match since returning in January knowing that they do not have to play their best. No single draw or defeat will endanger their death grip on the league. Borussia Dortmund's collapse as a domestic threat has had the effect that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on the United States: there is only one superpower left.

This lack of a domestic competitive threat is a problem for Bayern. When Guardiola won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, his team was pushed domestically by Real Madrid. In both seasons, Barca knew that they had to keep winning or their hated rivals would catch them. In 2009, Barca's Champions League semifinal - the one that was famously settled by this goal** -  bookended a title-decider in Madrid, one that Barca won 6-2. In 2011, Barca's Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid came as part of four matches in 18 days against Madrid, a series that started with a La Liga match that Barca needed to win or draw to kill off Madrid's challenge. Now, Guardiola's team lacks a domestic rival that forces Bayern to stay sharp. Wednesday's match shows that they haven't been able to maintain their edge.

And this is where we come to the Hawks. Since Atlanta's unbelievable 33-2 run from Thanksgiving through the end of January, the Hawks have known that they are going to be the Southeast Division Champion and the #1 seed in the East. Short of making a run for the best record in the NBA - an honor that has, at best, minor significance - the team had nothing to play for. The lack of motivation has shown, as the team finished 20-14 (11-10 since they beat the Cavs on Nique Night). At least, this is what we have to hope.  The alternatives are that the team was playing way above their heads when they went 33-2 (the team-wide equivalent of Jeremy Lin's run in February 2012), that they have gotten tired, that opponents have figured them out, or some combination thereof.

So can the Hawks just flip a switch and return to the team that was the best team in the NBA (or at least 1a to the Warriors) for almost half a season? The starting five looked great on Tuesday night against the Bulls, so there is a slight indication that they can.

The big difference between European soccer and the NBA is that most NBA teams have little to play for in the last month of the season. Whereas Bayern were playing on Wednesday a Porto side that is fighting tooth and nail with Benfica for the Portuguese Liga title, the Hawks will be playing in the playoffs against teams that have also been on cruise control for weeks. The Nets have theoretically been pushing for the last playoff spot, but you would hardly know it looking at their results. The Raptors - the Hawks' likely second round opponent - went 8-6 in their last 14 games, as they knew they were in the playoffs and would be the third or fourth seed. Even the Cavs - the team that is now favored to win the East - went 6-3 in their last nine games with the losses coming to Boston and Brooklyn, a pair of teams that finished below .500.

And it's nothing new for LeBron's team to finish the year without looking like the best team in the East. James' Heat won the East in all four seasons in which he took his talents to South Beach. Here are their records in their last ten games in all four of those seasons:

Season Record in Last Ten Games

2010-11

8-2

2011-12

6-4

2012-13

9-1

2013-14

4-6

The Heat won the East regardless of whether they were excellent or average in the final ten games. In two of the seasons, they were able to flip a switch and storm through the East. In the other two, there was no switch to flip because the Heat went into the playoffs on fire.

So what does this mean for the Hawks? It means that we should not be overly concerned about the Bayern Munich problem. Yes, the Hawks have not had pressure on them for weeks, but the same is true for most of the teams they will be playing this spring. The real question is whether the performances we saw in December and January are reproducible. Is that level of play something that we can expect from the Hawks when they are healthy and focused or was it a team playing in a zone that they cannot find again. We'll start to get our answer on Sunday.

* - As a soccer lover, it's a great pleasure that the sport has made such massive progress as a commercial property in the US that I don't need to start off a piece like this with "the Champions League is a tournament where the top teams from various European leagues..."

** - I will use literally any excuse to embed a clip of this goal. I'm hoping that the Hawks do something similar this spring so I have a Hawks memory to match it, as right now, my Hawks playoff memories are mostly heartbreak. What does it say that my happiest memories of the Hawks in the spring are the home games against the Celtics in 2008, a series that ended with the Hawks getting thrashed in Game Seven. Contrary to Zaza's proclamation, it was, indeed, easy for Boston.