"The Hawks are soft!"
"The Hawks can't rebound!"
"The Hawks need an interior presence!"
We've all seen these statements with regard to the Atlanta Hawks this season. Somewhat amusingly, these declarations weren't prevalent when the team cruised to 60 wins and the number one seed a year ago with (very) similar personnel, but in a results-driven entity, a team is judged on current performance and, well, the Hawks aren't playing very well right now.
Atlanta fell apart in the second overtime against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, suffering a 117-109 defeat that was especially brutal. While the loss wasn't "bad" in the same sense as the previous night (when the Hawks lost to a Heat team that deployed only nine active players not including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Hassan Whiteside), it was sincerely frustrating for all involved, from the head coach to the players to the pundits and the fans.
Mike Budenholzer described the defeat as, simply, a "tough loss" while Al Horford indicated the showing was "very disappointing" and pointed to "too many little mistakes" as an explanation. Both of those descriptions are apt and, in general, the mood of the postgame locker room was one of palpable exasperation, especially when prompted about the way Milwaukee accumulated the points necessary to claim the win.
With the caveat that the game was played over 58 (instead of 48) minutes, the Hawks allowed 27 second chance points on 17 offensive rebounds and, frankly, that won't get it done. Atlanta has ranked among the bottom five teams in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage throughout the season, but on a night when it seemed like Milwaukee made big play after big play with the help of loose balls and put backs, the impact was magnified. It should be noted that the Hawks finished in the bottom 10 of the league in defensive rebounding a season ago (again, when they won 60 games), so this isn't a new problem, but it is an issue nonetheless and one that Atlanta must focus on shoring up in the coming days.
It wasn't the only problem on Saturday night, though, as the Hawks went ice cold from deep. Atlanta finished the game at just 9 for 41 (22%) from beyond the three-point arc, and the team made only 6 of its final 35 threes (17%) over the final 46 minutes of clock time. Three-point shooting is notoriously frugal on a game-to-game basis, but from an offensive standpoint, Budenholzer indicated that he was pleased with the shot selection, and this was simply a case of missed opportunities, especially in big spots.
The defense has been the (much) bigger issue in the two games since the All-Star break. After allowing 115 points on 50% shooting to the undermanned Heat on Friday, the showing against the Bucks was undeniably better, but a 31-point first quarter put Atlanta in a hole that they would never fully emerge from during the night. Even the second overtime, when Michael Carter-Williams went bonkers with the first six points, wasn't fantastic on the defensive end, and for a group that entered the break as a top-five defense in the NBA, it is unsettling to see slippage even as the stakes become higher and higher.
What does it all mean? That is, as always, the question and the truth is somewhere in the middle. Many Hawks fans are panicking (as fans do) after this loss, pointing to the standings and the possibility that Atlanta could miss the playoffs entirely if the play does not improve. That is certainly an assessment of the team's play that could use some perspective, but the Hawks do hold only a three-game on the 9th-place Pistons as of Feb. 20, and both Detroit and Washington (currently 10th) improved their rosters before Thursday's trade deadline.
Still, it is an overreaction to pour dirt on the season based on two less than enthralling performances. The Hawks did several things well on Saturday, including the strong play of Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder, and if the loss to Milwaukee in double-overtime happened on its own, the impact would be minimal. Friday's game was certainly more alarming given the "blah" nature of the performance, but a step back (or two) would be useful for fans who are burning down the comments section on this very website.
The Atlanta Hawks aren't playing at nearly the level that they are capable of, and that is wildly unnerving. The blame can be passed from the coaching staff to the individual players and, at least to a point, it is justified for most parties. However, this is a group with a proven track record and until they display otherwise over a large sample, making designs on an appearance in the NBA's Draft Lottery seems slightly aggressive.
Al Horford and Paul Millsap are two of the top 30 players in the NBA by any estimation and, while it may be fun and convenient to point to lack of "interior presence", neither is the problem right now. The Hawks are as talented as any Eastern Conference team with the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and sometimes, execution is what matters in a sport that is often described as a "make or miss league".
The excuse-making has to stop at some point and that is undeniable, but the next opponent -- the Golden State Warriors on Monday -- certainly won't be doing the Hawks any favors in aiding their bounce-back to success.