For the last few weeks, I’ve been starting these columns off by writing about the team’s recent struggles. This has been warranted by a cascade of bad losses and crippling injuries, and anyone who watches the Hawks knows how rough the last month has been for the team. The beginning of this past week was no different — the loss in Brooklyn was borderline-disastrous — but now there are finally some encouraging wins to talk about. And after Saturday’s games, the Hawks have officially secured their playoff berth.
During this past week, Atlanta lost a game in Brooklyn, but then won both games of a back-to-back with Boston and Cleveland. These two games don’t erase the struggles of the last month, but they’re still encouraging. Perhaps even more importantly, they took the Hawks’ playoff status from “probably” to “certainly,” as the Hawks clinched a spot in the playoffs after Chicago’s loss to Brooklyn.
During the last few weeks, FiveThirtyEight has provided a good measure of the Hawks’ playoff chances. The Hawks’ playoff odds have fluctuated between the mid 90s and mid 80s over the past few weeks, but rose to greater than 99 percent after Friday night. Now, of course, the team is formally in.
In some ways, the outcome of the Hawks’ games this week defies all explanation. The team was favored to win in Brooklyn, and the loss there was one of the lowest points of the season. Even Millsap’s return didn’t help matters as the Nets won fairly easily. There seemed to be little reason (outside of rest) to expect an Atlanta victory against Boston later in the week, but the victory over the Celtics showed a Hawks team that looked focused and poised for the entire contest.
After that, the victory in Cleveland may be the single weirdest outcome of an Atlanta Hawks game all season. Mike Budenholzer rested his entire (normal) starting lineup, and the collection of bench players solidly defeated a full-strength Cleveland Cavaliers team. To defeat a team that has caused Atlanta so much heartbreak over the past few years is always enjoyable, and the fact that the Hawks did it without their best players is astonishing. It’s quite possible that an angry Cleveland team will sprint of the gate and destroy the Hawks this afternoon, but locking down even a split of this two-game set is vital for the playoffs.
Looking ahead, the Hawks schedule is manageable for this week. Atlanta’s game against Cleveland today will be difficult, but the next two — at home against Charlotte on Tuesday and at Indiana on Wednesday — are both winnable. The Hornets may be past the point of caring by April 11, but the Pacers game will be a very important one to watch. While anything can change, it seems highly likely that this final matchup will determine at least one of these team’s playoff seed.
The Hawks’ struggles over the past few weeks can’t be pushed under the rug, nor should they be. Atlanta has real flaws going into the playoffs, but this past week of games brought encouraging results that feel almost out of place during recent weeks. With only three games left until the season ends, the Hawks are fighting for playoff position against (mostly) teams they should be able to beat.