From feel-good story to tales of woe, the Atlanta Hawks have found that reaching the NBA elite is often simpler than remaining at the top.
And with five losses out of six headed into Friday’s home clash with the Chicago Bulls, the heady days of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals seem further removed than ever.
The Hawks had four All Stars last season. 60 wins. A Coach of the Year. Legions of admirers. But despite losing only one starter in Demarre Carroll, it’s been relentless regression in The A-T-L, especially at home where there have already been twice as many losses (12) as in the whole of 2014-15.
Kyle Korver is in a slump. From setting three-point streaks to threatening shooting history, the veteran guard has dropped from hitting 49.2 per cent from three-point range to 38.7, taking away a major bailout option. Hence the Hawks apparent interest in bringing back Joe Johnson following his buyout in Brooklyn.
Add to that Al Horford’s impending free agency, a lack of consistency in the paint and the constant speculation over Jeff Teague’s primacy over Dennis Schroder at point guard and the backcourt, and it’s easy to find clues to why Atlanta – now 21.00 for the Conference crown - have become a puzzle.
All is not lost. There have been moments of clarity, such as when they outscored Golden State by 18 in the third quarter on Monday. Still a defeating but fighting spirit.
Their defence – ranked sixth in efficiency – is giving up 97.1, an improvement of 3.2 on last term. It would only need the slightest of offensive surges to jump up to as high as third in the East where the Celtics are just 2.5 games ahead in a packed playoff push.
That seems to have already started. Over the Hawks last ten games, they’ve scored over 100 points eight times, including a 113-90 rout of the Bulls earlier this morning, lifting their average to 102.5 per night, identical to last season. With Chicago winning three straight while on a scoring blitz, it’s certainly worth a punt on going over 208.5 points, with the hosts a solid bet at -5.5.
They also host the in-form Charlotte Hornets on Sunday with the Hawks leading what could be an important head to head 2-1. With Kemba Walker notching 24.4 per game this month, expect a points tally of over 200.5.
In the paper-thin East, it’s not impossible to see Atlanta making a run back to the Conference Finals if they avoid the Cleveland Cavaliers en route and take vital wins over close rivals like the Bulls and Hornets. The Hawks may not be flying but they’re not grounded yet.
Best bet: Take Atlanta at -5.5 over Chicago