The Atlanta Hawks are about to head west for six games, and not long ago such an excursion would have had us expecting something approaching the worst — meaning 1-5. But we’ve seen enough of these Hawks to know that nothing is apt to faze them, and the only way they’ll return from this trip 1-5 is if Mike Budenholzer chooses to rest his starters for all six games.
The Hawks have already proved their point against the Western Conference, long considered the NBA’s stronger side. They’re 18-4 against Western teams, and here’s the stunning part: Of the eight West clubs that would qualify for the playoffs if they began today, the Hawks are 11-2, having beaten four of those eight on the road.
We’ve already seen that Budenholzer isn’t afraid to lose a game in the pursuit of rest. (That’s what happened in Philadelphia on Saturday.) What will be fascinating is whether this coach cares about finishing with the league’s best record, which would ensure that the Hawks have the homecourt edge in every playoff series including the finals.
Given that they hold an 11-game lead over second-place Cleveland with 19 to play, we can assume that the Hawks will be the No. 1 seed in the East. But the loss in Philly dropped them a half-game behind Golden State for No. 1 overall, and here we ask: Given that it’s only March, does a coach try to game-plan for June?
My guess — and it’s just a guess — is that Budenholzer won’t make a big push to finish ahead of the Warriors. So long as the Hawks are reasonably healthy, it hasn’t much mattered where they’ve played. But I would be surprised if he picks next Wednesday’s game in Oakland as a time to rest anybody. I’d imagine the Hawks wouldn’t mind testing themselves against Golden State again. (They aced the first one, you’ll recall.)
A six-game trip sounds daunting, but it’s really not. The first four stops — at Denver, at Phoenix, at the Lakers, at Sacramento — won’t involve an opponent that figures to make the playoffs. (Of that group, only the Suns are above .500.) Then comes Golden State, and then a game against Oklahoma City. In sum, a big finish to a long trek.
But don’t sleep on the Hawks’ first game back at Philips Arena. They play San Antonio on Sunday, March 22. That’s the one hurdle these made-in-the-Spurs’-image Hawks haven’t cleared. They’re 0-3 against San Antonio the past two seasons. I’m guessing the starters won’t be resting that day, either.