They won 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals, two signal achievements, but in the end the best team in Atlanta Hawks history reminded us it was still an Atlanta Hawks team. In the end, it embarrassed itself.
Go ahead. Make any excuse you want. Injuries? Yes, the Hawks had injuries. But let me remind you that in Game 2, they started four 2015 All-Stars to Cleveland’s one, and they lost by 12 points — at home in the series’ biggest game — after trailing by 20. In the elimination Game 4, they were down to three All-Stars and Cleveland was up to two, and the No. 1 seed was beaten by 30.
The Hawks were 60-22 in the regular season, having gone 10-2 against the teams they’d face in the playoffs. They went 8-8 against those three opponents — Brooklyn, Washington and Cleveland — in postseason. The path to the NBA finals couldn’t have been any more inviting: Round 1 brought the 44-loss Nets; Round 2 brought the Wizards, against whom the Hawks were 3-1, and not Toronto, against which they’d gone 1-3, and Washington lost its best player for half the series.
Then the Hawks faced Cleveland, which lost Kevin Love in Round 1 and was without Kyrie Irving for half of the Eastern Conference finals. Even before Kyle Korver suffered an ankle injury and the series shifted to Ohio, it was all but done. The Hawks mustered a professional effort in Game 3 — they lost in overtime after wasting a four-point lead with 1:24 remaining in regulation — but mailed in Game 4.
You can say that the Hawks, in the end, were outmanned. If so, they were outmanned by what was, in Games 2 and 3, a one-man team. (Yes, the one man was LeBron James.) You can say that the Hawks were unaccustomed to high-level playoff basketball and didn’t know how to act, but this was also the first conference final for Irving, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, and they seemed to figure it out.
Make any excuse you want, but here’s where I note that, after Game 3 in a tied Round 1 and after Game 2 in a conference final where they’d already lost at home, the Hawks themselves conceded they hadn’t played hard enough. (And this was before the 30-point loss in an elimination game.) That cannot happen, but it did, more than once.
As much as I enjoyed watching the Hawks during the regular season, those Hawks were a playoff no-show. If you hadn’t known they were the No. 1 seed, you’d never have guessed by how they played. They weren’t precise. They were rarely the aggressor. They were lucky to survive Round 2, in which the final four games came down to last-second shots. Come Round 3, they were ready to go home. And so they have.