For a moment, you thought this could be THE moment. A good team going bad had gone from being embarrassed on its home court — the Atlanta Hawks trailed by 23 points with 18 minutes remaining — to leading the best team of this century and maybe since the 1971-72 Lakers. After a lost weekend against undermanned Miami and sub-mediocre Milwaukee, the Hawks were leading mighty Golden State.
Win this game, steal this game, and … well, one game is never much of a predictor, but still: How long has it been since the Hawks won any game that made us sit up and take notice? If you beat the Warriors, the watching world takes notice. Win this one and a regular season that has 24 games remaining might take a different shape. Win this one …
OK, enough. Final score: Golden State 102, Atlanta 92. Three straight home losses for the Hawks coming off the All-Star break. Three straight home losses after the Hawks’ big deadline move was to re-acquire Kirk Hinrich, who hasn’t yet played a minute in his second Atlanta tour. Three straight home losses to drop the Hawks to 31-27.
Know what the Hawks were after 58 games last season? Why, 46-12. That’s a reversal of 15 games, which is a lot for a team that lost only one starter. If we hadn’t known the daring deeds of last year were a one-shot deal, we know it now. Even if you didn’t expect the Hawks to go 60-22 again, nobody saw 31-27 coming.
The Hawks trail Miami by two games in the Southeast Division. They’re a half-game ahead of Charlotte for seventh place in the East. It’s hard to imagine this team missing the playoffs, but then you check the remaining schedule — three games with Toronto, two with Cleveland, another with Golden State — and you note that the Hawks’ lead over ninth-place Detroit is but 2 1/2 games, and then you think, “Whoa.”
For all the reasons the Hawks have sagged the year after 60-22 — lousy rebounding, the absence of DeMarre Carroll, the slippage of Jeff Teague — the biggest is that Kyle Korver has become just another guy. In 2014-2015, he averaged 12.1 points and made 49.2 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s averaging 9.4 points and making 38.8 percent of his treys this season. Against the Warriors, he played 30 minutes and scored two points. (Those on a 2-footer off a loose ball.) He tried only two treys. He had one assist and two turnovers.
It wasn’t happenstance that the Hawks’ rally came with Korver on the bench. Neither was it an accident that the Hawks went from three points ahead to four behind in the four minutes and 14 seconds after Korver returned in the fourth quarter. The Hawks were outscored by 16 points with him on the floor this night. (He wasn’t alone in not pulling his weight. Kent Bazemore was minus-20; the All-Star Paul Millsap was minus-26.)
Some of this could have been foreseen. Korver turns 35 next month and is coming off ankle surgery. But his inability to shake free in the playoffs was why the East’s No. 1 seed had so much trouble with Brooklyn and Washington and no chance against Cleveland. (Once Korver was hurt in Game 2 against the Cavaliers, that was that.) For all the lip service paid to the Hawks’ exquisite balance last season, opponents learned that shackling Korver diminished the four others. The pace-and-space stuff didn’t amount to quite as much if he wasn’t raining 3-pointers.
Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes locked up Korver on Monday night, same as Washington’s Bradley Beal and Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert did in the playoffs. At his advanced age, this is probably the final year for Korver as a starter, but where else will the Hawks turn for floor-balancing? Bazemore will be a free agent. Tim Hardaway Jr. seems a career reserve. Forgive me for repeating myself, but this is not a young team.
That’s the truly sobering part about this lesser season: Even if Al Horford sticks around, next year could be no better. Whatever worked last season — through 82 games, pretty much everything did — has ceased to function. Golden State toyed with the Hawks in pulling ahead by 23 and then, after the home side fashioned a surge built on wounded pride, went on a 16-2 run to re-win the thing. Easy peasey.
Granted, the Warriors are great. But the Hawks aren’t even good anymore. They’re just OK, and over three losses in four days they haven’t even been that. It has been a while since we’ve been able to say, “The Hawks are in real trouble.” But they absolutely are.
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