Examining the Hawks’ Stretch Run

Graham Chapple —  February 25, 2016

The end of the All-Star break marks the beginning of a hugely significant time of the season — the stretch run. It’s crunch time across the NBA for many teams. You have teams gunning for the number one seed, teams gunning for home court advantage, teams gunning for the playoffs, and you have a few teams gunning for the lottery.

The Atlanta Hawks can be categorised into the second group mentioned — gunning for home court advantage. But they’ve ran into a wall. They’re currently on a three game losing streak and have lost five of their last six games. They currently occupy the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, with the Charlotte Hornets (who have been hot of late) sitting just two games behind the Hawks having played two games less. It goes without saying that the Hawks have to string together W’s down the stretch if they want to obtain home court advantage. What are they key games/road trips/stretches that the Hawks face as the season winds down?

Atlanta vs. Chicago — February 26th 

The next game in the Hawks’ schedule and the Hawks’ third meeting with the Bulls this season. We’ve officially reached this point in the Hawks’ season — this is a must win game for the Hawks. A must win game not just because the Hawks are on a bad run of form and need a win, but because the Bulls are occupying the sixth seed and are rivals for playoff seeding. A win for the Bulls would also give them life in the season series. It’s very important for the Hawks to get this victory to secure the season series because it’s possible that these two teams’ records could be tied when all is said and done after 82 games.

Atlanta vs. Charlotte — February 28th

The final game of the Hawks’ five game home stand and it’s a huge game against a division rival, the Charlotte Hornets. With Charlotte hovering right behind the Hawks in the standings, it’s very important that the Hawks take care of the Hornets and put some daylight between them in the standings. A win would also secure the season series and, with how close the Hornets are to Atlanta in the standings, that would be greatly beneficial to the Hawks. The Hawks need to close out this poor home stand on a positive note with a victory.

Atlanta’s five game road trip — March 1st – March 10th

The Hawks’ final, multi-game Western Conference road trip is a very important one. Since the Hawks didn’t take care of their business at home for their five game home stand, they have get some results on the road to stay in the race for home court advantage — but that’s not going to come easy. At this moment in time, four of these five teams that they will face on this road trip have .500 or above records. And if the Hawks went 2-2 on their four game Western Conference road trip in January (all against teams with records below .500), how will this trip go down?

Their first game of this road trip is your casual visit to the Oracle Arena and its residents, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are unbeaten at home this season, and the signs point to that trend continuing. Although, that being said, this is the Warriors’ first game home after their seven game road trip. It’s a common occurrence in the NBA for the home team, in their first game home after a road trip, to sometimes come out flat. The Hawks will have to hope this is the case and they have to turn up to capitalise on such a possibility.

After that, the Hawks will do the L.A. back-to-back stand starting with the Lakers on March 4th. The Hawks should be well rested by the time this game comes around, and they should take care of a flailing Lakers team.

The next day, however, they take on the Clippers. In a perfect world this would be the game the Hawks play on the first night if this back-to-back but, alas, it’s not to be. If there was ever a game to show that the Hawks are a team worthy of home court advantage, it would be this one.

After the L.A. back-to-back, the Hawks face a tricky game in Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz are a team that have playoffs aspirations and they will show up for this game — they realise how close they are and know how fine the margin for error is. The Hawks need to bring a similar sense of urgency, especially if this trip isn’t going well to this point. With the shot blocking ability of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, the Hawks will have to think twice about attacking the rim.

The Hawks’ final game of this road trip takes place north of the border, a very important game against the Toronto Raptors. The Hawks probably see themselves in the same echelon as the Raptors —  a home court team with the ability to possibly challenge Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. As such, they have to show up at the ACC and play like that kind of team. Overcoming one of the best backcourts in the entire league, in Lowry and DeRozan, will not be an easy task though.

If the Hawks go 1-4 on this road trip (which is very possible) then they’re in trouble. If they’re serious about wanting home court advantage, they’ll probably need to go at least 3-2 on this trip. And that’s going to be difficult.

Washington back-to-back — March 21st & March 23rd

The Wizards have been almost irrelevant all season long, but they’ve always hung around in the standings to give themselves a chance of scraping the playoffs should they go on a run. The arrival of Markieff Morris, and the return of a healthy Bradley Beal, has given the Wizards some sort of life, and they sit just three games out of the playoffs. Now that the Wizards are in a playoff race, they have incentive to turn up to every game from here on out, and the home and away fixtures have been a problem for the Hawks. Although they won two in a row against Charlotte in the very early stages of this season, when facing a team twice on the bounce the Hawks have lost the last four — losing the home and away fixtures against Orlando and New York.

The Wizards will also still be looking for blood after losing in the second round of last year’s playoffs to the Hawks — a series Wizards fans feel they could’ve won had John Wall been healthy.

Sprint to the finish, a pivotal four game stretch — March 26th – April 1st 

As the playoffs are fast approaching the Hawks find themselves in a, potentially, ‘make or break’ week. It starts on the second night of a back-to-back in Detroit (and the start of a three game road trip), after taking on the Milwaukee Bucks at home the night before. Whether the Pistons are still contending for a playoff spot at this point is unclear — they should be given their talent, bolstered by the acquisition of forward Tobias Harris. Facing a driven Detroit side on the road will be tough, especially for the bigs — Andre Drummond is a nightmare matchup for the Hawks.

After that comes the Hawks’ final game against the Bulls at the United Center. This is a game that will have playoff seeding consequences, whether it’s for the winner/loser of this game, or for the teams hovering around them. If the Bulls keep the season series alive on Friday the 26th February, this game will have that little bit more on the line. Jimmy Butler should also be back in the lineup by this stage, a notable absentee from the Hawks’ blowout victory at the United Center prior to the All-Star break.

The final game of this three game road trip, once again, ends in Toronto for a meeting with the Raptors. It’s unclear whether DeMarre Carroll will be back by this time, but if he is it gives the Hawks a better shot at a victory. The Raptors will be figuring how to reintegrate DeMarre back into a team that has gone on a tear since Carroll came out of the lineup due to injury, and I’m sure the Raptors will be willing to dedicate a few remaining games of the regular season to getting him back into the thick of things.

The final game of this stretch comes against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team the Hawks have not seen since November 21st. It’s also the first time the Cavaliers visit Atlanta since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Whether the Cavs will be at the point where they are resting players prior to the playoffs (depending on how far the Raptors push them for the number one seed) will be unclear until the time is close. Regardless, the Hawks have to take care of business and they should want blood after the Cavs swept them in the Conference Finals.

Four game home stand — April 1st – April 9th

The aforementioned Cavaliers game kicks off a four game home stand, the last in the Hawks’ regular season. The languishing Phoenix Suns will roll into Atlanta on April 3rd, and after that the Hawks will play host to two home court advantage rivals — the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. If the Hawks have picked up their game, and their hopes of home court advantage, these should be two playoff-like games at Philips Arena — particularly the Celtics game.

The Hawks need to close out their home stand with a better record than their current five game home stand before heading out on the road for their final two games of the regular season — at Cleveland and at Washington.

 

The last 24 games of the Atlanta Hawks’ season really are ‘make or break’. If they fall out of the playoffs completely, you can probably say goodbye to Al Horford and this core. If Horford returns, something else will have to change. The Hawks have to perform down the stretch to not just to save this season, but quite possibly next save season too.

Graham Chapple

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