With the regular season winding down rapidly, every remaining game for the Atlanta Hawks is a must-win game. They’re currently locked in a playoff scrap against the Milwaukee Bucks for the 5-seed, with the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers just 1.5 games behind the Hawks occupying the 7th, 8th and 9th seeds. Every game is so important. It is essential for the Hawks to avoid those 7 and 8 seeds. They should want absolutely no part of a round one series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who could finish 1st or 2nd in the Eastern Conference.
But while the Hawks are furiously engaged in their own playoff race they are set to play a major part in another playoff race — the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are separated by just one game. With three meetings with these two contenders in the last five games of the regular season, no other team in the NBA has more of a say in who claims the top seed in the East than the Hawks do.
And it all starts on Thursday night when the Hawks tackle the Celtics — who are on the second night of a back-to-back having been blown out by the Cavs on Wednesday night — at Philips Arena in another throwback night, donning the Pete Maravich-era jerseys. The season series is tied 1-1 with the both teams winning games in each other’s building. While the Hawks shouldn’t settle a first round series against the Celtics (if that’s what it came to), the Celtics are probably the one team out of Cleveland, Boston and Washington that the Hawks would prefer to face in a round two matchup, should they get there.
Should the Hawks win their game in hand (they’ve played 77 games while the Bucks have played 78 and are half a game ahead of Atlanta, who own the tiebreaker) they’ll move into fifth place but would be doomed to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in round two, should the Cavs see out their last four games of the regular season and, of course, should the Hawks win their first round series.
But with these three games against the Eastern Conference’s top two there’s a unique opportunity for the Hawks. There’s a few interesting things the Hawks could try to accomplish in these three games against the Celtics and Cavs which could set themselves up for something down the road and in the playoffs. If you’re a fan of conspiracy theories, you might like this next part.
Would the Hawks be better off throwing this game against the Celtics in favor of securing the 6-seed rather than the 5-seed to avoid a potential round two matchup with the Cavs? Possibly. The 6-seed would obviously set the Hawks up with a 3-6 matchup — today at least — against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors might be that one team in the East’s top four that the Hawks matchup against somewhat well against (Atlanta 2-1 winners of that season series).
The Hawks certainly matchup better against the Raptors than they do against the Washington Wizards, a team who just cause Atlanta so many issues and are just a much superior team than the Hawks. You could almost guarantee a loss in a playoff series against the Wizards. Against the Raptors…there could be a little more unpredictability about that series. That’s not to say the Hawks would necessarily win that series, but it could be interesting. The other part that scenario would create is if the Cavs take care of business and secure the 1-seed, the Hawks — should they actually win that 3-6 matchup — would avoid the Cavs in round two and would possibly (but more than likely) face the Boston Celtics instead. A much better matchup for the Hawks.
So, that’s one theory.
Here’s another one…the Hawks could give this game to the Celtics and try and win both games against the Cavs which, if the Hawks managed to do so, would give the Celtics (should they take care of their own business) the top seed again. However, the Hawks would slide to the 6-seed and would have to hope the Bucks drop one of their remaining games (@ Indiana, @ Philly, Charlotte and @ Boston[!!]) to give the Hawks the opportunity to regain the 5-seed. It’s a very dodgy and risky business, hoping for other results to go your way and you can never expect to just “win” games especially at this time of the season. But if this were to happen and the Bucks dropped the game the Hawks would need them to, and the Hawks took care of their business, it would give the Hawks the opportunity for a round two matchup against the Celtics from the 5-seed, again, should the Hawks manage to win in round one.
The thing to note in all of this is the Hawks do have a bit of wiggle room — they’re 1.5 games ahead of the chasing pack (Miami, Indiana and Chicago) and would move two games ahead if they won this game against the Celtics. They can technically drop a game and get away with it but that’s a very fine line to dangle when you play the Celtics and Cavs three times in the last five games as well on the road at Indy on the final day of the regular season.
Is any of this actually likely to happen? Probably not. With how inconsistent the Hawks have been and an urgent need to get everyone on the same page at the most important time of the season — especially now that almost everyone who has missed considerable time due to injury are now back in the fold — they can’t be playing games within games, as such. They need to play to the best of their ability and try to win every game they can. The Hawks are not in a position to throw games and recover from wherever they may finish in the standings. Last year’s team could afford to do that, to play games and throw games to get themselves a favourable playoff matchup (you could argue last year’s team did do that, given how much of a depleted Wizards team the full strength Hawks team lost to on the final day of the regular season). But not this year’s team.
Regardless how the Hawks approach the end of their regular season, they have a massive part to play in the race for the Eastern Conference’s top seed but, as it should, it starts with themselves.