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Hawks Hope to Get Back on Track

After a rough stretch, the Hawks are determined to find their rhythm again before the playoffs start.

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The Atlanta Hawks have grown accustomed to winning at a high percentage this season, so they aren’t used to losing many games.

The Hawks’ strong start was one of the most surprising storylines of the 2014-15 NBA season, but their rise to the top has left many wondering if they are for real.

Success and the Hawks have gone hand-in-hand in recent years. This, after all, is a team that has made the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons (including this season). Impressive as that may seem, they have yet to make it past the second round and had failed to post higher than 53 wins in any of those seasons.

Until this year.

They started off the year by jumping out to a 42-9 record and posted big wins over some of the NBA’s best teams. They sent four players to the All-Star Game and various other events during All-Star weekend and their starting five was even named as the NBA’s Player of the Month for the month of January, which usually goes to just one player. During a stretch from November 21 to January 31, the team posted a 35-3 record, which included a 19-game win streak. Through Friday night’s win against the Miami HEAT, the Hawks are 55-17 with a good chance to reach the 60-win mark for the first time in franchise history.

Still, the critics were not satisfied and their concerns are gaining traction again given the team’s recent struggles.

Much of their success was based largely on the fact that the team hadn’t been through much adversity. Coaches oftentimes want to see how their team responds when the wins aren’t piling up, due to injuries or other reasons. The Hawks just didn’t seem to have much holding them back.

Following the Hawks’ run of 35 wins in 38 games, they began to lose at a higher rate than they were used to. Some say the team peaked too early, others point to the fact that there just isn’t much playoff experience on the roster. After starting 42-9 in their first 51 games, they’ve gone 13-8 during their last 21 games and have lost to lottery-bound teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets.

When things begin to head south for a team, they often look to anything that can get them back on the right track. They arrived in Orlando on Wednesday sporting a three-game losing streak and trailed the Magic heading into halftime after being down for most of the first half. They outscored the Magic in the third quarter to begin chipping away at the lead and then held Orlando to just 12 points in the final quarter and finished the game on a 24-3 run to pull out the 85-83 win.

“We’ve had a lot of slippage,” guard Kyle Korver said of the team’s recent struggles. “We watched a lot of film and have done a bunch of drills and have talked a lot about just getting better. I thought in the second half we started scoring some points again; we haven’t played good basketball for a couple of weeks.

“I think as a group we just kind of [thought], ‘Yes, we’re finally playing the way we want to play again.’ I think it was a good fourth quarter for our team. To win the game obviously is great, but I think just in the bigger picture seeing us play like that again felt good.”

The team suffered their first major loss of the season when forward Thabo Sefolosha went down on January 30 with a strained right calf that kept him sidelined for 23 games. While Sefolosha only averages around 19 minutes a game, he’s vital to their makeup on defense as he’s one of the team’s best perimeter players. The team got a boost against the Magic when he returned in limited action, but the team will be cautious with him so he’s ready to go come playoff time.

The Hawks were very happy with their team last summer during the offseason and opted to make very few moves, one of which included bringing Sefolosha in. They added Sefolosha to give them a proven defender off of the bench that can slow down opposing team’s best players. With Sefolosha on the floor, the Hawks posted a 99.5 defensive rating, which was good for third-best in the league. With Sefolosha out of the lineup, the Hawks posted a 102.9 defensive rating, which dropped them to 18th in the league.

“We’re continuing to learn,” Paul Millsap said. “[Our goal is] just getting back to how we played especially in the month of January. We played really good basketball defensively and offensively. We felt like if we can get back into that rhythm and get back to being that aggressive team, we’ll have a pretty good chance in the playoffs.”

The team will be hoping that the comeback win against the Magic on Wednesday can end their regular season on a strong note. They responded by beating the Miami HEAT 99-86 on Friday night and led by as many as 26 points over a team fighting for playoff positioning. The win, coupled with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ loss against the Brooklyn Nets, ensured the Hawks would have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Now that home-court advantage has been locked up, the Hawks will focus on getting prepared for the playoffs and returning to playing the brand of basketball they played in January.

“We just got to keep on getting sharper,” Korver said of the team’s final regular season games. “You can’t just expect to go into the playoffs and flip the switch and go and play. We need to use these last 10 games to be smart and we don’t need anyone getting hurt or anything. We need to go out there and play hard and play well and get back to finding our groove again. I thought the second half tonight was the start in the right direction.”

The Hawks will surely need to find their groove again with the playoffs approaching. As the number one seed in the playoffs, teams will be giving the Hawks their best effort every night. They likely won’t earn Vegas odds as favorites to make it to the Finals, but they’ll have one thing the likely favorite Cavaliers won’t: home-court advantage. The Hawks are 31-5 at Philips Arena and will be looking to prove themselves to the world.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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