Michael Lough

Lough: Cleveland humbled Atlanta, but Hawks have good foundation in place

The end, the timing of it, wasn’t necessarily a surprise.

About three months after the NBA season started -- if anybody can remember at this point when it was -- almost everything Atlanta did passed an expectation, raised an eyebrow.

When the Hawks got to the playoffs, the thought here was that it would be a struggle because this wasn’t a veteran group, not a veteran group together and a group that didn’t have any real playoff success to rely on as an aid.

The “must have a superstar” mentality didn’t sound right (even if the three other teams left each have one). That’s a nice topic for those filling airtime all morning, afternoon and night, but the ball doesn’t know who’s handling it.

I figured that just getting past the second round marked the season as a win, since, you know, the Hawks never have been in the Eastern Conference finals.

They did that and didn’t need a seventh game in either of the first two series, breaking ties with two straight wins to top Brooklyn and Washington.

Alas, a good regular season followed by a depressing postseason is an Atlanta tradition started about 20 years ago.

That said, here’s hoping the hand-ringing and paranoia about Matthew Dellavedova stops any day now.

Is anybody really capable of being in an intense game, owning fly-like peripheral vision, chasing loose balls and thinking, “Let’s see, if I go after the ball this way, and he goes after it that way, maybe I can manipulate my body a certain way and take him out.”

Not hardly. Let’s not give people too much credit for that much multitasking.

Take a week from the end of the series and look at the plays again.

Kyle Korver: Anybody who knows knows that when you’re flying for a loose ball, in football or basketball, you try to get between the opponent and the ball. If you get to the ball first, you try to protect it.

Fundamental. Maybe it was a better football play -- you cover the ball, don’t try to pick it up -- than basketball, but it was a basketball play. and Dellavedova got there first.

Al Horford: First, it wasn’t a Flagrant 2, but it sure was about a Flagrant 1.4. Horford was trying a WWE move and it missed. He’s not that clumsy.

But DeMarre Carroll was on the ground in front of Horford and Dellavedova and is who Horford started stumbling over while his elbow was in Dellavedova’s throat, and they both tumbled.

Few players have the footwork to manipulate things in that kind of scrum, during which Dellavedova was falling, with no ability to push himself anywhere.

At no point in watching either of those plays did I figure Dellavedova had a “Free Suh” T-shirt on, nor did I expect him to call Ndamukong Suh and compare notes.

Fans being fans, they’d love their own guy’s hustle, throwing his body around just to get the ball. Yeah, they would.

Nevertheless, there are no secrets why Atlanta lost the series.

For one, the best player on the planet was on the other side. And the best player causes that rising tide that lifts all boats, his team winning even when he shoots 14-of-37 overall and 1-for-6 on 3-pointers.

If one can put The Decision in the basement once and for all, at least until there’s another one, one has to give LeBron James some respect, because the numbers don’t fib.

For another, remember that the Hawks went 38-44 a year ago, with no tradition of bouncing back or reversing fortunes.

Eight of the top 10 players in games played were back. From a 38-44 team. Anything past 45 wins -- which Atlanta had done twice this century -- was pleasant. Nobody saw 60 wins coming.

For another, less Hawks basketball led to no more Hawks basketball in the playoffs.

Lanes opened up on defense. Not nearly enough Hawks offense was run. They got hammered on the boards, by 11.3 overall each game and by seven on the offensive side. Remember that one Cavs possession with four offensive rebounds?

They couldn’t muster consistent scoring runs on offense or counter with consistent stops on defense. Note to Hawks: Heard of the pump fake? Stay on your feet 10 yards from the bucket. Thanks.

Some players didn’t carry over their regular-season execution to the postseason, certainly not consistently.

For another, in the battle of health, Atlanta lost, because Carroll needed to be 100 percent to defend James, no matter what percent James was, because he’s the best player in the game.

Korver’s series impact was disappointing by the time he got hurt. Atlanta had long ago adjusted to the loss of Thabo Sefolosha. And a 100 percent Al Horford is mighty good.

The sweep notwithstanding, Atlanta had a better season than anybody expected and got the state to care about the sport on a pro level, which is downright stunning and positive. And they reminded us all that it’s a team sport, which so many had forgotten.

One great year does not a winning program make, but the Hawks have the winning program template in place. Finally.

Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 or mlough@macon.com.

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