Peach State Sports Blog

Shirley: Atlanta has questions entering NBA playoffs against Brooklyn

The Atlanta Hawks had a terrific regular season. It was, in fact, the best regular season in franchise history if judged only by the number of wins.

Atlanta won 60 games in a season for the first time and enters the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 1 seed for just the second time. That’s pretty strong stuff.

But now the Hawks have to see if they can match that success -- or surpass it -- during the playoffs, opening against eighth-seeded Brooklyn on Sunday.

This Hawks group has a strong starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford and a terrific head coach in Mike Budenholzer, who should be the NBA coach of the year. The Hawks focus on team-first offense, moving constantly, sharing the ball and getting open looks, and they are better defensively than most people realize.

They went 4-0 against Brooklyn during the regular season and had a winning record against five of the other six Eastern Conference playoff teams ­(Toronto being the lone exception). Golden State was the only team with a better record.

Even with all its positives, Atlanta faces more question marks than typically surround a No. 1 seed entering the playoffs.

First off is Atlanta’s postseason history. The Hawks haven’t won a playoff series since the 2010-11 season, losing in the first round to Boston and then Indiana twice in the past three seasons. Also, Atlanta has never reached the Eastern Conference finals, so there isn’t a lot of postseason success to lean on as a franchise.

So what will be considered a success in the playoffs? Does this team have to get to the NBA Finals, or if is it beaten in, say, the conference finals, is that a good season for the franchise?

Then there is the playoff structure itself. Despite everything this group has accomplished this season, it has never faced the pressure of the playoffs (remember, Horford missed last year’s postseason). Things change during the playoffs, and these Hawks have yet to see what that’s like as a group.

Can their no-stars, share-the-ball structure work once things bog down in a seven-game playoff series? Or will the opponent be able to lock down on the Hawks with extra time to focus on what they try to do offensively?

Can Teague continue his solid point guard play? Can Korver continue his on-target shooting, or will his career tendency to struggle in the playoffs resurface? Can Carroll continue to do all the dirty work and hit big shots? Can Millsap and Horford continue to stand strong against bigger frontlines?

That adds up to a lot of unknowns for a No. 1 seed.

Plus, the Hawks likely will have to overcome the Raptors in the second round, and Toronto took three of four from the Hawks in the regular season. If the Hawks get by the Raptors, waiting in the wings likely will be LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers or Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. Most folks had the Cavaliers or Bulls winning the East this season, and those perceptions are going to hover over the Hawks until they take down one of those teams.

If they can get to the NBA Finals, the Hawks’ bandwagon is going to be full moving forward, but considering their history and all the other factors, getting to the Eastern Conference finals would be a huge step forward in the right direction.

There is no question about that.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or dshirley@macon.com

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