Mike Budenholzer said Tuesday night that his Atlanta Hawks have always known what they need to do to play well; the difference, he said, is that "we're doing it better." A week ago those Hawks were 39-38 and no lock to make the playoffs. Today they're 43-38 and ensconced as the East's No. 5 seed, which isn't a terrible place to be.
The No. 4 seed is Washington, which has spent decades doing nothing and which the Hawks dismissed in six (admittedly fraught) games two postseasons ago. The No. 1 seed is apt to be Boston, which the Hawks beat 4-2 in Round 1 last year and against which the Hawks are 2-1 this regular season. As it stands, the Hawks wouldn't face LeBron James until the Eastern Conference finals, and there's no guarantee careening Cleveland makes it past Toronto in Round 2.
In sum, not a bad draw. And if the past few games are any measure, the Hawks don't look like a bad team. Question is, do recent looks deceive?
The Hawks were 39-38 because their offense had been terrible. They beat Boston last Thursday by scoring 71 first-half points, an achievement Budenholzer cited as a turning point. They beat Cleveland in overtime Sunday by scoring 44 fourth-quarter points to override a 26-point deficit. They clinched the No. 5 seed Tuesday by scoring 38 first-quarter points against Charlotte , which was playing its final game and not playing all that hard. (The Hornets guarded nobody, a key reason the Hawks made 70.6 percent of their first-half shots.)
Those seeking reasons to be cheerful about the Hawks' playoff chances can find a few. They're 17-11 against Eastern Conference teams that will/can qualify for postseason. (They have a losing record only against, er, Washington.) They're getting healthy: Even Thabo Sefolosha played Tuesday night. If they can indeed score, they defend well enough to beat people. (They're fourth among NBA teams in defensive efficiency, 27th on the offensive side.)
They won't have the homecourt edge in Round 1 -- or any round, if the seeds hold -- and that's a concern. Only once since 1996 have the Hawks taken a series that began on the road, and that was against Orlando and Dwight Howard in 2011.
I spoke with an NBA scout before Tuesday's game. He pronounced the Wizards as beatable: They have good guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter has had a big season, but there's not much depth. He also described the Hawks as "mediocre," which their record -- should they lose tonight in Indiana, they'll finish 43-39, which would be a five-game drop from last season, which itself was a 12-game plunge from the 60-22 of 2014-2015 -- certainly suggests.
But the East, as was noted here recently, is itself a mediocrity . None of the teams seeded above the Hawks has had what you'd deem a breakthrough season. Cleveland has been much worse than expected; Boston hasn't been quite as good as it hoped. The East's No. 1 seed will win no more than 53 games. In 2010, 53 wins earned the Hawks a No. 3 seed.
The point being: The door, if not wide open, is at least ajar. If the Hawks play the way they've played over the past four games, they could go a ways. But here we note that three of those games were staged at Philips Arena, and also that this four-game surge was preceded by a loss in Brooklyn to the NBA's worst team.
And that's how the Hawks got where they are. They're 23-21 against teams that will/can make the playoffs, which means they're 20-18 against teams that won't/can't. That's the part that drives the Hawks' brass crazy. This team has showed signs of being pretty darn good, but it will take more than showing signs to win a playoff round. This team is capable of doing damage. It's also capable of spitting the bit.