Watching the Atlanta Hawks this time a year ago made you want to compose sonnets. Watching them today makes you wonder, "Where'd that sonnet stuff go?"
They aren't the same. The record -- after losing to the Clippers at Philips Arena on Wednesday, they're 27-20 -- tells us so, but it's not just the record. It's how they look. There's none of that soaring stuff that moved us to wax rhapsodic during their undefeated January 2015. They're no longer the team that carried pace-and-space to idyllic extremes. They're just another halfway decent club.
That's not to say they should pull a Braves and quit on the season. They're leading the Southeast Division. They're four games behind Toronto, which at the moment would be the East's No. 2 seed. It's not inconceivable that they could reach the Eastern Conference finals again. (Though it's hard to envision them beating Cleveland. Then again, the Cavaliers have issues of their own.)
But here's the thing: Everything the Hawks do now is a grind. They lack the separation gear of last winter. They lost Wednesday to a West Coast team on the second night of an Eastern back-to-back and the end of a five-game excursion, a team that missed six layups in the first four minutes and 22 of 27 treys on the night. (Also a team playing without the chastened Blake Griffin, man in the news.)
Granted, the Hawks were coming off a Western swing, and the longstanding NBA truth is the first night back at home is kindling for a flameout. But this was a game a really good team playing at home wins. The Hawks are only a pretty good team.
This being the NBA, they had a chance. Kyle Korver's 3-pointer with 24.6 seconds remaining gave them a one-point lead. DeAndre Jordan's dunk off Chris Paul's penetration and pass grabbed it back. In the final 10 seconds, Paul Millsap missed a 4-footer, Al Horford missed a free throw and -- after Jeff Teague deflected the inbounds pass off Paul -- Millsap missed a layup to tie. Clippers 85, Hawks 83.
(The Hawks are now 15-8 at home. They were 35-6 last season. Just sayin'.)
Here we state the obvious: A year ago, the Hawks don't lose this game. But these aren't the Hawks of a year ago and they won't be again. That was a special season. (At least until they ran into Cleveland in May.) This is a new year without DeMarre Carroll and Danny Ferry, with Horford turning into a 3-point shooter -- he tried five treys Wednesday, missing four; he has taken 140 3-point shots on the season, more than twice as many as over his first eight NBA seasons -- and becoming a substandard rebounder.
And I wouldn't expect much help from pre-deadline trades. As noted here , there's no compelling reason to unload either Horford -- who can become a free agent at season's end -- or Teague. Unless the Pelicans are in a mood to part with Anthony Davis (and they never will be), there's nobody available who'd effect an immediate upgrade. The die was cast on this season when Carroll signed with Toronto, and everything since has been a tepid variation on last season's stirring theme.
In other words, no more sonnets. Just a pretty good team slogging through its year after.