Let’s be honest. None of us have seen the Hawks as a team capable of making playoff noise because they’ve spent the bulk of the regular season being not very good. A week ago, they were 39-38 and not assured of postseason qualification. They’d lost nine of 11 and had to face, in the span of four days, Boston once and Cleveland twice.
Lo and behold, the Hawks beat Boston once and Cleveland twice. They’re safely in the playoff grid, and odds are they’ll face Washington in Round 1. The Wizards, 7-8 since March 11, have slid below Toronto for the No. 4 seed in the East. The winner of the 4/5 series probably will face the aforementioned Cavaliers in Round 2, and the last time the Eastern Conference was won by a team that didn’t have LeBron James was 2010, when the Wizards’ John Wall, now a seven-year pro, was doing his one-and-done year at Kentucky.
It would be unwise to make too much of three rousing victories, given that two were achieved at home and the third was the sort of one-off — a visiting opponent resting all its starters beats the reigning champ by 14 points — that won’t be reproduced this decade and maybe this century. Still, those three games should at least send the Hawks into the playoffs on a high unforeseen a week ago, and there’s a greater point, too: The unassuming local club’s toppling of the teams that will claim the East’s top two seeds tells us the East itself is no great shakes.
No Eastern team will finish with more than 53 wins. When last the conference was topped by a team with so few victories over a full season — 2011-12 was shortened because of a lockout — the year was 2007 and Al Horford had just helped Florida to a second consecutive NCAA title. There’s nobody in this half of the bracket that has had a splendid regular season, not that NBA regular seasons are always a guide.
We around here know that too well. It was two Aprils ago that the Hawks finished seven games ahead of Cleveland — they won the regular-season series 3-1 — but were overwhelmed in the conference finals. It doesn’t matter what Eastern team happens to fare the best over 82 games; once the playoffs commence, LeBron’s team plays for the NBA title at worst, and three times over the past seven years it has won the thing.
Here, then, is the tangle: If you look at the Cavs right now, what about them — except the part about having LeBron — makes them an NBA finals lock?
They’re 12-13 since the All-Star break. They’re 1-3 against the Hawks, whom they could face in Round 2. They’re 0-4 against the Bulls, whom they could see in Round 1. They’re 23rd in defensive efficiency. (Only one team ranked below them will make the playoffs — Portland, which will be the West’s No. 8 seed.) They yielded 114 points Friday to a Hawks team minus Millsap, Howard, Bazemore, Schroder and Sefolosha. They yielded 44 in Sunday’s fourth quarter and became the third team in recorded NBA history to lose when leading by 26 after 36 minutes.
Tristan Thompson, the Cavs’ only big man, has a sprained thumb. (Andrew Bogut, imported as backup, tore his ACL in his first game as a Cavalier.) We’ve seen Cleveland destroy the Hawks with 3-pointers — they did it here in March; they did it in Game 2 of Round 2 last spring — but what happens when the shots don’t fall? Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love comprise the lesser two-thirds of LeBron’s latest Big Three, but neither of them can guard anybody. And Tyronn Lue, who has an NBA title on his coaching resume, inspires no great confidence.
If not LeBron’s team, then who? The Celtics have Horford to go with Isaiah Thomas, but the transplanted Hawk hasn’t been quite as good in Boston as he was here. (He had four points and five rebounds in Thursday’s loss at Philips Arena.) The Wizards are an OK team, nothing more. If we go by average margin of victory, the East’s best team is Toronto, which will be the No. 3 seed and is 3-1 against the Celtics, who could be the No. 2.
If this is the year LeBron’s team fails to ignite, do the Hawks — who’ve been swept in postseason by the Cavs two years running — have a chance? Put it this way: Can we envision a team that has been outscored by 79 points over 80 games actually facing Golden State/San Antonio in June? Do we believe that a team that ranks 27th among 30 teams in offensive efficiency is apt to score enough when the playoffs start and even lousy defenders hunker down? Do we believe three giddy results in four days should override an otherwise tepid body of work?
Maybe you do. I don’t. The Hawks could win a series. If they get LeBron’s team in Round 2, they could win a couple of games, which given recent history would be progress. That’s as far as I’m willing to reach, though I must concede: A week ago, I wouldn’t have gone that far.