The Atlanta Hawks came into the playoffs with a 60-22 record and a pretty healthy team, considering they had the number one seed in the East locked up for months and had the opportunity to rest as much as they wanted to. But beginning the playoffs, most picked the Cleveland Cavaliers or even the Chicago Bulls to get to the NBA Finals–not the top-seeded Hawks.
And although they struggled at times with the 38-44 eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets and the up-start Washington Wizards, injuries and other questions have changed the landscape, and the Hawks may find themselves in the best position of all to end up representing the Eastern Conference in the Finals.
They’re currently tied 1-1 in their series with the Wizards and heading to Washington for two games on the road. However, the injury John Wall suffered in the second quarter of game 1 has changed the series, and without Wall the Wizards lose any hope of winning three of the next five games. At this point, Wall is unsure if he’s going to be able to play, but things don’t look optimistic.
The reduction in swelling has been minimal. Wall said if he can’t dribble and the play the way he is accustomed to — he was the starting point for the Eastern Conference all-star team this season — that he is unlikely to be on the floor.
Wall and Bradley Beal are a huge part of what the Wizards do on offense, and without Wall running the point it’s hard to imagine the offense being able to keep up with Atlanta. Case in point, the 16 turnovers and just 90 points scored that the Wizards put up in game 2 without Wall, versus the six turnovers and 104 points they scored in their game 1 victory.
Assuming the Hawks don’t completely implode, it’s a safe bet that they’re going to be moving on to the conference finals against either the Cavs or the Bulls. Injuries have been a problem all season for the Bulls with Derrick Rose again missing significant time, Jimmy Butler spending a stretch of time on the bench and other key players struggling with lingering problems late into the season.
Everyone is available for the Bulls, although Rose has continued to struggle to play consistently well without extra time to rest in between games, Pau Gasol has looked exhausted lately, and Joakim Noah has been just a shadow of himself. The Bulls still have a deep team, and it’s possible they win the series against the Cavs just based on the depth alone. They have nine quality rotation players that have been relied upon at different times during the season to contribute, and they have stepped up when asked.
If the Hawks do end up going against the Bulls, they can match the Bulls down low with Millsap and Horford. Teague may not have the potential of Rose, but he’s been far more consistent and does a great job getting his teammates involved in the game. For the Bulls to get past the Cavs, they’re going to probably need to go seven games, which would give the Hawks a serious advantage in energy.
If the Hawks end up playing the Cavs in the next series, they’ll be getting a team that just go out of the physical series with the Bulls with very little depth remaining. Kevin Love is out for the remainder of the playoffs, and the Hawks could absolutely punish the Cavs in the paint.
The Cavs have no match on the roster for Horford and Millsap, and with the outside shooting of Korver and DeMarre Carroll, LeBron James can’t cheat down into the paint to help. Also factor in that the Hawks would have the home court advantage, which is important because the Hawks were 35-6 during the regular season. You can never discount a team with the best player in the NBA on the roster, but the Hawks would have the upper hand.
After all the talk of the trades the Cavs had made to improve the roster mid-season and the Bulls finally being healthy, multiple factors might combine to keep both of them out of the NBA Finals. The Hawks have the easiest path of any team remaining in the playoffs to earn the right to play for a championship. Lots of things can change, and it’s still early for both of the second round series’, but the Atlanta Hawks haven’t had this big of an opportunity since the days of Dominique Wilkins.
And if they can’t take advantage, who knows how long it will be before they get this chance again?