After playing two completely different games against one team in six days, the Hawks game tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks could easily set the tone for how the team will play through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Wednesday night’s 23 point victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Philly showed the team the Hawks can be, but so did the team’s 101-90 loss to those same Sixers a week ago.
“Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten who we need to be,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew after the loss at home. “Within these last couple weeks we’ve lost that. We’re not grinding, we’re not starting the game with energy. This is familiar.”
It’s very familiar. The inconsistency has been there all season and as the playoffs loom the Hawks will need to play more like the team they were Wednesday night and less like the team that lost three straight games just before.
Josh Smith led the team against the 76ers Wednesday with 28 points and 12 rebounds, dishing out four assists as well. It was the ninth time in his career he had put up those numbers. Smith is third in Hawks history when it comes to getting those stats in multiple games. Dominique Wilkins did it 15 times and Walt Bellamy had 10 such performances.
The good Josh Smith seems to go along with the good Hawks team. In the embarrassing home loss to the 76ers, Smith had a deceptive 19 points and only six rebounds. The moment that typified the night came with 7:26 remaining in the first quarter when the forward couldn’t be bothered to pick a loose ball up from the ground and it rolled out of bounds for a turnover.
But it’s not just Smith whose play has been hard to comprehend from game to game. The team hasn’t put together more than two wins in a row since mid March and those three victories came on the heels of three straight losses.
Just as the team has had some memorable wins, the Hawks have found new and interesting ways to lose this season. After previously struggling to finish games in the fourth quarter and then giving away halftime leads in the third early in the season, Atlanta ceded 40 points to the 76ers in the first quarter of the April 5 game and never recovered.
“I’m very concerned we’re not coming out with urgency,” Drew said. “The intensity and urgency is not where it should be. My concern is the mentality of our team.”
The players seemed less worried about their identity crisis than their coach, though.
“It’s too late in the season to still try and find our identity,” Smith said. “We’ve got to know and play it to the ‘T’.”
Point guard Jeff Teague echoed that sentiment.
“We know who we are,” said Teague. “We’re an up-tempo, tough defensive team. When we’re playing like that we’re tough to beat.”
Tough defense and quick pace are two things that have helped the Hawks win all season, but on certain nights both are conspicuously absent without explanation.
The playoff-bound Bucks are in need of a win after dropping two in a row, four of their last five and nine of their last 12 games. They’re a team the good Hawks should beat, but guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, along with big man Larry Sanders, will take advantage if the bad Hawks take the floor.
With just three games remaining in the regular season and a chance to move up in the playoff standings still a real possibility, the Hawks need the blue collar, tough defensive, up-tempo team to show up at Philips Arena tonight and for the remainder of the season. Whether or not they do will likely determine how long that season is.