Atlanta Hawks’ beautiful game is gone, playoff bite is not

Atlanta gets wire-to-wire Game 3 victory against Wizards with a little more edge

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

ATLANTA — That beautiful game the Atlanta Hawks used to play, the one that produced the 60-win season and trip to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago, is gone.

It’s finished here, for now at least.

The core parts, sans All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, are scattered all over the Eastern Conference. DeMarre Carroll was the first to go, via free agency to Toronto two summers ago. Jeff Teague was next, in a trade to Indiana last summer.

All-Star big man and one-time face of the franchise Al Horford, wasn’t far behind, choosing Boston in free agency last July. The trade that sent Kyle Korver to the champion Cleveland Cavaliers in January was the last and perhaps most telling move, the player with the most beautiful shot, shipped out of town to the team that smashed that beautiful squad in the conference finals.

It’s taken a while for reality to sink in for the Hawks and certainly for their fans. That magic carpet ride, the best season in the team’s Atlanta history, is a thing of the recent past. Getting back there, in that fashion, does not seem to be in the mix for the immediate future.

But these reconfigured Hawks, the crew that needed a late-season push to secure an Eastern Conference-leading 10th straight playoff appearance, showed enough bite Saturday at Philips Arena to keep things interesting in this first-round series against the Washington Wizards.

They unloaded on the Wizards, taking a 19-4 lead early and cruising, for the most part, to a 116-98 Game 3 win to hold serve at home after getting whipped twice in Washington. Game 4 is here Monday night.

It was brutal basketball at times, nothing like the coordinated pace and space ballet that captivated fans and league observers alike two years ago.

The ball doesn’t move as crisply as it did. The shots don’t rain down in bunches anymore. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, the NBA’s Coach of the Year that season, doesn’t smile nearly as much. Well, he’s never been big on expressing himself that way. But he had no issue with his team’s effort from the start of Game 3.

“The aggressiveness from our group coming out of the gate, in the first quarter set a good tone for us,” he said. “Defensively, we were in a good place. Just the activity and the pace that we played with offensively created a lot of good opportunities for a lot of different people.”

At times, these Hawks looked like distant cousins of the team from two years ago.

But you don’t easily replace pieces that were the ideal fit, even if it wasn’t originally planned that way. You don’t make that magic happen again without keeping your stars together, not in this league, and not without a ton of good fortune.

The Hawks bet on youth, on their system of player development, on their belief that growth from within and shrewd acquisitions would be enough to sustain them. And it has, to an extent. They did earn the fifth seed in an improved Eastern Conference and with a win Monday night they could create a much more intriguing narrative for the coming days.

But even down 2-1, the reviews remain mixed at best.

Dennis Schroder has endured an interesting first season as a starter, mixing plenty of highs (like his 27 points and nine assists and just three turnovers Saturday) with plenty of head-scratching lows in taking over for Teague.

His challenging of Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall in this series, however, is worth the price of a ticket on its own. Wall was great again Saturday in defeat, finishing his night with 29 points, seven assists, four rebounds and plenty of words for Schroder, the Hawks’ bench and anyone else within earshot.

Schroder went the diplomatic route after the game, but refused to back down.

“He is a great player. He is going to make some shots. He’s going to have fast break points. I think he’s a top point guard in the league,” he said of Wall. “But I think everybody did a great job, getting back, one through four, containing him more and running out to shooters. He had just seven assists, not 12 or 14. We took something away. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

“I watched video. The first two games it was too easy to just bring it up half-court and have all these passes. To be honest, it pissed me off. I told coach I want to be in his stuff. I want to take him full court. That’s what I did tonight and it worked well.”

The first season of the Dwight Howard homecoming tour has gone as expected; plenty of highs mixed with just as many lows and the perplexing focus on the former best big man in basketball, thus far, in this series.

Kent Bazemore’s breakout season a year ago produced a free agent windfall, but he’s struggled (admittedly) all season trying to recapture the edge that made him the ideal replacement for Carroll last season.

Millsap, as always, has been the Hawks’ rock. He shook off some rugged play and choice words from Wizards forward Markieff Morris in Washington and throughout Game 3, burning Morris for 29 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.

Morris was still at it after the game, acknowledging Millsaps’ increased production but also calling him a “crybaby” who got “all the calls.”

“It definitely got personal now, yes,” Millsap said when informed of the locker room chatter. “I don’t care. So, what. Take his loss and go back to the hotel and be ready for the next game.”

Get ready for whatever comes is more than just postgame presser smack talk from Millsap, it must be an organizational mantra for the Hawks.

Because they continue to churn out players that produce some of their best basketball in volt green, without knowing for certain how long that marriage will last (see Tim Hardaway Jr’s pending free agency situation later this summer).

But for every hiccup or potential mishap ahead there is a Taurean Prince. The rookie forward is the team’s third leading scorer (14.7 points) in this series behind Schroder and Millsap and look extremely comfortable in that starting role at small forward.

“He’s a great competitor,” Schroder said. “When I first got into the league I was the same way. Hard-headed a little bit, but trying to get better every day. What he’s doing in the playoffs is just great. He has to keep it going for us to win games.”

The window to compete at the highest level for Eastern Conference teams not led by that man named (LeBron) James is unpredictable at best. So, the Hawks and Wizards are in the same predicament as everyone else in the Eastern Conference in trying to sort out the future.

What might have seemed like the start of something special two years ago could wind up being just a momentary trip to another world for the Hawks, whose current playoff streak ranks behind only the Spurs in the entire league.

It’s one thing to make it here, to the postseason, year after year. It’s another to get here and truly make a splash, to capture the moment in a way that signals future success on the horizon.

Even if the Hawks believed they had arrived with that crew that played the beautiful game, the one that sent four players to the All-Star game and thrilled locals with months of the best basketball they’d seen out of the home team in years, the truth is it might have just been a moment.

A moment the Hawks will chase into an unpredictable future.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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