ATLANTA -- The fear with any streak is that it’s nothing more than an outlier, a torrid affair that doesn’t represent reality so much as an idealized version of it. This is the worry that’s threatening to creep into Atlanta, where the Hawks dropped their fourth game in seven outings since their historic 19-game run with a 105-80 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday.
It’s not in the Hawks’ character to panic, nor should they. Stinkbombs are inevitable over an 82-game season and there’s no shame in falling to a Raptors team that may have played its most complete defensive performance of the season. The Raptors wanted to neutralize the Hawks by accelerating their perimeter rotations and chasing the Hawks off the 3-point line. Mission accomplished.
“You have to give Toronto a lot of credit,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They gave it to us good tonight. There are a lot of reason we didn’t play well. They were a big part of that.”
Another reason: crisp Raptors rotations aside, the Hawks shot horrendously. Kyle Korver missed 9 of 11 from beyond the arc, far and away his most missed attempts of the season. Only Shelvin Mack shot better than 50 percent from the field for Atlanta, and those buckets were firmly in the time o’ garbage. There’s a certain comfort in the ugliness because nobody in the Hawks' locker room believes for an instant that these numbers are any more sustainable than the ungodly shot charts they posted during January.
“Missing shots, you can’t [be concerned],” Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said. “The shots we took were good shots. We just missed them. We had a week off. We just have to get back in the lab, get to the film.”
This is a team of basketball cinephiles, as film study was cited by Budenholzer, Carroll, Korver and Al Horford as required viewing Saturday before the Hawks take off for Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Sunday afternoon. Though nobody would explicitly lay the loss on the Hawks’ heavy presence at All-Star weekend in New York, Korver allowed for the possibility that a group so reliant on rhythm, timing and routine probably didn’t benefit from the disruption and demands of the festivities.
Still, the Hawks now face realities they knew to be true but until recently hadn’t had to confront. As selfless and appealing as they play on both ends of the floor, those systems have vulnerabilities. For one, pass-happy teams produce beautiful basketball, but passes present a greater risk of turnovers than dull iso sets. On Friday, their classical ballet turned into a game of Twister. The Hawks turned the ball over on almost a quarter of their possessions, which netted the Raps 30 points.
“We were just sloppy,” Horford said. “We were throwing the ball all over the place. Bad turnovers.”
On the other end, the Hawks rely on smart, situational coverages that require trust and decisiveness. Apart from Carroll and possibly Horford (who routinely has to match up against larger centers), they lack the personnel to fall back on lockdown, one-on-one defense. And on Friday, they suffered an unusual number of breakdowns.
“You have to rely on defense when you don’t make shots, and I don’t think we were good on the defensive end of the court,” Budenholzer said. “I’m more concerned with the shots [the Raptors] were getting.”
There’s a popular perception that the Atlanta’s Achilles' heel resides in its lack of a volume scorer, but that’s not really it. The Hawks didn’t fail on Friday night -- or in their excruciating loss at Boston just before the break -- because there wasn’t a superstar to take over. They lost because when you operate a system, you commit to a process, and right now that process looks gummed up.
Fortunately for the Hawks, an exquisite version of that system won them 19 games in a row and bought them some breathing room at the top of the Eastern Conference. Let the FilmFest begin.