An Atlanta Hawks season that began with six straight promising wins ended with four consecutive miserable losses. In less than one week, LeBron James single-handedly slammed the door on Atlanta's season with a sweep of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
If you had told the Hawks in October that they would have won 47 games, secured the fourth seed, hosted the first round, and advanced to the semifinals, they would have been content.
Given their lackluster effort in the first three games of their series with LeBron's Cavaliers, the Hawks were just that—content.
These were not the same exuberant, prideful young competitors clawing, gunning and diving their way into a previously unthinkable Game Seven with the number one seeded Boston Celtics. When it came time to defend home court against Cleveland's MVP juggernaut in Game Three, this year's Hawks virtually rolled over.
But then again, the Celtics did not have LeBron James, version 2009. Not that it would have mattered much Monday night, considering Atlanta shot a laughable 31 percent from the floor in the one game in the series Cleveland left for the taking.
In any case, the Hawks and their fans find themselves in a bittersweet position Tuesday. A season that was a veritable success for 193 days was tarnished by seven final ugly ones that left a bitter playoff aftertaste.
The wounds inflicted by the week-long LBJ whipping will eventually heal. After they do, Atlanta will begin to reflect on why the season was an overall success, and what it will take to move forward.
And with that, here are a few issues for Hawks fans to ponder in the coming months.
The Hawks used shiny dunks and acrobatic plays to mask their lack of any real half court offense in Round One against a porous Miami team. Against the stifling Cleveland defense, however, the Hawks looked lost.
Any time Atlanta scraped together a run, the Cavaliers simply slowed the pace and buckled down. Mike Woodson's team had no answer. The Hawks' head coach—notoriously criticized for his inability to work the X's and O's—offered no adjustments, no plays, and no real semblance of any game plan whatsoever.
When the Hawks managed to keep the score close in Game Four, Cleveland simply regrouped on defense. The ensuing result was a frantic circus of double-teamed jumpers from the elbow, off-balance clankers from the baseline, and other hideous low percentage shots that opened the door for the NBA's best team to regain control.
Atlanta's athleticism can keep them afloat in the regular season. In the playoffs, however, you're going to face a real defense at some point. Without a blueprint for your attack, you'll come up short just about every time.
Composure, composure, composure
The greenhorn Hawks are easily susceptible to mental breakdowns. In sports, especially playoff competition, the ability to harness your psychological flareups can be just as important as your physical play.
Enter the difference between pumping up your teammates (Zaza Pachulia vs. Kevin Garnett, 2008), and throwing a boneheaded temper-tantrum (Zaza Pachulia vs. the officials, 2009).
Josh Smith gets fouled a lot, and sometimes no whistle is blown. But so does EVERYBODY ELSE in the NBA. This habitual whining nonsense must end. It wreaks havoc on his own psyche and is surely at least mildly distracting to his teammates.
Furthermore, if Smith would attack the rim instead of flailing up those outside jumpers, he would get a lot more calls. Which brings me to my next point...
Know Your Role
When Josh Smith shoots a 20-footer, nobody wins... except the opposing team. If he misses (as he usually does), it's almost always a defensive rebound. If he makes it, the consequence is even worse: he's encouraged to heave it up next time down the court.
There's a reason defenders all scramble to the basket when J-Smoove finds himself with the ball out near the arc. (Hint: it's not because they think he's soaring in for a between-the-legs dunk).
Smith does his best work down low and above the rim. So does Al Horford, and these guys have no business shooting from far outside. Leave that up to the guards who get paid to actually knock down those shots. Smith absolutely killed Atlanta in rounds one and two with his stubborn refusal to pass up these bloopers.
Finally, the most crucial role on any team is the one played by the leader. This is perhaps the most conspicuous void on this Hawks team.
A local sports talker remarked today that the Hawks MUST bring in a proven veteran leader for next year. Even if he is a mildly aging player on slight physical decline, this group desperately needs that presence.
After all—just look what a difference Chauncey Billups made for a bunch of misfits in Denver.
The Hawks have improved by an average of 8.5 wins each year since going 13-69 in 2004-05, Woodson's first season. They have made the playoffs in back-to-back years after being absent for a decade. The franchise has undoubtedly come a long way.
But every group has its ceiling. In 2009, this core group of Hawks reached theirs. In the weeks and months to come, General Manager Rick Sund's job will be to find a way to punch through it.
Given the franchise's recent progress, who knows what may be on the floor above?