The Atlanta Hawks: Is This A ‘Make Or Break’ Trip Out West?

John Collins has been steady all season for the Hawks. He and Trae Young have to excel on a 16-day … [+]

The media didn’t say it. The fans didn’t say it. The Hawks said it. Then they repeated it.

“We got a tough stretch coming up here….we got a long road trip that, in a lot of ways, is going to make or break our season, so that’s kind of how we’re going into it,” said third-year guard Kevin Huerter. “Extremely important time of year and we want to keep this going.”

Make or break.

The Hawks (21-20) are playing eight games in 16 days on the road, beginning with the Lakers on Saturday night. The trip includes four of the toughest teams in the west, the Lakers, Clippers, Suns, and Nuggets.

Atlanta is 7-0 since it fired head coach Lloyd Pierce and replaced him with interim coach Nate McMillan on March 1. This is a reckoning for Atlanta, which is 5th in the East. The seven teams they beat in the winning streak have a combined record of 111-170. Only one of the seven, Miami, has a winning record through Thursday’s games.

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What kind of squad are they against better teams?

McMillan is preaching “one game at a time” but many others are looking big picture. Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee are the clear class of the East. Where do the Hawks fit after that?

Considering the bottleneck in the East, and the lack of a dominant team after the top three, the Hawks could go 4-4 on the trip and still be competing for fourth place when they play again at home April 4.

But this is more than a place in the standings. This trip is to judge the Hawks’ overall fitness. Where do they stand in the NBA now that they are reasonably healthy and on the verge of getting back the valuable wing DeAndre Hunter?

The trade deadline is next Thursday. The Hawks do not have the offensive firepower to challenge the top teams in the NBA, but they have 13 players. Does that depth help them get a lottery pick next season to pair with the core of Trae Young, center Clint Capela, guard Kevin Huerter, and Hunter and make a run at something grander than a mere berth in the postseason? Do the Hawks even dare make a deal using their depth when they are finally coming together?

We will understand more about the Hawks’ ceiling in the next four days, after they have played the Lakers and Clippers.

The reckoning for the Hawks extends to General Manager Travis Schlenk, who has taken sustained criticism for his offseason acquisitions. Newly acquired players were having trouble getting traction, including forward Danilio Gallinari, and shooting wings Tony Snell and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Now look. All three seem healthy after early season injuries and the Hawks are a formidable team.

The 28-year old Bogdanovic, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with Atlanta, missed 25 games with a knee fracture. Thursday night, in a rout of Oklahoma City, he made 9 of 14 shots, including 5 of 9 3s, and moved fluidly all over the court for the first time in two months.

The shooting guard Snell, acquired from Detroit, and making $12.1 million in the final year of a four-year contract he originally signed with Milwaukee, has been on a tear. Also slowed by injuries early in the season, Snell leads the NBA in 3-point shooting (57 percent) and has stepped into the starting lineup for injured Cam Reddish.

The 6-foot-6 Snell’s plus-minus has soared to +16. Thursday night against OKC, he didn’t take a 3, but he clamped down on the Thunder’s star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was 8 of 18 and made just 1 of 4 three-point shots and couldn’t keep his side competitive.

Another off-season pickup, the 6-foot-10 Gallinari, who also had early-season injury issues, has been on fire for three weeks. He went for 38 against the Celtics on February 24 and has averaged 19 a game over the last six games. A standstill 3-point shooter, “Gallo” said he is moving much better and that teams cannot crowd him because he will lower his shoulder and put the ball on the deck for a drive, however awkward-looking.

The Hawks starting lineup of guards Young, Huerter, Snell, and forward Collins and center Capela is scoring 116.3 points per 100 possessions, as per Cleaning The Glass. That lineup’s defense shows 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Some time during the road trip, the Hawks could get back wing man Hunter, who has been out since February 1. He is an elite defender and was having a fine season (17.2 ppg, 5.4 rebounds, 51 % shooting) when he was sidelined by a right knee injury. Kris Dunn, a veteran guard, will make the trip west. He hasn’t played all year and could also join the team.

Perhaps McMillan’s toughest task on the trip will be managing minutes. Atlanta will have 12-13 players available, and all of them could contribute in some manner, but the typical rotations will include nine or ten players.

“You can’t play 12 guys. What is comfortable is nine or ten,” McMillan said. “Everybody’s going to have to sacrifice when we get everybody healthy. That’s something I have talked with the team about.”

Collins said the return of players and the depth has allowed the Hawks to get out and pressure the ball more and the effects are showing. In the seven-game winning streak, Atlanta is allowing teams to shoot just 32 percent from the 3. Meanwhile, the Hawks are making 40 percent of their 3s in the streak, a benefit of depth and fresh legs.

There is a toughness quotient the Hawks are going to need on this trip, so it remains to be seen what happens with forward Solomon Hill. He is a presence with his hustle and grit. All season he has been flying around on defense, a player who will match the energy of the Lakers’ Alex Caruso, who has a similar makeup for LA.

The Hawks could well end up fourth behind Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Milwaukee in the East at the end of the regular season. The Miami Heat are not shooting the ball well. The Celtics are trying to regroup after the long absence of their emotional leader, Marcus Smart.

The Hawks’ emotional leaders are Hill and Collins. Asked about the key ingredient in the Hawks’ surge, Collins said “Belief”, as in the squad having confidence.

Sixteen days from now we will know if the rest of the NBA has the same belief in the Hawks, or not.

Ray Glier is the publisher of “Ball Atlanta”, a sports newsletter. See the game. Don’t watch it. My work has appeared in The New York Times (17 years) and USA TODAY (25

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