ATLANTA — In a season where just about everything has fallen into place for the Golden State Warriors, the Atlanta Hawks are learning just how quickly things can start to fall apart. Sustained excellence is a rare NBA commodity.
Twelve months ago, the Atlanta-Golden State matchup was the epicenter of the basketball universe. Billed as a potential NBA Finals preview, the 39-8 Warriors visited Philip Arena for a regular-season clash against a 41-9 Hawks team that, at the time, simply refused to lose at home. Atlanta's league-leading 42nd win seemed significant in that moment, a harbinger of more to come between two franchises headlining league's shifting paradigm.
The two teams have slowly walked divergent paths ever since.
The Hawks dropped the rematch in Oakland and clung to their No. 1 seed throughout the 2015 playoffs, eventually being swept by a Cavaliers team that the Warriors dismantled for their first NBA title since 1956. The Hawks, like every other team not named the Spurs, now find themselves operating a few thousand feet below the Warriors' stratosphere.
"Maybe it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit on how you're supposed to play," Hawks center Al Horford said after his team's 102-92 loss to Golden State on Monday night, "and this hopefully gets us in a better position as a team. ... They just push you to play at a harder level."
The Hawks are currently stuck in the worst stretch of the Mike Budenholzer Era, and it begs the question of just how far this roster can be pushed.
The past six games have been forgettable at best as the team continues to drop in the Eastern Conference standings. Big-picture details are not pretty: home-and-home losses on consecutive days to the Orlando Magic (24-30), opening the second half by losing to a Miami Heat team missing three starters, including their two best players in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, a double-overtime stumble to the Milwaukee Bucks (24-33) and then being outclassed for three quarters by the best team on the planet.
There's no shame in being No. 50 during Golden State's historic pace; Steph Curry & Co. have made a habit of routing even top-tier competition this season. The other five losses? Problematic. The only win in that stretch came against the free-falling Chicago Bulls ... without star guard Jimmy Butler in the lineup. The Warriors loss handed Atlanta its first four-game home losing streak since the Mike Woodson years.
"Tonight (was) a lot better," Budenholzer said of the Warriors loss. "The competitiveness, the activity, the effort. I think defensively, holding them to under 44 percent, our last couple of games it seems like teams were shooting in the 50s and scoring well over 100 and all those things."
The mantra throughout the campaign has been that the switch can still be flipped. That there's still time to rediscover 2015's chemistry. That the East still has to account for the Atlanta Hawks.
As Atlanta made its third-quarter run on Monday night, hope was renewed. After falling behind thanks to Curry haymakers, both through his trademark shot-making and otherworldly passing, the Hawks' fourth-ranked defense began coming up with stops and getting out in transition after the half. A 70-47 deficit became a one-point game in a matter of seven minutes. The switch had flipped.
Then Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors' defense took out the light bulb.
The Hawks took the lead in the fourth, but it quickly disappeared. Aside from the late third-quarter stumble, the champs were far too talented, far too cohesive. The Hawks would hit just four field goals over the final 10 minutes of play. Again, sustainability is not an easy find.
"That’s a team that’s done it to the whole league, you know, so I think it’s no surprise there," Thabo Sefolosha said. "But at the same time we’ve got to be able to do a better job realizing what we want to give them, what we want to take away and just be more focused."
Sitting at 31-27 with 13 losses to sub-.500 teams and a 1-5 record against the NBA's presumed top contenders — the Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers and Thunder — the optimism is fading. The Hawks are closer to .500 than they are the conference's No. 2 seed, and an upcoming schedule that includes road games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State and Toronto means the road back runs uphill. The Hawks remain a safe bet for the playoffs, but even the mere potential of Budenholzer's group falling out of the East's top eight spots points to how different things are this time around.
The front office elected to keep this aging core together at the trade deadline, notably hanging onto upcoming unrestricted free agent Al Horford and starting point guard Jeff Teague, and it's worth wondering, even just one week later, if there's any second-guessing in-house given the current stretch.
Hanging onto Horford gives the Hawks a financial leg up in re-signing him this summer — if that's something both parties want to pursue this offseason — but there is a chance that the former No. 3 overall pick walks for nothing. The Jeff Teague-Dennis Schroder situation continues to pick up steam. (Schroder has been much, much better this month.) Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha have bounced back from offseason surgeries, but they aren't getting any younger. Kent Bazemore is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Paul Millsap could be after next season if he exercises his player option, a financial no-brainer. Schroder is the only substantial young asset on the roster given the franchise's aversion to draft picks and rookies.
It's not a group built for long-term success.
Meanwhile, the short term could be slipping away.
The question is at least worth asking: Barring dramatic improvement over the next 24 regular-season games plus playoffs, was it worth keeping the band together? The Hawks' decision-making is not solely tied to the 2015-16 season, of course, but this is not what Budenholzer & Co. envisioned as a follow-up to their 60-win season.