WASHINGTON — The dog days of March hit some NBA teams harder than others.
They’re hitting the Atlanta Hawks like a ton of bricks.
Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, looking to snap a four-game losing streak against a Washington Wizards team that couldn’t buy a bucket in the first three quarters, the Hawks fell 104-100, and are now in serious danger of letting go of the fifth seed in the East — a spot they’ve held for the majority of the season.
With the loss — their eighth in 11 games — the Hawks dropped to 37-34, tying their loss total from the 2015-16 season. Now they sit just one game ahead of the 36-35 Indiana Pacers, who also lost Wednesday night, as well as the Milwaukee Bucks, who won. The eight-seeded Miami Heat are two games behind at 35-36.
Injuries — namely to star forward Paul Millsap, who has missed Atlanta’s past three games with knee tightness but could be back for Friday’s game against Milwaukee — have played a role during this stretch. But Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer isn’t about to use that as an excuse.
“This is a great challenge for us, to be fighting a little bit for playoff spots,” Budenholzer said. “There’s teams behind us that are trying to move up. We don’t have a couple of our guys, but that’s how our league is. Everybody goes through it at different times. This just happens to be our time.”
The Hawks only have 11 games left on the schedule. One of those is against Milwaukee. One is against the second-seeded Boston Celtics. Two — back-to-back games, no less — are against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. One — the final game of the season — is against the Pacers. And two are against the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls, who are both just outside the playoff picture.
If the playoffs started today, Atlanta would have a date with the Toronto Raptors, who they beat in the season series 2-1. If the struggles continue and they drop to sixth or seventh in the conference, they could be looking at a first-round matchup with the Wizards (1-3 on the season) or Celtics (1-1).
The consensus in Atlanta’s locker room in the midst of these late-season struggles? Stay positive and embrace the challenge.
“Dwelling on what’s negative isn’t going to bring anything good out of it,” forward Thabo Sefolosha said. “We go to practice, work hard. We’ve got to be able to be honest with one another and tell each other about what we see, but after a game like this, be positive.”
Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. expressed similar sentiments.
“Anything can happen. Someone can go down with an injury — hopefully that’s not the case. I think this is a learning curve for our young guys to get acclimated into the rotation, know when shots are coming, know what to do on the defensive end, know their principles out there. I think it’s great that they get the opportunity. We just have to take advantage of it.”
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