Hawks clinch NBA Play-In berth

State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. Photo by Erik Gonzalez on shutterstock.com

Last week, the Hawks won at home against the Cavaliers to clinch a berth in the play-in tournament. 

However, with four games remaining in the regular season, there are still a few critical matchups on the schedule that will determine the Hawks’ potential playoff opponents. 

Atlanta was riding a five-game winning streak after the 122-115 victory over Brooklyn on Apr. 2 and has won six of their last seven games to take the ninth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

Hawks head coach Nate McMillan was vocal about how confident his team was feeling following the win over the Nets. 

“So five wins in a row for us,” McMillan said. “We seem to be playing in a good rhythm. We are starting to get healthy. And we want to continue to take this momentum into the next game.”

Here’s a look at the Hawks’ potential Play-In and playoff opponents.

Potential Play-In Opponents 

Cleveland Cavaliers:

The Cavaliers are a dangerous team from top to bottom. This season, the emergence of young rising guard Darius Garland and the scoring prowess of February acquisition Caris Levert have helped put the Cavaliers on the map.

Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen dominate the interior and make it difficult for opposing teams to score. Cleveland could struggle as there is minimal playoff experience on their squad, but a path through the Cavs won’t be an easy task.

Charlotte Hornets: 

The Hornets are one of the best teams this year in transition and are electrifying on offense. Lamelo Ball leads the charge this year as he has improved tremendously when it comes to attacking the rim and defending. Miles Bridges has come into his own this season with a new confidence level. 

However, their weaknesses are on defense. The Hornets are second to last in defensive rebounding percentage and allow the most second-chance points in the NBA. The Hawks could feast in transition against Charlotte, which would make for a favorable matchup for Atlanta.

Brooklyn Nets:

The most daunting test of all potential playoff teams is the Brooklyn Nets. Don’t let their record fool you. 

With Kyrie Irving no longer a part-time basketball player and able to fully participate in home games, teams will prefer another opponent over the loaded Nets. 

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving can explode for 50 on any given night, as shown by their multiple 50-point performances in the last month. 

While it remains to be seen whether Ben Simmons will return this year, the Nets are a legitimate title contender with or without him. 

Anything can happen in a winner-take-all Play-In game against Brooklyn, but it would be hard to imagine any team in the East taking four out of seven games against the Nets. 

Given that the Hawks are at the bottom of the league in various defensive categories, as is Brooklyn, it’s safe to assume that a potential Play-In matchup would be a shootout.

Potential Playoff Opponents

As of  Apr. 7,  the Hawks are ninth in the Eastern Conference standings and are a game ahead of the Hornets. With only two games separating the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, it’s plausible to assume that any of these teams can grab the top two seeds to face the Hawks this postseason.

Miami Heat: 

After getting swept by the Bucks in the first round last year, Miami will be looking for redemption this year. Despite all the team’s injuries, Miami sits atop the Eastern Conference with a two-game lead. 

The way the Heat have managed to overcome the setbacks they have faced speaks volumes about the team’s culture. 

Miami has the fifth-best defensive rating at 108.7 and will be a tough matchup for any team. With Tyler Herro averaging 20 ppg and shooting 39% from three, the Heat have another dependable scoring option that they missed dearly in last year’s playoffs. 

While the Heat looks better on paper than last year, this train will only go as far as star player Jimmy Butler takes them. 

Milwaukee Bucks:

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a superstar in every definition of the word. For those who forgot, he is the reigning Finals MVP and world champion. 

While he has won the MVP twice already, he’s making a late push for another. 

As evidenced by Giannis’s 50-point showing in the biggest moment of his life during last season, he’s ready for primetime. At this point, it’s just a matter of whether his teammates will learn what consistency means. 

Giannis excelled with two off-ball scorers last year in Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. While Jrue has played with great consistency this year, Middleton hasn’t held up his end of the bargain. Middleton has been vastly inconsistent this year, especially in the clutch. When Middleton turns it on, the Bucks are nearly unstoppable.

Boston Celtics:

The Celtics started the season horribly. Fifty games in, they were one of the league’s most disappointing teams at 25-25. 

However, Boston has turned things around since then. Boston’s +6.5 point differential is only second to Phoenix in the entire NBA. While the Robert Williams injury hurts their interior defense significantly, they are still an impressive team offensively. 

Since the all-star break, Jayson Tatum is averaging 31.6 points per game, and the Celtics are 14-4 in that span. The Celtics are a well-oiled machine that plays hard from start to finish. 

Philadelphia 76ers: 

The 76ers are led by the deadly duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden. Embiid is having an MVP caliber season, averaging 30 PPG, 11.5 RPG, and four APG. 

While Harden and Embiid haven’t exactly flourished since the Sixers’ midseason trade to acquire the 9-time all-star from the Nets, the potential is sky high for this team. 

The two are virtually unstoppable in the pick and roll action when they are playing in the half-court sets, which can bode well for Philadelphia in the playoffs. 

Harden is one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen. 

The duo is especially effective when they can drive to the rim early in games and keep the defense honest by drawing contact. 

Philly lacks depth on the bench and will need big games from Harden and Embiid throughout the playoffs, but it’s hard to imagine them not going on a deep run in the postseason.