ATLANTA — After five straight years of steady progress, the Atlanta Hawks have run into a major roadblock in their quest to become one of the NBA's elite teams.
A disheartening performance against the Orlando Magic has left the Hawks one loss away from ending this season just as they did the last one: getting swept in the second round of the playoffs.
It's also raised major questions about whether this team should dole out a huge contract to impending free agent Joe Johnson and bring back coach Mike Woodson for another season.
Woodson wants to return and hopes management will keep together a core group that has helped the team improve from 13 wins in 2004-05 to 53 victories this season.
"At the end of the day, this team is still headed in the right direction," Woodson said Sunday. "If we can bring Joe back and hopefully I'm able to stay, we can complete the process we started six years ago. If we can add a couple of more pieces, good pieces, then anything can happen. I sure hope they don't go back the other way and bust it up."
Clearly, though, the status quo won't do based on Atlanta's dismal showing against the Magic. Orlando has won by an average of 29 points, going up 3-0 in the series with a 105-75 blowout Saturday that was the worst home playoff loss in Hawks history.
Game 4 is Monday night, and about all Atlanta has to play for is a bit of pride.
Even the Magic are surprised at how easily they've handled the third-seeded Hawks, who finished just behind Orlando in the Eastern Conference standings.
"On paper, they're a very talented team," Orlando's Matt Barnes said after an afternoon practice at Philips Arena. "We just match up really well against them. We can do things to neutralize their talent."
The Hawks aren't helping matters, either.
Al Horford, who won a pair of NCAA titles at Florida, said he's befuddled by the lack of passion shown by this team — especially playing on its home court, where the Hawks went 34-7 during the regular season.
"I don't see the effort," the third-year center said. "We won 53 games for a reason. ... But we get to the postseason, where the stakes are high, and we're not coming out there and giving the effort we need."
Some of it may come down to a lack of chemistry, that elusive element that bonds a team and helps it stick together when things get tough.
Individually, the Hawks have loads of talent. Johnson and Horford both played in the All-Star Game this season, and Josh Smith probably should have been there, too. Jamal Crawford won the NBA's Sixth Man Award.
But put them together and there are those maddening spurts where they can break down into a bickering, sulking group that struggles to beat the worst teams in the league.
"The chemistry, it's OK," Horford said, hardly a glowing assessment. "At times, it can be really good. Other times, not so good.
There are ups and down. We have a lot of good guys on the team. We mesh to a certain extent. I just think sometimes, when things don't go our way, everybody seems to crawl into their own little hole."
That might not bode well for Woodson, who's contract is up at the end of the season. The team has declined to even start discussions on a new deal until after the season, which has put the coach in the difficult situation of trying to get through to a team that knows he may be a lame duck.
"Effort should be a given. We're all getting paid well," Woodson said. "But we didn't have effort (Saturday) night for some reason. That's disappointing from a coaching standpoint because that's a reflection on me. I can't say that too many times since I've been here. Even when we went through the 13-win season, the guys gave effort.
"Now, all of a sudden, we've hit a wall in this series."
That wall could lead to a major shake-up. The Hawks offered Johnson a contract extension before the season, but he turned it down to be part of perhaps the greatest free agent class in NBA history. The way he's performed in the playoffs, Atlanta might be reconsidering whether he's truly a franchise player who deserves a maximum deal. Johnson is averaging just 12.3 points on 29 percent shooting against the Magic.
Not surprisingly, Johnson was roundly booed by the Atlanta fans during a 3-of-15 performance in Game 3, which prompted him to say afterward that he "couldn't care less if they showed up or not." Even after a night to sleep on it, he was still annoyed at the way he and his teammates were heckled by the home crowd.
"I don't think we've heard boos like that in the five years I've been here," Johnson said. "If they come out and show support, that would be great."
Maybe the Hawks have just run up against a superior opponent, a team that lost in last year's NBA finals and has been on a mission ever since to capture its first championship.