ATLANTA — Kyle Korver stared at his sneakers, breaking into a slight smile as he thought back to a year ago.
The Atlanta Hawks were in the midst of a perfect January and a 19-game winning streak. They were on the way to having four players and their coach claim spots in the All-Star Game. They were setting themselves up for a 60-win season and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
A rout of the hapless Brooklyn Nets brought back some good memories.
“It felt like we were playing so great,” Korver said late Saturday night, sitting at his locker after the 114-86 blowout. “Things were really clicking.”
Unfortunately for the Hawks, they’ve struggled to maintain the form that made them one of the NBA’s most surprising teams last season. There are nights like this one, when they dismantled the Nets in the second half with the sort of fast-breaking, team-first, always-making-the-extra-pass style that once had them being touted as an East Coast version of the Golden State Warriors.
But, while the Warriors went on to capture the NBA championship and have taken their game to an even higher level, the Hawks faded down the stretch last spring, were blown out in the conference finals by LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and are now trying to figure out a way to separate themselves from a pack of teams in the improved East.
The Hawks reached the midway point of the season at 24-17 — nine wins worse than their mark at this time in 2015.
“The word that I think’s been coming up is a little consistency, or lack of consistency,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.
“We’ve shown at times we can be a very good team. But the team that does it the most often — whether it be within a game for 48 minutes, or game to game, week to week, month to month — those are the teams that kind of emerge through the season.”
The most noticeable drop-off has been from Korver, who underwent a pair of offseason surgeries and has struggled to regain his shooting touch. He is hitting just 36.2 percent of 3-point attempts, a significant dip from his league-leading 49.2 percent last season. Without Korver providing the sort of outside threat that requires constant attention, defenses are able to sag off the arc, clog up the passing lanes and focus on disrupting the point guard duo of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder.
Outside of Korver, transition defense has been a problem at times. The Hawks are giving up 100.6 points a game, a jump from last year’s 97.1, and it’s easy point to the loss of defensive stopper DeMarre Carroll in free agency as the reason. But Carroll’s replacement, Kent Bazemore, is a high-energy, overachieving player who has done an admirable job stepping into the starting lineup, so that’s certainly not the primary issue.
Also, Atlanta’s major offseason additions haven’t added much. Tiago Splitter has battled nagging injuries and missed 13 games. Tim Hardaway Jr., acquired on draft night for a first-round pick, has hardly been a factor at all. He played in just four of Atlanta’s first 35 games and did several stints in the D-League, struggling to adapt to Budenholzer’s style of play.
More subtly, the Hawks are going through a period of adjustment, as they try to deal with opponents who take them much more seriously and have painstakingly dissected the style that made Atlanta so unstoppable not so long ago.
“We have a little bulls-eye on our backs,” Teague said.
The past eight days were a microcosm of the Hawks’ season.
They turned in one of their most impressive performances in a 15-point win over Chicago, only to lose to both Charlotte and Milwaukee, two of the worst teams in the East. Then, after being tied with lowly Brooklyn early in the third quarter, the Hawks suddenly transformed into last year’s version.
“We’d all like to be better,” Budenholzer said, sounding more than a bit frustrated. “But if we knew the answer, if it was in a pill or something, we’d take it.”
Despite their up-and-down play, the Hawks still have high hopes for this season. Cleveland has built a fairly comfortable lead in the East, but the second seed is up for grabs. When Bazemore looks ahead, he pointedly mentions playing into June — the time for the NBA Finals.
“We’ve been on the cusp of something great,” he said. “It’s just a rough patch of the journey.”