It seemed reasonable to declare the Atlanta Hawks as Eastern Conference contenders after a surprising finish last season and a strong start to this one.That may have been a little premature.
The Hawks look to snap a four-game skid and reclaim their early-season form on Wednesday night when they host the last-place Washington Wizards in a Southeast Division matchup.
Last spring, Atlanta made the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and took eventual NBA champion Boston to seven games in the teams' first-round series. The young Hawks (6-4) appeared determined to build on that performance at the beginning of this season, winning their first six games, including four over teams that made the postseason in 2007-08.
But after suffering a 103-102 loss to the Celtics on a last-second jumper by Paul Pierce on Nov. 12, Atlanta hasn't looked the same.
Its 113-96 road loss to Indiana on Tuesday extended the skid. The Hawks are allowing 112.5 points per game during the losing streak after holding opponents to an average of 89.5 points in their first six games.
"We haven't been playing together, playing with any energy, like we were in those first six games," said Joe Johnson, the team's leader with 26.0 points per game. "I think we've gotten real complacent and we haven't been playing team basketball.
"That's pretty much the NBA season, you're going to have ups and downs. ... It's a down time for us right now, but we'll bounce back."
A meeting with the struggling Wizards (1-7) could help. Washington lost 94-87 to Miami on Tuesday, and is off to its worst start since 1999-2000.
The Wizards desperately miss injured starters Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood.
Arenas, a three-time All-Star who led the team in scoring in four straight seasons from 2003-2007, is out at least until December while recovering from a third surgical procedure on his troublesome left knee. Haywood could miss the entire campaign following offseason wrist surgery.
Though All-Star forwards Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler are healthy, they haven't been able to carry the team by themselves.
"This team is built a certain way, fellows," coach Eddie Jordan said after Tuesday's loss. "This team is built for Gilbert Arenas to lead us. This team is built for our All-Star forwards to carry the wings for us, and for Brendan Haywood to have a career year manning the middle for us. We don't have those things.
"And this team, you're asking people to do things that they're not capable of doing. You've got young guys who aren't going to make veteran plays night-in and night-out. You've got to stay positive, but you've got to be realistic about things."
Jamison had 25 points and 12 rebounds, Butler added 21 and 12 as the duo combined to shoot 15-for-27 from the field on Tuesday. But the rest of the Wizards combined for only 41 points and 16-for-48 shooting in dropping their second consecutive game to the Heat.
The Wizards won both their games in Atlanta last season as the road team won each of the four meetings. Jamison averaged 22.5 points and 16.0 boards in Atlanta, while Johnson averaged 23.8 points and 8.0 assists in four games against the Wizards.