NBA

With NBA season winding down, Hawks remain a huge enigma

ATLANTA (AP) Some nights, they soar.

Other nights, they crash and burn.

Say this about the Atlanta Hawks: They are maddeningly consistent at being inconsistent.

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With a little over a month to go in the regular season, the Hawks are comfortably positioned to reach the playoffs but know they can't go on like this if they want to make a deep run.

Up to now, they've been one of the NBA's biggest enigmas, a group that has shown glimpses of being really, really good - when they're not looking really, really bad.

They've got 22 games to figure it out.

''We're kind of waiting for it all to happen,'' Kent Bazemore said. ''We know what kind of team we can be . Obviously, we've shown glimpses of that. But it's showing up every night and wearing a hard hat and leaving it all out there.''

This is a team that posted impressive roads wins at defending NBA champion Cleveland , as well as Toronto and Boston - all ahead of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings.

This is also a team that was swept in two games by one of the league's worst teams, the Los Angeles Lakers, and has dropped five games at home by at least 18 points, including a 36-point blowout at the hands of the sub-.500 Detroit Pistons.

Oh, and in addition to that win at Toronto, there was also a 44-point loss to the Raptors .

''Of course, you want to be clicking a little bit earlier, a little bit sooner,'' Paul Millsap said after the Hawks survived an up-and-down performance Wednesday night to beat the Dallas Mavericks, a game that pretty well epitomized the entire season.

''Sometimes, it takes a little longer. Hopefully the end result is worth it. I think if we continue to play like we're playing, we'll get there.''

Just two years ago, the Hawks were seemingly poised for greatness. They set a franchise record with 60 wins, claimed the top seed in the East and reached the conference finals before getting swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

It turned out to be an aberration.

Last season, the Hawks slipped to 48-34 and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. Now, they seem to have taken another step backward after coach Mike Budenholzer gambled on a drastic makeover - signing Dwight Howard, letting longtime center Al Horford leave in free agency, installing Dennis Schroder as the point guard and trading Jeff Teague.

Since a promising 9-2 start, Atlanta (34-26) is essentially a .500 team in search of an identity.

Something.

Anything.

''If there's one area where we probably need the most improvement - and if we improve that it's going to lead to more consistency - it's us being better offensively,'' Budenholzer said. ''Reducing our turnovers, just being more efficient.''

But look what happened against the Mavericks, a rebuilding team that managed to make a game of it even after the Hawks shot 72 percent in the first half. Thrown off by a 2-3 zone defense, Atlanta turned it over 23 times and somehow found itself trailing 93-89 with 2 1/2 minutes to go.

To their credit, the Hawks closed on an 11-2 run, getting a huge basket from Millsap to reclaim the lead with 30.5 seconds remaining, and held on for a 100-95 victory.

Still, it looked more like the season in review than a promising step forward.

Budenholzer remains hopeful that the Hawks can pull it all together.

To him, the glass still looks half-full.

''We've played well in stretches and shown an ability to compete at a high level,'' Budenholzer said. ''We're kind of focused on that and how can we find that? That gives us optimism.''

Time is running out.

''We're a very dangerous team,'' Bazemore insisted. ''Obviously, with the players we have, some nights we think we can roll into the gym and get wins. That's not the case in this league. All the great teams play really hard every night. That's what we have to do.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .