ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks cleaned out their lockers Friday and met for the final time with coach Larry Drew before getting started on an uncertain summer that arrived much earlier than anyone wanted.
The pain of another second-round playoff loss was apparent when backup center Zaza Pachulia stopped by Drew's office.
"He walked in with this long look on his face," the coach said. "I was like, 'Z, what's wrong?' He says, 'L.D., we're close, we're really close.'"
That was the prevailing attitude after the Hawks knocked off Orlando in the opening round, then produced a stunning Game 1 victory at Chicago in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The top-seeded Bulls bounced back to win the series in six games, finishing the Hawks with a 20-point rout Thursday night.
Still, it was a much more encouraging performance than the two previous years, each of which ended with a second-round sweep. Last year's performance against Orlando was downright humiliating, the Hawks getting booed on their own court and losing by an average margin of nearly 26 points a game — the most lopsided four-game rout in NBA history.
They got back at the Magic this year, winning in six games, and were thoroughly convinced they could take down the mighty Bulls.
"I couldn't sleep last night," Pachulia said. "When you feel like you have a chance, that's when it really hurts."
Against Chicago, the Hawks showed tantalizing flashes of their potential to be one of the NBA's best teams, but also fell into some familiar traps that have doomed them before.
This group has shown no willingness to give a consistent effort, which was apparent during the regular season (three home losses by at least 30 points) and turned up again in Game 3. After splitting the first two games on the road, the Hawks sleepwalked through a 17-point loss that restored the Bulls' home-court edge.
Atlanta also retained a baffling tendency to go stale on offense, everyone standing around while someone tries to break down the defense with an isolation play. That turned up in the fourth quarter of Game 5, after the Hawks wiped out an early 15-point deficit by pushing the pace and finding the open man.
"It was kind of up and down," top scorer Joe Johnson said. "But at times we looked great. We looked like the best team in the league. That's something to build on and look forward to in the future."
That future is a bit murky. Like every team, the Hawks are being held captive by the league's labor negotiations and the threat of a possible lockout on July 1. Unsure of how much money they'll have to spend under the next collective-bargaining agreement, Atlanta balked at giving a long-term extension to valuable sixth man Jamal Crawford.
He's set to become a free agent and didn't sound hopeful about returning to the Hawks.
"It's been a year that we've been talking," Crawford said. "I'll have to sit back, weigh my options and see what's best for me."
The Hawks' financially troubled ownership group may be willing to sell the team and the operating rights to Philips Arena, though most of the focus at the moment is on another of its properties, the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers.
The owners have made it clear they want to dump the hockey team, which could be headed to Winnipeg — as soon as next season — if no one steps forward to purchase the team and keep it in Atlanta.
The Hawks' financial condition could limit their flexibility to make needed trades or free-agent signings, even if there is agreement on a new labor deal. Atlanta traded away its first-round pick in a deal for Kirk Hinrich, so the draft isn't likely to produce much help.
General manager Rick Sund wasn't available to the media Friday, and Drew wouldn't reveal any of the priorities he has for next season other than to say, "Certainly, we're going to have to make some changes to get better."
One possible target is a legitimate starting center, someone who can average 10-12 points a game, help on the boards and work effectively off the pick-and-roll. The Hawks had success going with a big lineup in the playoffs, starting 7-footer Jason Collins, shifting All-Star Al Horford to power forward, moving Josh Smith to small forward and bringing Marvin Williams off the bench. But Collins is extremely limited offensively and not really an option over an 82-game season.
"We need blue-collar guys, guys to do a lot of the dirty work, a lot of the things that don't show up in the stat book," Johnson said. "Those type of guys could really help us out."
If nothing else, the series against the Bulls likely signaled the start of the Jeff Teague era at the point.
The 2009 first-round pick played sparingly over his first two seasons, even after Drew took over as coach from Mike Woodson and made it a priority to get Teague more playing time.
Then, Hinrich went down with a hamstring injury in the closing minutes of the series-clinching win over Orlando, leaving the Hawks with little choice except to play Teague. The speedy guard responded with a stunning performance at both ends of the court, averaging 17 points through the first five games and playing gritty defense against MVP Derrick Rose.
Teague couldn't do much in Game 6, spraining both wrists on a nasty fall in the first half. But he already had shown enough to persuade most of his teammates that he's ready for a full-time role.
"He's the future," Johnson said. "He definitely gives us a different look. He's so fast and explosive. He changes the game with his speed. He's also good on defense. All he's got to do over the summer is continue to get better and build his confidence. If he builds his confidence, everything else will follow."
Teague is ready to go.
"This is going to give me a boost for next season," he said. "I'll come in with a lot more confidence and hopefully the coaching staff believe in me a little more."