Defeating the Miami Heat was considered a big test. Could the Hawks shake off a rough road trip out west and defend their homecourt against a playoff contender, and possible playoff opponent? The Hawks answered with a somewhat quiet but firm “yes.”
This Sunday night however, a bigger test awaits. Lebron James and the Cavaliers have been running roughshod over most of the league, with Lebron scoring at absolute will. And yet, his supporting cast cannot be ignored. Mo Williams is an explosive point guard who has no issues creating for himself when he needs to (as 17ppg will attest to). West, Gibson, and Szczerbiak will all shoot the lights out if you leave them even partially open. West is shooting nearly 42% from 3-point range and is perhaps finally getting back to full health (we’ll see). Meanwhile things don’t get any easier down low as big Z is still a load in the lane, where he is joined by rookie J.J. Hickson, FlopZilla, and the former Popcorn Bandit of Atlanta. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, just look at the Cavs roster and you’ll figure it out. The thing about the Cavs is that they’re not just one-dimensional anymore, despite their explosive megastar. Meaning, these guys are good on defense as well as offense, allowing their opponents an average of 90 points a game, while they score over 100 per. Add in a 19-11 road record, and you have a tough matchup.
Still, the Cavs are not unbeatable, as they found out in Indiana, and more recently at Houston. This game will determine just how serious the Hawks are about defending home court. It is another opportunity to gain and retain homecourt advantage in the playoffs. The victory over Miami was a step along the path to maintaining the right direction. But Dwayne Wade and his crew have already made up for that loss by thrashing New York on Saturday night. The Hawks need to keep pace, if nothing else. Opportunity knocks, but to get this win, all hands will need to be on deck and stay there. Can’t count on another bad shooting night by a worthy opponent…
Speaking of worthy opponents, I see that some people took notice of Miami’s heralded rookie, Michael Beasley. This kid is a “tweener” forward with the kind of skills that will make him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses for YEARS. Instead of asking whether or not he’s a 3 or a 4, you end up asking yourself do you guard him with a 3 or a 4? And there it is: another guy for whom opposing teams will have to design a defensive scheme, even if a defensive specialist is on board. The NBA is full of guys who can’t be stopped one-one-one. That’s why it’s the NBA. And if you were disappointed at the fact that Beasley was able to take Horford off the dribble at will….don’t be. Horford is a forward/center who got the onerous task of guarding a special hybrid SF/PF who is lighter on his feet. And in case you missed it, Horford ended the game with 21 points and 22 rebounds. Hardly a disappointment, if you ask most people.
Horford’s performance against Miami embodies everything that this Atlanta front line is capable of, but does not consistently do. Sure, height cannot be taught. But then again, neither can length. And the starting front line has an average wingspan of over 7 feet. So what’s the problem? Inconsistency in hustle and determination. The Hawks forwards absolutely must put forth the effort night in and night out. Al Horford can hardly ever be knocked for his effort. The same cannot be said as often about Marvin Williams or Josh Smith. But that’s not the point, and none of these guys would throw each other under the bus.
But the truth is, none of them have any excuse on any given night. They’re young, long, athletic, and energetic….when they want to be. And it’s not the offensive side of the ball (which is another story altogether) as it is the defense. These guys have to be hard at it on defense or good teams will eventually wear them down or blow them out. They need to dive on the floor, fight for rebounds, and try to outhustle the competition EVERY game. It’s their way of life, their survival. And they need to do this TOGETHER, all the time. They should be able to count on each other. Sliding over to help on defense. Leaping after the rebound when the others are blocking out. Moveable objects instead of fixtures, watching teammates try to do it all.
There is no 7-foot plus monster in the background, waiting to devour all that come into the lane. This is a machine backed by a three cylinder engine, and all cylinders need to be firing.
Bring on the Cavs. And a chance to keep what has been earned.