That has to be how several teams are viewing the Hawks by now. This team has always looked very athletic on paper. With the offseason changes, they’ve also looked more potent from a scoring standpoint. But tough? Few really ever thought of the word in connection with these guys. Well, the exception being when they were having one of those defensive “moments of clarity” that helped them to a win that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
But it seems that this is the new Atlanta Hawks. Tough. The second half meltdowns are no longer just…inevitable. The scoring droughts almost don’t happen at all. They might for an individual, but not for the team as a whole. The rebounding disadvantages? A thing of the past. How about those moments where Joe Johnson can’t get it going, and the entire team lays right down around him? Not the calling card or character trait it used to be. Big plays at the end of games? The Hawks are making them, like they did last night against Houston. The great thing is, they haven’t had to for the most part.
So far, it’s a winning formula. What formula, you might ask? I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but some of the ingredients are obvious. One part growth, one part re-committment. Another part offseason acquisition, yet another maturity. The list goes on. The result is a team that can beat opponents any number of ways, with recent glimpses of being able to do this on the road as well. The difference is that they’ve gone from can to does. The time for potential has passed. The time for fulfillment is here. The Hawks are fulfilling. Nowadays, Al Horford does more than grab rebounds and get a block or two. He scores. Nowadays, Josh Smith doesn’t shirk his duties down low, while trying to establish a mid/long range game. Instead, he scores efficiently, and terrorizes the opposition on the glass, at the rim (on both ends of the floor), and anywhere he can get to a loose ball. Nowadays, if Joe is shooting 6-17, he also gets 6 boards, and 8 or 9 dimes, which means that not only is he passing the ball, but his teammates are converting those passes into buckets. Nowadays, there is a guy coming off the bench who can score as much as Joe on any given night. Nowadays, Mike Bibby hustles on defense, and nobody thinks twice if he shoots 3-8, especially when two of those three shots are timely jumpers. Nowadays, Zaza isn’t the only big guy coming off the bench to help out in the paint.
To be more fair and not get to ahead of ourselves, we have to acknowledge that the Hawks haven’t passed all tests. There are still questions, there always are. Some want to know if this team can sustain it’s level of play throughout the regular season, and into the playoffs. Others worry about minutes and player rotation. Still more worry that this is all a fluke, because happy times in Hawksville just can’t be true. And then there are those who just have to be right about everything, or want to analyze the future, when the present is still shaping itself. Whatever the case may be, the story runs chapter to chapter, page to page. Is this team “for real?” Yes, they are. There is nothing fake about a regular season game (okay, maybe the officiating). Will they keep this up? We shall see. But one thing any Hawks fan should be willing to believe by now is that this team is tougher than it has been for years, and tougher than it has been in years past. Tougher in ways that you didn’t think about at first. Tougher individually. Tougher collectively.
The Hawks have faced some pretty decent tests so far, and have passed most. By my estimation, they’ve only faced two tests of the elite variety. That would be the games against Boston and L.A. In my opinion, Denver is close, but doesn’t quite make that cut. Please feel free to disagree with that theory, however. At any rate, the Hawks failed one test (L.A.) and passed the other (Boston), one in miserable fashion, and the other in fine fashion. A third one comes up in the form of Orlando, but we will discuss this later. For now, the Hawks must avoid looking past tonight’s opponent, the New Orleans Hornets.
HAWKS VS HORNETS
The buzz in New Orleans surrounds the minor matter of two consecutive wins for a team that has seen it’s head coach fired, it’s GM demoted, and it’s star (Chris Paul) sidelined indefinitely with injury. And yet, there’s this small winning streak, which includes victories against the Clippers, and the high-flying Phoenix Suns. Winning two in a row may not seem like such a big deal in comparison to a team like our Hawks, who have just gotten their seventh victory in a row. But never, ever underestimate the influence of home cooking. That’s right, both wins for the Hornets have been at home, which is where we play them tonight.
What’s funny is, the Hornets have been shooting a lower percentage than their opponents, and while they have consistently put up a large number of 3-point shots, they haven’t consistently hit them. So how have they won? One big reason that stands out to me is rebounding advantage. Over the last two games, the Hornets have averaged roughly 53 rebounds, while holding their opponents to an average of roughly 37 rebounds. Lets take a closer look, though. Against the Clippers, the Hornets managed 19 offensive rebounds. Against the Suns? Try 25 of them. If the Hawks thought they had it rough against the Rockets, they’d best be prepared for more heavy compeition in The Hive.
Last Time Out
The Hawks beat the Hornets silly. 121-98, to be more specific. But that was here in the Highlight Factory. Now, they’ll look for some measure of revenge, putting aside Southern hospitality. The Hawks took with them a rebounding advantage of 48 to 41, and a shooting percentage that was 10% better than what the Hornets could muster. Will things flip-flop tonight? We’ll see.
These Guys Might Be Trouble
Hey, where’s Chris Paul? Nevermind that. The Hornets are forced to do things differently without him, and in some ways that truly is a good thing. Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton are not just seeing decent minutes, they are producing. Devin Brown may yet ease the loss of the fairly steady Rasual Butler. Okafor and West have returned to their glass-eating ways. The ship isn’t yet righted, but it might be getting closer to floating on it’s side, as opposed to beating submarines for dive speed.
Having said that, my game maker/breaker picks are Peja Stojakovich and David West. Why those two? Well, Peja seems to finally have found enough of his shot again, for one thing. For another, he seems to be getting better looks from the arc lately. Nothing is worse for an opposing defense than a natural shooter finding his groove and getting open looks. The Hawks have been inconsistent when it comes to closing out on shooters. This problem can and always will be magnified when playing on the road. Stojakovich can hit you for 25 points anytime. He’s done it twice in the last three games. Both times, he was shooting rather well from long range. Keeping him under wraps will be as much a priority for the Hawks every bit as much as getting him open will be for the Hornets.
Ah yes, there’s David West. The man is an all-star, a two timer at that. He hasn’t looked all that good this season, but it can’t keep up forever, can it? As with Lamarcus Aldridge in Portland, a power forward with a pretty good jumpshot is always trouble. The main reason for this is it tends to negate the tough inside defense that Al Horford and Josh Smith have been providing. Those two fellas have provided a combination of stinginess that has frustrated opposing teams in ways they never expected. But guys like West will constantly draw you out, opening things up for shooters, and taking away the athletic help defense that Josh and Al provide, and also making it harder for them to crash the glass.
The Hawks have their choice of weapons. Nobody in the Hornets backcourt can guard either Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford without help. If they forget about Mike Bibby, he will burn them from mid and long range at will. Okafor and West will have their hands more than full with Horford and Smith. Who is going to guard the recently confident Marvin Williams? If the Rockets couldn’t contain him, what can the Hornets expect to do? Marvin got his groove on (and then some) against the Rockets, and I see no problem with making him the focus against New Orleans as well. Not only will it do wonders for his recent surge in confidence, it presents the perfect opportunity to rest guys like Bibby and Johnson. We’ll want them at full strength for Thursday’s test.
So…..how does this game stack up to you? Will Stojakovich shoot the lights out in The Hive, or will the Hawks keep him bottled up? Will West teach Smith a lesson or two in how to be a young all-star power forward, or will it be the other way around? Should Marvin be the headliner, or just get back to playing his role? Will the Hawks overlook the Hornets, or will they treat this as another opportunity to win on the road?