But here come the Cavaliers.
What’s that you say? I skipped the Pacers game and the Cavs aren’t due for another three days? I have something to say about Indiana, but honestly….is it the Pacers that are on your mind, or the Cavaliers? Be honest. I know what’s on my mind. Hawks versus Cavs, and chance to go in one of two directions before the season’s half. Yes, I know that with today’s game against the Pacers, and both Cavs games, it will only make 31 games for the Hawks. And All-Star weekend takes place several games down the road yet. However, how the Hawks do against the Cavs (and in the next 13 games overall) can determine , in part, how they end the first half of the season. And rather than look at how we compare to the entire Big Three, we’ll just look at the leader of our division, the Orlando Magic.
Having been dismantled by a very good looking Celtics team, the Orlando Magic stand at 22 and 8, just one game ahead of us. Of course, they just finished a somewhat rough spate of games, wherein they faced the Heat, Blazers, Jazz, Rockets, and the aforementioned Celtics. The schedule gets presumably easier after they revisit Milwaukee (no longer a guaranteed win), with games against the struggling T-Wolves, Bulls, Pacers, Raptors, and Wiz, before making a trip to The Highlight Factory. After that clash (oh please, let it be a clash this time, not another Magical slaughter), Orlando faces a 4 game road trip out West, featuring games against the Kings, Nuggets, Blazers, and Lakers. Conceivably, the Magic could be looking at record of 31 and 10 by the time they reach 41 games (the true halfway point in the season). But I’m picking them to get shocked by a Milwaukee squad that only lost to them by two the last time they played, get beaten by us for the first time since early last season (I hope), and get taken out on the road by both the Nuggets and the Lakers. The Blazers game is a tough call, though they have what it takes to knock just about anybody out at the Rose Garden.
So how do things look for the Hawks? Well, there is that game against the Pacers. Following that is the back-to-back against Cleveland. The Hawks then play two out of three at home (New York and New Jersey) , sandwiched around a visit to Miami. Next is a brutal trio of games. Boston (in the ATL), then Orland0, then Boston again, with those last two being road games. To get to 41 games total, the Hawks round it out with contests against the Wiz, Suns, Thunder, and Kings. So how will the Hawks do, considering no win in the NBA is guaranteed? Hard to say, but so much of this starts with Cleveland. Worst case scenario, the Hawks lose both games and widen the gap between them and Orlando (and the Big Three overall), possibly even spanning into a tough losing streak or breaking the rhythm of consecutive wins (something the Hawks have matched the Magic in, with just a single losing streak this season). Take one, and a good measure of confidence is gained. Take both, and things can change quite a bit! All things considered, could the Hawks find themselves at 30 and 11 in 41 games?
Well, enough projecting and speculating on my part, though I certainly want to hear everybody else’s thoughts on the matter. For now, let’s talk about the Pacers.
HAWKS VS PACERS
The last time these two teams met, it was the first game of the regular season for the Hawks. It was a game of discoveries, if you will. The Hawks disovered that Al Horford could score, Josh Smith could pass, Mo Evans has some shooting touch, their offense was much more potent, and their defense needed a lot of work. There were some highlights in the game of course. Danny Granger put on a scoring display that showed last year’s numbers were no fluke. Al Horford absolutely destroyed the 7′2″ Roy Hibbert to the tune of 24 points and 16 rebounds. Joe Johnson was in early all-star form. In the end, the Hawks won by 11.
The Pacers are no doubt glad to see Mike Dunleavy come back, especially with Danny Granger out. While I’m sure he’s enjoyed getting all the looks he can handle, there’s nothing like another guy who can take some of the pressure off of the main scorer and make plays at the same time. Dunleavy is just that kind of guy. Too bad for the Pacers, Granger hasn’t been around to complete the picture. Dunleavy actually made his season debut back on November 28th, and has been slowly working his way back into game shape since then. December 14th marked his return to the starting lineup. After reminding folks that he is a very credible scoring threat (and all but a guarantee at the charity stripe), Dunleavy has fallen on hard times the last three games, totalling just 21 points. Having spent most a long time on the inactive list (including most of ‘08-’09), Dunleavy hasn’t yet returned to the form he had in ‘07-’08, where he showed himself to be a triple threat man (19.1 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists).
For the Hawks, a healthy Joe Smith would be nice, particularly with starting power forward Josh Smith going through a stretch of foul trouble. Smith took a little while to get into regular season game shape, and has received spotty minutes. However, when he has gotten good minutes, he has proved most invaluable. If Smith is ready to play, that immediately gives coach Mike Woodson a security blanket for those times that the younger Smith is having a rough time with the officials.
There are two guys that probably won’t be sending Christmas cards to any NBA officials. They would be Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Johnson has recommitted himself to going to the basket for the most part this season, and what has been his reward? Well, a better shooting percentage has been nice, but less than 4 free throw attempts per game? Joe averaged a somewhat anemic 4.58 attempts per game last year. This year, it’s down to 3.8 per game. What’s worse is that the fouls don’t seem to be any less frequent, even with Joe not facing as many double teams. What gives? Either way, Joe should get some relief against the hapless Pacers, who will probably be drawing straws on who gets to guard him (something tells me there will be more than one short straw in that drawing).
Josh Smith seems to be catching it from both ends. Not only does he get called for more fouls on the defensive end than he deserves credit for, but he also gets a little Joe Johnson treatment. The bad part is that it takes the much-needed Smith out of the game, and affects his mental approach and play when he IS in. Josh has to figure out a way around this and toughen up mentally. Otherwise, both his absence AND his presence will be a problem for the Hawks. It may seem like a harsh assessment, but the truth of the matter is that Josh has become leader defensively, and the team’s free safety, strong safety, and middle linebacker, all rolled into one.
The Usual Suspects
The Pacers will look to Troy Murphy for rebounds as usual. But they’ll also look to him for scoring, what with Danny Granger out (not sure when he’s due back) and Mike Dunleavy struggling. Murphy tends to do much of his damage from the outside, but is not above cutting to the paint for an easy basket and possibly an added free throw. It will be on Josh Smith to make most of his shots from the perimeter, but make them heavily contested shots. He’ll also have to battle Murphy on the boards at all times, concentrating on keeping him from getting offensive rebounds for easy put-backs and other second chance opportunities. On the offensive end, Smith has to use his superior quickness and athletic ability to make Murphy work, and draw him into fouling. This automatically negates Murphy’s scoring and rebounding skills. He won’t be able to contribute either one if he’s sitting on the bench in foul trouble.
Mike Dunleavy is probably due to have a decent-to-good game, and he has all the tools to do so. Capable of scoring inside and out, Dunleavy has some savvy and is quite capable of making plays for others here and there. Marvin Williams will get another chance to help out on defense and rebounding. On the offensive end, Williams can give Dunleavy more of a workout than he wants, if he’s aggressive, and if his teammates get him the ball. Neutralize Dunleavy, and the Pacers will be left with Murphy, who will have his hands full with Josh Smith. Cancel out both, and the Pacers have to rely on their guards and center Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert played well against the Spurs and the Bucks, but was overwhelmed against the aggressive Boston Celtics. Prior to those three games, he wasn’t much of a factor against Memphis, Charlotte, Washington, and Orlando, not scoring in double figures in any of those four games. As big as he is (7′2″, 278 lbs), Hibbert is neither a great rebounder or an intimidating defender. Although he has averaged 1.8 blocks per game this season, he gets beaten by quicker and more determined opponents in the post. On top of that, Hibbert has managed to grab double digit rebounds in just five games this season. Al Horford can and should beat Hibbert to the boards like he did earlier this season, and should have plenty of scoring opportunities to boot. The Hawks would do well to take advantage of Horford’s ability to beat Hibbert down the floor, and his quick moves in the post.
Indiana will also rely on guard Dahntay Jones to step up his game in place of Granger. Jones is not a great shooter percentage wise, but he can get the ball in the hole. He played well against us last time, and could prove to be a bit of a problem if not defended aggressively. On the other hand, he will likely draw the task of guarding Joe Johnson, which will prove to be a full-time job and possibly a futile task. Johnson has recently upped his assists and is about as good a playmaker as there is at the 2-guard position. And that’s when he’s not dropping 20-something points on you.
Okay, so the Hawks may be thinking as much about Cleveland as we are (okay, maybe it’s just me), but they cannot look past the struggling-yet-competitive Pacers. They may have lost 4 straight, but none of those losses have been absolute blowouts, such as the one the Hawks suffered in Denver. The Pacers have lost to the Spurs and Bucks by a total of 5 points. They lost road games in Memphis (13 points) and Boston (9 points), suggesting that they can keep a game somewhat close. The Hawks need to treat them the same way they did teams likethe Raptors: beat them down early on, then rest the starters for a quarter or so. And get ready for Cleveland!