The NBA season can be both strange and exciting. Dramatic and traumatic. Tragic and triumphant. Ok, enough with the commercial-ish adjectives and cliches, right? After all, NBA commercials capture enough of that. Hey wait, I have a commercial idea. How about we take those commercials from 2007-2008, showing the mighty Boston Celtics roaring forth like legendary green-clad warriors, as they stormed their way to the playoffs and beyond! Now splice that and show winged Hawks players swooping in and plucking them off of their feet like some great legion of vengeful, red-clothed Valkyries!
….then cut to a scene where this legion of frequent fliers are undone and defeated by blue-cloaked Sorcerers that cast Magic stones at them…
How’s that? Wouldn’t it make a good NBA commercial? Or does it just describe, in part, the transition the Hawks seem to be in right now?
It’s said that the NBA is a game of matchups. Yeah, well there is apparently some truth to it. How else can you explain the Hawks defeating the Celtics twice this season (once at home, once in Boston), then getting smoked badly by the Orlando Magic in both meetings? What gives? Some say the Hawks just don’t match up well with the Magic, while they match up pretty good with the Celtics. That theory seems to hold water as well, as the Hawks are finally able to beat the Celtics with consistency (hey, two wins is a start, and not a fluke). But the Magic haven’t been beating the Hawks the same way every time, or even with the same people. They’ve just been plain beating them. How do we end this?
ONE STEP FORWARD, 1.5 TO GO
The Hawks can compete with the Celtics and defeat them, as we now know. They can compete with the Cavaliers, but don’t quite seem to know how to beat them just yet, while not being too far off from it. They apparently are incapable of doing either when it comes to the Magic. Why? Surely there is a gameplan that’s less vague and more effective that which was offered by Mike Woodson in recent quotes. We as fans of course, always have our own opinion. Hawks fan and blogger Niremetal suggests the following, with an acknowledgement to the idea that the problem of solving the is not one-dimensional:
“My best advice would be to take the ball right at Dwight Howard every time on offense and try to force him to get into foul trouble – and don’t stop if he blocks the first 6 shots you throw at him. JJ just seemed to give up after the second time Dwight threw his shot. On defense, I really just think we need to keep Zaza or Collins in at center, pull Josh (like Beasley, Rashard Lewis is a terrible matchup for him), put Al or Marvin on Lewis, and resist the urge to double down. But honestly, I don’t know if that would work given the fact that the Magic have a couple of guys who can penetrate very well too (Lewis, Jameer, Barnes, and Vince).”
PENETRATING THE PROBLEM
The above comments further explain why the Hawks have so much trouble with the Magic. Facing a dominant big man is no easy task. Add in a multitude of three point shooters (a Hawks weakness on defense), and things get worse. Yet the dot in the middle that connects the other two is penetration. Penetration. The one thing that starts a chain reaction of other problems, including the theory that the Hawks’ problems all end in their inability to defend the paint.
Where is the evidence to support that theory as a stand alone problem? What would suggest that this is even the primary problem for the Hawks on defense? A renewed effort, growing maturity, and a more consistent focus on the part of Josh Smith has been added to the strong steadiness of Al Horford, making the Hawks’ frontcourt defense better than ever. Well, that is to say, when they are able to play where they are supposed to play. Penetration. It’s part of what makes the switching defense necessary sometimes. And the switch-offs often put Josh Smith and Al Horford in position to defend a player, but not an area. Yet, that style of defense is highly effective some nights and against some teams, enough to make junking it altogether a perhaps unwise decision.
Coach Mike Woodson recently talked about facing a zone defense that made it difficult to get the ball in to the low post for scoring opportunities. You can beat a zone if you can shoot, but if you miss it’s all down hill. So how do you beat it? Penetration. It’s perhaps the one thing that consistently beats a formidable Hawks defense. Maybe it really does just come down to matchups and what you have on your roster. How can the Hawks beat penetration? They have to figure it out somehow, because they’ll see more and more of it as the season wears on, and as much as they can handle in the playoffs (still a long ways off, but never too early to think about in some aspects). Penetration is where it starts. It’s how the big man gets the ball when the zone is locking everything up. It’s how the perimeter shooter gets a good look at the basket. It’s how the offense scores when nothing else is working. It’s the beginning of the end for the Hawks. Or is it? Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s just another problem. But what if it’s not?
Will this come down to a roster move? Can Woodson figure out a strategy to compensate? Is it up to the Hawks players themselves?
ALL STAR ASPIRATIONS
The latest all-star ballots can be viewed on NBA.com, but we’ll discuss the Hawks players that are up for votes. Atlanta’s only all-star for the last several years is well behind in the chase this season. Joe Johnson trails Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Gilbert Arenas, and Derrick Rose. With Arenas suspended indefinitely, Johnson figures to make up some ground. Will it be enough to make the all-star bench? Let’s just say there’s a rather large gap between current 4th place occupant Ray Allen, and fifth place occupant Derrick Rose, who happens to be outpacing Johnson by a slim 50,000 votes or so. Bringing up the rear in all of the mentionable Eastern Conference guards on the all-star ballots is Mike Bibby.
Meanwhile, Al Horford seems to be faring better on his end, where he’s in third place among the centers, beating out the likes of Brook Lopez, Andrew Bogut, Jermaine O’Neal, and Kendrick Perkins. The problem? Shaq and Dwight are the front runners, and they lead Horford by a very wide margin. Horford’s 178,000 + votes can hardly compare to Shaq’s 609,000 + votes, and Dwight’s 1.6 million + votes. Still, Horford is placing better than ever, and may have an even better shot next year.
Josh Smith is another Hawk who faces tough competition on the ballot in Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, and Paul Pierce. Here’s the kicker: Smith trails Pierce by a mere 32,000 votes, meaning that he could overtake him before the voting is over. And if a single Boston fan sees this, they’ll be falling all over themselves to make sure a member of their new rival (like it or not, here we come Beantown boys!) doesn’t get the spot over one of their beloved. So what of it, Atlanta fans? Do you care enough to try and tip the scales in the favor of one of YOUR own? Even if he doesn’t make the bench?
HOPING FOR A THREE-PEAT
Yeah, I know this sort of thing should only be used in describing championships. But I don’t care. If the Hawks beat the Celtics again tomorrow night, I’m calling it a three-peat. That’s how much I value those wins, and I’m sure all of you in Hawksville do, too. Meanwhile, I’m sure Boston is anxious to refute the idea that we are anywhere near having their number. Or that we can even become a rival THIS SEASON. But guess what? A third win does nothing but strengthen that notion. Let’s do it, Hawks. One step forward, one and-a-half to go.