Sometimes teams do it to the Hawks. Sometimes the Hawks do it to other teams (see this afternoon’s game against the Thunder).
Maybe the Hawks do it to themselves.
Really, could it be that the Hawks underestimate themselves? Or maybe they just don’t take things seriously enough all the time. Now I know what you might be thinking, because I’d be thinking it too, if I wasn’t writing these words myself. Atlanta sits atop the southeastern conference division with Orlando, forty games into the season. That’s just one game shy of the true halfway point in the season. The Hawks are winners at home. They are winners on the road (anything above .500 is winning, no matter how you slice it). When is the last time they’ve been this good? For even the most patient fans, it probably has been too long. So, what am I complaining about? I’m not, actually. Just pontificating (and I use the term loosely) on what I think is one of the many steps a team has to take on its way to being the best.
The Haws are on their way. But, they have to take every step to get there. This is the part of the journey where a team learns to not underestimate themselves or the competition. As we while away these January mornings and evenings, discussing such matters of great importance, like whether the switching defense can alleviate world hunger, if Jeff Teague’s playing time has an effect on the economy, or if Marvin Williams will discover a cure for cancer….perhaps we can also talk about the mindset of this mercurial team. If each of us had a nickel for each time we heard any variation of the following: “How can we beat Boston three times, but get blown out by Orlando all the time?” or “How do we win in Dallas, but lose in New York?” Well, we’d all say it a lot more once we figured that it produced a nickel out of thin air each time it was uttered and heard. Yet this team stands at the top, right next to the very team they cannot seem to figure out, no matter who that team is missing that night.
Is this some sort of reverse psychology or self-hypnotism that the team has put upon themselves? Are the Magic that good, and that much of a matchup problem? While there may be some kernel of truth here, it does not explain their inability to even compete physically or mentally with their division adversary. Maybe the Hawks collectively think they aren’t good enough. Maybe that’s what they, as a team, tell themselves when the Magic go on a run. But, move on to Boston, where every move or countermove the Celtics make, the Hawks come fighting, clawing, and scratching back, all the way to victory. Boston feels that this is no rivalry, but you can bet they feel something has changed. Have they underestimated the Hawks? Absolutely. Will they do it again? No, but it is probably too late. Boston is aging. Atlanta is maturing. Big difference between the two.
And yet this is not nearly the same situation as a loss to Oklahoma City. No, games like this remind the Hawks that they aren’t good enough yet to let a team take them by surprise and outhustle them for a quarter or tw0, before regaining control and claiming the victory. Games like this remind the Hawks that they just recently stepped off the platform that the Thunder are trying to reach, that space where you may be a contender for the playoffs. The Hawks have made it to the platform of “all but guaranteed” playoff team, but they seek that next level, that designation of threat to make the conference finals. You don’t get there by not respecting all competition. You don’t get there by not displaying the ability to consistently make key runs on offense, clamp down for a significant period of time on defense, and regain control of the game by exerting your will however necessary. THAT is the next level. THAT is true competition. THAT is being a contender. THAT is what the Hawks want.
Can they get there despite losses like today’s? Sure. These things happen. The Thunder have beaten teams like Orlando and San Antonio. Their world is not crumbling, as we know. But they can’t get there by not having the mental fortitude to compete every night. Mental toughness is crucial. Losing because you’re tired? Happens. Losing because the other team is simply bigger and more physical? Reasonable. Losing because you are not in the proper frame of mind? Unacceptable. The Hawks will get there. They will take that next step. One foot on the ground, the other in the air, the Hawks will eventually get there.
At 5 wins and 4 losses, Atlanta is so far surviving January. Six more games remain in the month. The homestand continues with a game against the Sacramento Kings, before concluding against the Charlotte Bobcats.
HAWKS VS KINGS
When the Hawks visited Sacramento back in November, they went 10 deep in the playing rotation, and walked out with an 8 point victory in what was a shootout. Jason Thompson was the surprise performer for the Kings, while Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford combined for 52 points for the Hawks. The Kings have a miserable record of 3 and 16 on the road, and have lost 4 straight. Looks good for the home team…
Rookie guard Tyreke Evans has arrived. Oh, I’m sure that like any rookie, he has a million ways to grow right now. But the kid has Joe Johnson numbers (20, 5, and 5) in his rookie year. And before you start talking about good players playing on bad teams, consider that he is playing right next to a guy who is averaging over 25 points per game. Yes, Kevin Martin has been injured, which explains a spike in Evans’ production. But to be able to turn it on like that, and still shoot 46% from the field? As a ROOKIE? It goes without saying, but this guy is special. So who gets the task of guarding him? Will a switch defense help us, or help the Kings? It worked last time. But Evans has grown since then. Believe it.
Oh, and then there’s that guy, Kevin Martin. He’s still trying to shake off the rust, but all it takes is a number of good looks at the basket for a good shooter/scorer, and he soon gets into a rhythm. After that, it’s trouble for any defense. Then again, Martin could be his team’s weakest link. The man likes to shoot far more than he likes to pass, and if the Hawks pressure him into rushed shots, he could shoot the Kings right into a blowout.
On the frontcourt side of things, Al Horford can be counted on to hold his own. The question is, will he get enough touches on offense to make a positive impact on that end of the court, or will he get frozen out? At the same time, Josh Smith needs to bring his “A” game effort against Jason Thompson. Last time, Thompson outperformed Smith handily on the scoreboard and on the glass. If that happens again, or if Smith gets into foul trouble, others like Marvin Williams and Joe Smith have to take up the slack. With Zaza Pachulia back, that may be less of a concern.
So should the Hawks roll with the backcourt doing most of the damage, or is the shooting performance against Oklahoma City yet another unheeded cautionary tale of living and dying by the jumpshot? Atlanta shouldn’t have much trouble with Sacramento, but they shouldn’t underestimate a team with nothing to lose, either. Will they get back to beating the inferior teams and focusing on the opponent in front of them? Orlando plays L.A. late tonight. Atlanta plays Sacramento on Wednesday. This could be the Hawks’ best chance to take sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division, and then try to get some space between them and the Magic, before facing them at the end of the month.