Take a breath. Whew….made it back from that road trip without too many scars, and the road record stands at .500.
Maybe now the Hawks can do something they haven’t done since early/mid December. Namely, go on a winning streak that lasts more than 3 games. The Hawks have done it twice this season, but they could use another one. It comes harder down the stretch run but an actual win streak of more than 3 games breeds such confidence. And continuity. Consistence. Uh-oh, there goes that “C” word again. The one that haunts this team and leaves fans, experts, and even casual observers wondering if Atlanta can be more than just a dangerous squad that is better than the rest.
So can it be done?
Having ended a 17 year drought in Utah, the Hawks should be well on their way. Tonight, they face Minnesota, a team that is still struggling mightily. Next will be Dallas, which figures to be the toughest of the next 6 games. After that is a possible trap game against Milwaukee, which will feature rookie sensation Brandon Jennings, and talented 7 foot center Andrew Bogut. This will be the first meeting with this squad, this season. Following that is a trip to Chicago, where the Hawks face a depleted Bulls squad (Tyrus Thomas and John Salmons are gone, Joakim Noah isn’t anywhere near 100%) and a familiar face (remember Flip?), then two more home games against the Sixers and the Warriors (revenge is at hand). Do these next six games have any particular significance that sets them apart from the others?
Well, no and yes.
No, because there are tougher stretches ahead. No, because all games in the last full month of the season are tough. No, because the Hawks have to be thinking about finishing strong in April, not the beginning of March. No, because the Hawks are playing just one road game, and they need to be more concerned about winning on the road than they are at home, where they are dominant.
Yes, because five of these games are at home, where the Hawks are a brilliant 21 and 6. Yes, because the Hawks trail the Boston Celtics by a game, and more importantly, they trail the Magic by 2 games. They really need to win this division. Yes, because after the next six games, the final nine home games include contests against the Raptors (hot on our heels and closer than comfort), Spurs, Magic, Bobcats, Lakers, and Cavaliers. In other words, six of the last nine home games are going to be tough ones. While many teams are mailing it in, come April…I don’t think two of our home game opponents will be (Cleveland and Toronto). So you see, it may be a crucial stretch. Or it may not. Either way, it’s an opportunity to up that win total, renew some confidence, and get rolling on the final stretch. Or maybe I’m just making too much out of the next six games. What say you?
HAWKS VS TIMBERWOLVES
The last time these two teams met, the Hawks walked all over the T-Wolves enroute to a 25-point blowout. And that was with Josh Smith playing just 20 minutes due to foul trouble. Of course, he wasn’t the only one. Zaza Pachulia took it upon himself to foul out in just under 20 minutes, and Randolph Morris showed he could top both of them by doing the same in just over 10 minutes. Still, it was an easy blowout. How? Solid games by Johnson, Williams, Horford, and Bibby, including a masterful performance off the bench by Jamal Crawford. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Four Hawks big men had at least 3 fouls in that game (Horford, Pachulia, Smith, and Morris). Minnesota went to the line 36 times. Of those total free throws, 22 were attempted by Minnesota’s guards. Seeing a pattern here? Chances are, you’ll see that pattern in several other games. Yes, the Hawks consistently have trouble guarding the opposing backcourt, and it’s our frontcourt that pays the price.
Whatever happened to Al Jefferson? Poised to become an all-star on the heels of a season in which he averaged 23 and 11, the Minnesota PF-C has fallen on harder times. He has slowly worked his way back to roughly 17 points and over 9 boards per contest, but is he the same player some fans clamored for us to trade Al Horford for? Not hardly, and he seems to be having consistently trouble with his knees. In any case, he’ll have his hands full with Horford, who has been building and refining his own offensive game, and making the opposition guard him more. If the Hawks go to Horford early, he can open it up for the wing players and put all kinds of pressure on Minnesota.
Kevin Love is a frontcourt player’s dream teammate. The rebound-gobbling PF is also quick and smart with the ball and has one of the best outlet passes in the league. Nobody seems to be able to keep him off the glass, but it will be Josh Smith’s job to make it hard to do what he does best. The problem with him is that he has good shooting range, all the way out to the 3 point arc. Smith will have to deny him the ball out there, rather than chase his shot. The trap is that it keeps Smith away from the basket more, neutralizing what he tends to do best. However, Smith is also dangerous in the passing lanes on defense, and if he’s loose in the open court with the ball, only the quickest guards can catch him. Smith will have to play smart in this game to stay in it and have a positive effect. Of course, he should get help from Marvin Williams on this front. Williams can stretch the defense with his own perimeter shooting, and is a more than capable rebounder when he puts his mind (and butt) in that gear. Advantage? Hawks, as long as the frontcourt makes the effort on the boards, gets adequate touches on offense, and plays smart on defense.
In the backcourt, the Wolves shouldn’t have a chance. While Flynn and Sessions are quick penetrators, neither is a shooter by rote. In fact, the Wolves don’t have a perimeter shooter of any consequence, outside of rookie Wayne Ellington (and he’s not scaring anybody just yet). Instead, the Minnesota guards will look to get to the basket and draw fouls, something they had no problem doing in the last game. On the other side of the ball, Atlanta guards Crawford, Bibby, and Johnson can shoot the lights out of the gym on any given night. Crawford has been a bit up and down since a recent shoulder injury, and Bibby has seemed to be lacking in confidence or desire to shoot it. Johnson however, has been as good as any in the league, and hasn’t slowed down one bit since the all-star break. Advantage: Hawks by a wide margin, providing that at least two out of the Hawks three guards are shooting fairly well, and they do a decent job of denying penetration on defense.
All in all, a winnable game. In fact, it should be another blowout!