Even as I breathe a sigh of relief, I can’t help but be a little peeved about a few things. Complaining about a win? Certainly not, especially an overtime win that saw our team captain lead us out of the ditch and back towards the road. This last game had a bit of a playoff feel to it, as did the one before. This time, however, the Hawks got it done. It left me thinking, however. Which is more important, worrying that the Hawks found themselves in another tight game towards the end of regulation, or happy that they found a way to survive overtime?
Initially, you’d have to say that what matters is the”W” or the “L.” And you’d be right. And, unlike the game against Dallas, the Hawks didn’t surrender the lead in a game they clearly should have won. No, they ground out a win over a tough team that was on a healthy winning streak, despite struggling for the duration of the game (except the first couple of minutes). So, I’ll stick with being happy over being worried. And here are a few observations specifically about this game, and about the Hawks in general, that may have come to the forefront of your mind lately:
You can tell…
….When players are sold on a coach’s ideas. The Bucks play like they are coached by a defensive-minded former point guard, who likes ball and personnel movment. So many cuts, backdoor screens, and things of that nature helped keep the Bucks in the game. Without Michael Redd, they don’t have a tier one (or arguably, even a tier two) offensive player. An argument could be made for John Salmons, and he is indeed a good offensive player. But he’s not going to give you 20+ points a night for the course of a season, and he can be streaky. So, the Bucks survive by moving without the ball, and making extra passes for easier buckets. On the other side of the court, they’ve become a defensively tough-minded team. Prior to them playing for Scott Skiles, Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino were considered to be non-factors on defense, and marginal on their best days. Not so THESE days. They may have foul issues from time to time, but both guys are clearly giving the effort, and they’re doing it on every play.
Conversely, the Hawks don’t seem to buy into the defensive precepts of Mike Woodson anymore. What happened? A team once known for getting wins by playing a suffocating defense, now finds itself as one of the more defensively inept teams in the league. Hawks commentator Bob Rathbun noted that Atlanta is in the bottom third of the League in defense. Why? Is the defensive concept an issue? Are the players not listening to the coaching staff? Can it really be attributed fully to one or the other, or soley to any other theory? It’s not a matter of consistency. If anything, the Hawks are very consistent. They consistently allow penetration from the perimeter. They consistenly find themselves out of position, late on a rotation, or in a mismatch at all the wrong times. Josh Smith consistently makes the most plays and gives the most individual effort, while erasing a large number of his teammates’ mistakes. The only inconsistent thing about the Hawks on defense is their committment to playing defense together. Here lately, even that has become a consistency….they consistently don’t do it.
…Just really isn’t the issue. Oh sure, it’s a hot button topic if you’re focused on who you want to blame for stagnant offense or a loss. As stated by folks like Niremetal have noted, the Hawks run a series of ISO plays. Sometimes is Jamal who gets the isolation. Sometimes Josh or Al. Are they all be design? I don’t think so. I believe some of them, maybe many of them, are by default. We complain about personnel and ball movement, and then we get teased by seeing it for a while, then watching it disappear. I didn’t get to see this game while it was being played, so I got to watch it on my DVR instead. As many of you know, the magic of DVR is you get to fast forward through commercials, hit “stop” and “play” as you please, etc. But there’s nothing like “rewind.” I rewound several series and I realized something: the Hawks have very little “stick-to-it-iveness.” I’ll explain what I mean in a minue. Some teams will pick and roll you to death. Others will run shooters off of screens and bomb away from the perimeter all night. Still others will pound the ball into the post and either continue to score there, or use the threat to pass out to open shooters. The Hawks? They are guaranteed to throw an ISO at you when the chips are down. Those teasing moments that occasionally last for the better part of three quarters, where the Hawks share the ball? They all have a common theme: the defense is either consistently allowing it, or simply can’t stop it.
As many times as we’ve watched the Hawks share the ball and then stop, have we ever stopped and wondered why? It’s because some teams, many of them lately, are reacting to it. The Hawks share the ball and move without the ball until they are denied. Then, they give up. And it happens from series to series. When we have the ball, our guys will usually try one back door cut, one screen, or some other move to a spot where they can be most effective. But when they don’t get the ball, they stop right there and stay in that general area. If they set a screen, and the man with the ball doesn’t get sprung free, they don’t set another one. They don’t keep moving! They don’t try it again! There is no reset! And guess what happens next? Despite the fact that there may not have been a play called for it, somebody ends up with the ball, and they are all by themselves. Now what do you have? ISO. Paying closer attention to more recent games, I would say that there have been more ISO plays that happened by default, than there have been actual plays calls. The difference? When guys like Joe or Jamal are intentionally isolated with the ball, the chances are actually better that they will succeed, knowing what they have to do. Force a player into an isolation, and he has to think quickly on his feet, which can be easily negated by the lack of movement by his teammates. Between coaching staff and players, this problem needs to be mitigated. Opposing teams have apparently figured this out, and are exploiting it. Want the Hawks to stop doing something that is hurting you? Deny them for a possession or two. They’ll quit doing it and go right to ISO plays or one-and-done jumpshooting.
Hey, wasn’t that…
….Jerry Stackhouse? The 15 year veteran swingman that kept hanging around Atlanta throughout the summer, and prior to the season? Typically, most of us took one side or the other: “sign him now” and “no way!” In between, there was a lot of scoffing at the idea that Stackhouse could still play and contribute meaningfully. Even the steady reports of then-beat writer Sekou Smith were discounted out of hand. Some thought signing him might be a money issue, and we already had Mo Evans. Well, Hawks fans got to see firsthand what Stackhouse can STILL do in a REAL game, with real minutes. Did Stack get up for this game, or was he really that good off the bench? Only one observation truly resonated with me on the subject. It wasn’t that he still has quicks. It wasn’t that he could score inside or out. It wasn’t that he looked smooth, rather than old. It was the response when Stack was mentioned to Hawks assistant coach Jim Todd. Todd’s response: “we tried to get him here.” What in the devil happened? The guy signed with Milwaukee. Milwaukee? What was more attractive about Milwaukee? I don’t know what they signed him for, but I’d say they’re getting their money’s worth. Even though he’s isn’t shooting particularly well from the field overall, his season stats are proof that he can contribute well from the bench in 20 minutes worth of work. Spilled milk, maybe. But one does wonder what might have been.
Believe it or not…
….Brandon Jennings is lightning fast and a special player, but not really quicker than Jeff Teague. In fact, he didn’t even look much better to me than Jeff Teague last night. Usually, the Hawks have all sorts of problems with very fast point guards who can penetrate. But Jennings looked like a rook. Was it because veteran guard Mike Bibby outmaneuvered him? Not really. Was he just having a bad night? Maybe. Most likely, Jennings found out that in spite of his 55 point explosion earlier in the season, and a number of very good performances…he’s still a rookie. He has much to learn. He’s gotten a lot of valuable experience with all the minutes he’s been playing, as a starter. Yet last night, he looked prone to make mistakes on both offense and defense, didn’t have a jumpshot that I’d write home about, and wasn’t the budding maestro he appeared to be early on. In his last 31 games, he has only shot 50% from the field three times. The rest of the time, he has literally been nowhere near that shooting percentage. In fact, his 16 ppg have come with a shooting percentage that has come all the way down to 36.8%, with several performances that were 35% or worse. Is the kid talented? Absolutely. Does he have a future as a starting pg? I’m fairly sure of it.
But I wonder. If given the same minutes and shot attempts, would Teague do any worse, or any better? No, I’m not remotely suggesting that such a thing be done right now, or even this season. But having watched Jennings, I’m wondering if shot attempts and playing time aren’t the bulk of the difference.
Call it like it is…
…Josh Smith carried us in this game throughout regulation, with some help here and there from Al Horford. When the Hawks needed a basket or a defensive play, Smith delivered more often than not, and even hit most of his free throws. His offensive rebounds late in the game were perhaps some of the most pivotal plays of all.
…Joe Johnson saved our butts in overtime. Unable to deliver during regulation, Johnson dug deep and scored nine of his points in the overtime period, including a HUGE three pointer, to seal the game for us. This is what your best player and go-to guy is supposed to do. Joe got the job done when it mattered.
…Jamal Crawford is struggling in a bad way. Some will point to his career shooting percentage, but I don’t think that’s it. He’s slumping, and whether or not it’s related to injury in any way is unknown to anyone but Jamal. One thing is for sure, though. The Hawks need their Super Sub to find his way back ASAP. These things happen, but down the stretch is a bad time for it. The only thing worse would be an ineffective playoff showing.
….despite some decrease in his whining, and being more focused on remaining effectively in play, Josh Smith is not in favor with the officials. While Joe Johnson has endured a lack of calls for years, Smith gets hammered on both ends of the floor. It seems that he will continue to serve time in NBA Referee Purgatory for the rest of the season, with no hope for absolution in sight. Maybe serving his penance with a more contrite attitude for the full season will help him regain some measure of grace next season. One can only hope.
HAWKS VS. BULLS
It’s just not going to get easier. Having passed a weakening Celtics squad for third place overall in the East, the Hawks remain two games behind division leader Orlando.
Atlanta faces another team that is hungrily chasing a decent playoff spot in the Chicago Bulls, who are smack in the middle of a tough fight for the fifth seed between them, Milwaukee, and Toronto. Last year’s fifth seed, the Miami Heat, find themselves 9th overall in the East, and staring at the possibility of not making the playoffs at all. With Wade’s impending free agency (as if you haven’t heard this phrase 300 times too many already), that has to make Miami front office officals very nervous. But more on that in a later blog.
Here We Go Again
Atlanta won the last contest between the two teams, but that was in the Highlight Factory. The last trip to Chicago ended up with the Hawks slinking away from a shameful 3 point loss. Besides a masterful 40 point performance by Joe Johnson, the Hawks were unable to manage much help from other sources, as three of the Hawks’ starters combined for a dismal 7 of 27 from the field, Josh Smith stayed in foul trouble, and the Bulls were the latest team to beat the Hawks all over the glass.
The good news is that while the Hawks had all they could take of John Salmons while playing Milwaukee, they won’t have to face either him again tonight, along with human pogo stick Tyrus Thomas. They also don’t know how to deal with the tandem of Joe and Jamal, or Al and Josh, assuming Jamal’s shot is on, and Josh isn’t in foul trouble.
The bad news is that Derrick Rose is averaging 23 points and 6 assists per game against the Hawks. Even scarier is the fact that he has shot 52% over the course of his last 14 games (the entire month of February). Rose gets to the basket he wants to, and is either converting the shot or getting to the line just about every time. And while Tyrus Thomas may be missed in some ways, newcomer Hakim Warrick is a more heady hustler who provides Marvin Williams-esque stats off the bench, and is a more stable/solid defender. Mix in Joakim Noah’s recovery from injury, and this could be trouble very quickly if the Hawks come out sluggish.
Playing an energetic and hungry team a mere 24 hours after a hard-fought contest is never easy, but nobody is going to have any sympathy for the Hawks. They’ll have to dig deep, find the energy, and get another road win. Boston isn’t guaranteed to falter forever, and Orlando could widen the gap any day now.