If you think the win against Charlotte was something, then I hope you saw the game against San Antonio. While the Bobcats are certainly a tough team to play against (they’ve competed well against some of the best teams in the league), the Spurs are a different animal. Mentally and physically tough, disciplined, this team executes well and never seems to be out of control. That’s not something that the Hawks have been known for in recent years. But they may have just turned a corner, and found a new “toughness resource” in the process.
Call Me Al….
Much like the Paul Simon song (featuring a funny cameo performance by Chevy Chase in the music video), the source of Atlanta’s newfound toughness has a name. That name is Al Horford. Often maligned as undersized and offensively deficient, Horford has taken his game to new heights. Was that the intention all along? Perhaps not, as Horford approached the game and his duties in a very workman-like fashion, doing exactly what was asked of him and nothing more: rebound, defend, get the dunk or layup if the ball is handed off to you. In his first year, Al narrowly missed a season average double double in points and rebounds. He followed that up with a second season that saw him miss 15 games, and played hurt during the playoffs (when he was able to play, that is). Averaging just under a point-and-a-half more, and almost half a rebound less than his rookie year, it looked like Horford might not be more than just a hard-working power forward who could adequately fill in at center. Historically, he has struggled with larger, more traditional centers, and it seemed that this would always be a problem.
Fast forward to the ‘09-’10 season where the problem didn’t go away, but a budding solution was coming into view. Horford’s quickness and work ethic began to show a way to combat his weaknesses and turn them into strengths. The Hawks started giving him the ball more, and he started producing with it. Still, the criticisms remain. Destroying teams without a very strong post presence isn’t and wasn’t garnering much respect (but isn’t that what the premiere big men do?) Averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors isn’t exactly something to sniff at. But it wasn’t enough. Perhaps not until Horford was named by the NBA coaches as a reserve player on the ‘09-’10 All-star team, did he get some measure of proper respect, even amongst the greater Atlanta Hawks fan base. Perhaps not until Horford began doing more than just holding his own against “true centers” like Andrew Bogut, Kendrick Perkins, Chris Kaman, Nene Hilario, and Brook Lopez. Yet all of those performances pale in comparison to Al’s second half resurgence against San Antonio’s Tim Ducan, late Sunday night. After a miserable first half that saw him outworked, outmuscled, and outplayed in general, Horford led the Hawks to victory in overtime by posting 22 points and 18 rebounds, making one good decision after another as time ran down.
It’s not that Horford has grown into a world-beater at center. Perhaps he should still be moved to power forward if the Hawks can find a way to throw in a bigger, effective and rugged defender/rebounder into the mix. But he has learned to be tougher. He has struggled in games, and there have been times where the Hawks needed him, and he didn’t get it done. He has learned to be more reliable on offense, to the point of where the Hawks are well-served to go to him late in games. How badly have the Hawks been needing something like that? Someone who can get the job done down low, via score or pass, rather than hanging it all on the guards? How badly have the Hawks needed toughness in the post, on both ends of the court, and not had it? Horford is still a work in progress, but that work is paying dividends even as we watch, and he will NOT stop working.
A new toughness has come to the Hawks’ squad. And it’s name is Al Horford.
Pump Those Brakes !
On second thought, does two tough wins at home mean a better, tougher team? Or does it mean that the Hawks simply still have glaring problems that cause them to have to play games down to the wire? Maybe we should be more concerned about how many points we win a game by. Are good teams defined by margin of victory? Perhaps good teams are defined by how they win, despite adversity. Atlanta has had trouble with this, of course. Are we really seeing the Hawks turn a corner now? Or are we making too much of a two-game winning streak? Speaking of which, the wins against Charlotte and San Antonio has the Hawks at 7 and 3 in their last 10 games.
The Hawks have had trouble finishing off games in the past, even recently. But they are also owners of a 28 and 7 home record that is good enough for a 2nd place tie in the East with the Orlando Magic. Might these last two tough overtime wins at home be an indicator of how this team might perform in the playoffs. Or are we just…again…making too much of two games?
Pick Your Favorites
I don’t know what’s more entertaining sometimes: how we fans want to call the game, or how the media wants to call it.
Here’s Scenario One: I read the official site of the Atlanta Hawks, and there is a picture of Joe Johnson going strong to the basket (looks like he’s going to dunk it), and it reads that he had 20 points and 13 assists. Meanwhile, Al Horford’s 22 points and 18 rebounds gets the “sidekick” treatment. Before you go there, I have no issues with Joe Johnson, nor am I even suggesting that his contribution wasn’t absolutely crucial to this last win. But come on, man. How does Horford get the “sidekick” treatment in this one? Where is Marvin’s contribution? Wins are literally on a game-by-game basis. So do you as a fan think this was unfair in any way? Do I sound like I’m picking a favorite (and if you know me, you know I don’t have much to say about one of my “favorites”, he stunk it up too much last night)? Is there anything to being the front runner on a headline or the first person mentioned in a win?
Here’s Scenario Two: I’m reading the main page of NBA.com, and the headline reads thusly- ”Working Overtime: It takes five quarters for the Hawks to beat the Spurs for the first time in eight games.” Aaaaarrrgghhhh!
What gives?? The accompanying picture shows Josh Smith looking like he’s laying up a finger roll as he flies past Tim Duncan. Now y’all know I love my boy, but….it’s not like he beat the Spurs up. In fact, his stat line was pedestrian by his own standards. Again, Horford gets the sidekick treatment, and the Hawks really got no respect at all. I mean, “It takes the Hawks five quarters to finally beat the Spurs for the first time in eight games” ??
Couldn’t we roll with “Williams has brilliant first half, Horford dominating second half, as Hawks beat Spurs for first time” ?
Okay, maybe I’m just grousing for no reason. Maybe even whining. Just a little bit. What do you think? Don’t be gentle…..
HAWKS VS. BUCKS….and then “You know Who”
No time for celebration for the Hawks as they travel to Milwaukee (a potential first round playoff opponent) Monday night. Chances are, there will be some tired legs coming off that flight, but this is the nature of the NBA. The Hawks will have to dig deep against yet another tough squad that is looking to solidify its own playoff spot in the East.
The Hawks need to have two things on their minds as they prepare for this game, and one of them is NOT Orlando.
One - Atlanta has another chance to up that road record that stands at 17 and 17. The Hawks want to send two messages here, one to themselves, and one to a team that they may be facing in the first round of the postseason. Half of the message was sent to Milwaukee back on Feb. 28th when the Bucks came to town: “we won’t let you take one in our house.” Time to send the second half of that message. In the meantime, the Hawks need to leave a note for themselves: “establish a way to win on the road against playoff teams, especially those that play well at home.” No time like the present for learning that mentality.
Two – As has been mentioned here before (and I had to be corrected on this), there is no tie-breaker between Boston and Atlanta unless the Hawks can catch and pass the Magic for the division win. And since Boston is practically guaranteed to win their division, there is no such thing as a tie-breaker in the Hawks favor if they end up in a tied record with the Celtics, despite the season sweep. Catching the Magic is not impossible, but will prove to be quite the difficulty, especially if the Hawks keep losing to them. So right now, the Hawks may be best served by trying to have a better record than the Celtics.
Beating the Bucks in Milwaukee is not going to be easy, but it has to be done. Especially while the Celtics are facing the Jazz in Utah, where the Jazz are 27 and 8.
Keys to the Game
1) The Bucks are going to play tough on defense all game, but they are liable to go zone towards the end, as seems to be the trend these days for Hawks opponents. Atlanta will have to remember to get the ball in to Al Horford, who will make good decisions with the ball. Marvin Williams will need to make open shots, as he is most likely to be open. Atlanta will also need a good effort from Josh Smith, who helped will the Hawks to a win in the last game against Milwaukee with 22 points and 15 rebounds. However, Smith also has to be careful not to force passes into the defense, where Bucks defenders will be lying in wait. His 5 turnovers in that game also nearly helped lose the game, which would have effectively rendered moot his other good deeds. The tigher the game gets, the more the ball should go to Horford, who can get it to Johnson, Smith, and any others who have good scoring opportunities. Up top, same applies to Joe Johnson, who has been doing a better job of giving it up to others, lately.
And let’s not forget Marvin. If he remains a steady force on the glass and hit his open shots, opponents will be hard put to double up on the Hawks’ more potent offensive threats.
2) Do not let John Salmons go off as he pleases. A streaky shooter, Salmons can do more to hurt his team than help it if he’s not given open looks or clear paths to the basket. The Hawks should know this already, after watching Salmons torch them for 32 points in the last contest.
3) What Jerry Stackhouse did to us off the bench was outright embarrassing, and may have made him look better than he really still is. Then again, Stackhouse might have simply had a chip on his shoulder after hanging around Atlanta all summer long, then getting snubbed by management and having to go to Milwaukee for a job. It doesn’t matter either way. What matters is that our bench takes some pride in hustle, defense, and execution overall. And that our starters don’t let a minimum salary, 15 year vet outplay them for 27 minutes.
4) Either Mike Bibby or Jamal Crawford (and preferrably both) has to pick it up out there. Last time, the two of them combined for a depressing 5 for 22 from the field, leaving Joe out there by himself. These days, and with the weapons the Hawks have, if you see Joe having to take 20 or more shots to score 20 or more points, you can just about bet that at least two main rotation players are struggling badly from the field. More often than not, those struggles are showing up along the perimeter.
You know the drill. Speak your piece….