They did it.
The Hawks finally beat the Orlando Magic.
Even better, there is no caveat to reach for. No lame excuse. All of Orlando’s starters (and I assume their bench) were healthy and played (though Pietrus was injured during the game). The Hawks simply beat them. Have we waited a long time for this, or what? It’s easy to look at this game now, and think about games we could have won previously, but why do that? Wins and losses are both earned, after a fashion. Rather than reflect on what could have been, the Hawks should reflect on what could be. Leave the hindsight to us, the fans.
How big was this win, exactly? Do we give it too much weight? Not enough? Is it just another game? Atlanta avoided a season sweep by Orlando, gained a measure of confidence, and pulled within one win of last season’s total. How many more games will the Hawks win?
So what did the Hawks learn in this game? Have they truly figured out the Orlando Magic? A few thoughts for your afternoon pleasure:
_ First and foremost, the Hawks learned something they’ve known all along, but did not seem to understand. I think Josh Smith said it best- “We can play with anybody as long as we give a full 48 minutes.” The Hawks have won many a game without giving the full effort all game long, and it has been questioned in the past, whether or not they could sustain such intensity throughout the season. It’s been said that the Hawks must sustain all out efforts for the entirety of the season in order to compete anywhere near a high level. Well, we have seen from teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, and Cavaliers, that sustaining this level of intensity is not only rare, but exceedingly difficult. When was the last time a team played that intensely all season long? Probably not since Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won 72 regular season games in ‘95-’96. Teams just don’t stay focused that long, and many suffer injuries to key players. The Hawks haven’t quite yet got the hang of giving that full effort in every game, but they’ve come a long way in that category, and it’s showing. With 11 games of the regular season remaining, Atlanta is still maintaining a winning trend going 6 and 4 in the last 10 games. To broaden that perspective, Atlanta is 9 and 4 in the month of March, with a 2-game losing streak the only black mark on their record. This is what winning teams do – keep on winning down the stretch.
_ Our bigs can help carry us. No, they should not be left alone to bear the burden of scoring late in games, or when the team can’t seem to buy a shot. But it is an option that the Hawks need to remember, even in the tightest of games. It is an option that shouldn’t be a last resort. If it’s a last resort, chances are that it is already too late. More and more, we are seeing games in which our veteran guards are struggling from the field, as defenses key on them. If you were given part of a boxscore to look at (without the team totals) and saw that Joe Johnson shot 5 for 17 and Jamal Crawford went 4 for 14, would you assume a win or a loss? How about in a game against one of the league’s top teams? There was a time when a loss was guaranteed, if Joe shot like that, even if he went 7 of 7 from the charity stripe. That time is past. The Hawks can win without excellent performances by their top two scorers, and the bigs are one of the main reasons why.
_ This team is more cohesive than we give them credit for on most days. The bench is better than we have believed. Lately, they have been the shot in the arm (or should I say “wing”) that the Hawks have needed. The reserves have come with energy, scoring, defense, you name it. They’ve even given the starters the lead or at least some momentum to work off of. Can you ask for more? What’s important is that both the bench and the starting unit have played off of each other. Things haven’t looked as disjointed as they have in the past. Guys seem to mesh better. All of this has contributed to the Hawks staying close in games where they’ve struggled to score. As one unit ratchets things up, so does the other, and everybody is playing at a high intensity level. When an entire team plays tough, they are very hard to beat.
_ Where does Mike Woodson come into play in all of this? We’ve gushed and glowed over one player after the other, but there is just no way the team is playing like this despite Woodson…is there? Much is made of the switch defense, but here’s a stat for you: in the 13 games the Hawks have played this month, opponents have reached the century mark in scoring just 4 times. Sorry, but 99 points (happened 3 times) just doesn’t count. Is this an accident? Something must be working, even if we don’t understand it. By the way, if anybody here understands just how the switch defense is supposed to work, please explain it to everybody else. We’re confused (or at least I am). On the one hand, I don’t want to see a center matched up on a guard. On the other hand, if that center is Al Horford, and my other option is Mike Bibby, and the player to be guarded is Vince Carter….well….what can I say? Also, there is something to be said for us going in to Al Horford and Josh Smith, late in games. This would not happen without Woodson giving it his blessing. That is not to say that every play call is what he is calling from the bench. I now believe that a lot of what happens on offense is what Woody allows to happen, rather than what he is orchestrating. Then, of course, are the issues of the timeouts, particularly in tight games. Look, unless you are in the huddle, or are able to hear what is going on in the huddle, you don’t know what the play call is, period. We scream about ISO plays, but a team can only take what the defense gives it. Does anybody think that Josh Smith was what Woodson had in mind for the last shot (a jumper) against San Antonio? I doubt it. Do we know for certain why Mike Woodson calls a timeout late in a game for? Could it maybe have to do with the lack of focus the Hawks still show at times? Whatever it is that Woodson has going on, it is working. This team is going to win 50+ games, and you do not do that with a bad coach. If anything, Mike Woodson rises above the “is he a good or bad coach” ranks, and lands in the “is he good enough to go all the way” coaching ranks.
_ It’s not over. Not by a long shot. The Hawks beat the Celtics every time they played them this season, but could they win a playoff series against them? The Hawks beat the Magic last night and upped their home record to second best in the Eastern Conference. But again, what about a playoff series against the Magic? Could they compete like this in a series? Will they? Good teams make adjustments and maintain their focus while doing so. Focus seems to be the biggest issue for the Hawks this season, and the next step for them to take on their path to title contention. Their focus seems to be sharpening lately, but we still don’t know how long they will maintain it. Stay tuned….
HAWKS VS. SIXERS
I’ll never forget Mike Woodson talking before the season began. “You don’t want to go the other way”, he said, in reference to team progress. I think we can safely say that the Hawks didn’t “go the other way” in regard to team growth, at least in the regular season. The Philadelphia 76ers are a different story altogether. I wonder if they regret their fake wooing of Josh Smith now? Whatever you may think of Rick Sund, be thankful you don’t have Ed Stefanski. He fired the coach, hired another, spent $82 million on the part-time (and vastly underachieving) Elton Brand, and another $57 million on Andre Iguodala, in an attempt to leap-frog teams like the Atlanta Hawks. Instead, the Sixers regressed to 25 wins (so far) this season and have been soundly spanked by the Hawks by an average of about 14 ppg. No one can blame Iguodala, a jack of all trades who fills the stat sheet nicely. But something tells me Stefanski could be looking for a job this summer. If nothing else, perhaps the Sixers give him another year, as they can at least hope for a nice placement in the NBA draft lottery in June.
We’ll make this a quick one. Andre Iguodala. Louis Williams. Samuel Dalembert. Those three names, and hardly any others, are the source of headaches for the Hawks. Iguodala does it all – rebounds, dishes out assists, gets steals, and scores. However, he, like most of his teammates, is more scorer than he is shooter. Let him loose in the open court or slash through the lane, and he’ll eat you up. Force him to shoot jumpers, and his 42% on field goals gets him into trouble. Louis Williams is another matter. While not a great shooter, Williams has developed into a better one (46.6%), and is quite speedy. As the Sixers need him to score more than they need him to pass, the point guard element gets taken out of the equation for the most part, and effective ball movement suffers. As a result, the Sixers have a hard time playing as a team. Samuel Dalembert is the last of the triumverate. His length will bother anybody going near the basket, and he gobbles up rebounds at a pretty good rate. However, he can be prone to foul trouble, and gets frustrated easily.
Promising youngsters Thaddeus Young and Mareese Speights have seen their roles fluctuate, stunting their growth. Jason Kapono probably wonders what he did wrong to get sent to basketball hell, and Jrue Holiday looks like anything but a lottery pick with huge upside.
On the Hawks side of the ball, look for Mike Bibby to be solid (if not great), as he continues to hit big shots for Atlanta. Jamal Crawford has had nothing but fun against the Sixers, averaging over 20 points against them. Al Horford will once again be bothered by the long arms of Dalembert, but still be solid (he’s been putting up about 12 and 8 against Philly). Then again, Horford may draw Dalembert away from the basket with that midrange jumper, and if he does, look for him to have a big game. At the same time, if Horford draws Dalembert, look for Josh Smith to get to the rim unimpeded. If both Horford and Smith are on, the Sixers are a cooked goose.
Another chance for the Hawks to jump ahead of the Celtics, if only for a moment. Another chance to maintain that sharpened focus.