Too bad Joe Johnson will be out for two games.
He will have to watch his Hawks hit that “magical” 50 win mark from the bench. Or will he?
Atlanta travels to Charlotte on Tuesday, and then to Detroit the following day. The last time the Hawks were in either city, they lost. And that was not very long ago. Subtract Joe Johnson, Atlanta’s best player and team captain, and you have a possible formula for failure. Forty-nine wins says that Atlanta is better than both Charlotte and Detroit, but are they better than both teams one the road, and without Joe?
The Race Continues
The Hawks are up by a game on the Celtics in the standings, a lead that will be tough to maintain, and is too close for any sort of comfort. To finish the season out, it looks like the Celtics may have the easier time of it. Or do they? Below is what both teams have remaining on their regular season schedules.
Boston Celtics : Knicks (away), Raptors (away), Wizards (home), Bucks (away), Bulls (away), Bucks (home).
Atlanta Hawks : Bobcats (away), Pistons (away), Raptors (home), Wizards (away), Bucks (away), Cavs (home).
The issue for the Hawks lies in the fact that both teams are playing four of their six remaining games on the road. At 24 wins and 13 losses, the Celtics are obviously a better road team than the Hawks, owners of a 17 and 20 record in their travels. In addition, the Celtics are playing against teams that they’ve hardly had any trouble with this season. The team that would give them the most hassle is the Milwaukee Bucks, who have just lost starting center Andrew Bynum for the season (and postseason).
This is what it has finally come down to. If the Hawks want the #3 seed, they are going to have to get it done on the road. They don’t have a choice, as there will be no time for “bounce back” wins at home, unless the Celtics falter down the stretch. Considering how they managed to dispatch Cleveland a night or two ago, I would not count on that happening.
So, back to the original question. Can the Hawks do this without Joe?
HAWKS VS BOBCATS
The focus remains on the absence of Joe Johnson, but what do the details tell us?
The fact is, Joe has shot poorly against Charlotte, and I’m willing to believe that this has more to do with the combination of Larry Brown’s defensive schemes, and the defensive abilities of Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, than anything else. As it is, when Joe is on the floor, he must be accounted for (read: guarded closely). So while one could argue that the Hawks have beaten the Bobcats two out of three times without a good performance from Joe Johnson, there is no denying that his presence alone means more opportunities for others.
At the same time, Joe hasn’t always been the facilitator you’d like to see him become when his shot isn’t falling, or he simply isn’t getting good looks. In one of the three contests against the ‘Cats, he racked up 8 assists. In the other two, his assist totals were nearly the same as his turnover totals. Will that matter in this game, since he won’t be playing? Yes, because he won’t be there to provide a #1 offensive scoring threat, or make plays for others. Both jobs will fall to others.
Key players for the Hawks
One of those “others” that would seem to benefit from the attention that Joe gets is Jamal Crawford. Unfortunately, Jamal shot about as badly as Joe did in two out of three games against the ‘Cats. The Hawks will need for him to do much better this time. Only….he won’t have Joe as a decoy. It wasn’t a problem against Detroit yesterday, as Crawford lit up the Pistons for 29 points and 6 assists on 10-18 shooting. However, Detroit doesn’t present the defensive obstacle that Charlotte does. Can Jamal be Batman again, or is he Robin at heart?
Al Horford’s performance will also be pivotal (pun intended) in the next two games. While a solid double double (13 pts, 13 rbs on March 19th) is nothing to complain about, Horford has shown that he can do more (23 pts, 9rbs, 5 assists on January 22nd). He’ll also need help from his down-low tag team partner, Josh Smith. While just about everybody played badly in that first road game against Charlotte, Smith and Horford have been a thorn in the Bobcats’ side the last two times. They will be counted on even more, this time.
Early foul trouble would seem to be the only trouble Al Horford needs to steer clear of. Josh Smith is another story. With guards like Raymond Felton and DJ Augustin around, it would behoove Smith to minimize the number of times he gives in to the temptation to take the ball the length of the court after a defensive rebound. Also, the Bobcats play the passing lanes exceptionally well (another reason Joe Johnson didn’t get many assists against them in two out of three games), meaning that forced or sloppy passes are all but guaranteed turnovers.
One guy who has played pretty well against Charlotte is none other than the beleaguered Marvin Williams. In fact, the last contest against the Bobcats was one of Marvin’s best games all season, as he contributed an efficient 12 points, and collected a much-needed 14 rebounds. His efforts on the boards will likely be needed again, and he’ll get another chance to help pick up the slack in the scoring department. Will he step up his game when his team requires it, or will he have another “out of uniform” experience?
With Mo Evans being inserted into the starting lineup, the Hawks will have few options at the small forward position. Marvin will start, but Evans will probably still see significant time there, particularly if Marvin struggles or becomes inconsequential. Besides, Crawford will log the majority of the minutes at the shooting guard spot, possibly even if he is playing terribly. Which, if he does, will present a unique problem for Mike Woodson to try and figure out.
Where do Mike Bibby fit into all of this? Well, after two straight subpart shooting performances from Bibby, the Hawks will need him to be on, if not hot. The only problem is….the Bobcats have owned Bibby this season. Not only has he been limited in his minutes against them, but his totals and averages (5-15 on field goals combined, 13 total points, 8 total assists) are downright deplorable. With Joe being out and Jamal basically taking on his role in the scoring department, there is no way to hide Mike Bibby this time around. Either he peforms adequately enough on the offensive end to offset what will likely be a deficient performance on the defensive end, or the Hawks will struggle mightily in the backcourt, and in the game.
Does Jeff Teague figure into this at all? What about Mario West? The Hawks only have three guards to work with outside of those two, and one of them (Mo Evans) will be seeing some time at small forward.
This will prove to be an interesting game, especially from a strategy standpoint. In the immortal words of Hawks fan and blogger MannyT, “WWWD (What Will Woody Do?)” One thing is for certain, however. No amount of strategy or tactical measure will be able to overcome a lack of effort, focus, or desire. If the Hawks want this, they will have to take it. The hard way.