There wasn’t much talk of this earlier, and those who did bring it up, did so quietly.
Well, not all of them. Hawks legend Steve Smith decided to go out and a limb and say it out loud. Sweep. Really? Yeah, really. An interesting subject, considering how much it’s been said that the Bucks will prove to be a tough opponent. However, after the first two games, the whispers are turning into open discussion. For more on that, read up on AJC staff writer Ken Sugiura:
Proving a point vs. Having something to prove
Before the Hawks can begin talking sweep or anything like it, they have some work to do.
Unlike last year’s playoffs, there was no letdown for the Hawks in game 2 after winning in game 1. Maybe it was because they didn’t totally and completely blow the Milwaukee out. Maybe it was because Mike Woodson had them prepared and focused. Perhaps it’s a sign of increased maturity. Whatever it was, the Hawks did what they were supposed to do – win at home. That does two things. One, it reminds them that they can get it done in their own place without a letdown. Two, it shakes the opposition’s confidence and puts them in a tough position. If you’re Milwaukee, you realize that you have to win both games in your own arena - just to even things up. Lose one game, and you’re all but a lame duck participant. The Hawks are more talented, tougher, and more versatile. In the first two games of this series, those points have been proven.
However, Atlanta still has a lot to prove. The Hawks have won just one road game in the playoffs in the last 3 postseason trips (this being their third). They’d like to add to that total, and there is no better opportunity than this coming Saturday and Monday. Having won in Milwaukee as the regular season winds down, the Hawks should already know what it feels like. But more to the point, they know how to beat the Bucks. Is there really a different gameplan that the Hawks would have to employ to beat their opponent on the road, than the one they used in Philips Arena?
More is better, better is more
As many of us know, stats can take a nose-dive in the playoffs. However, the better players raise their games to another level. While it can be argued that a weak first round opponent is the main reason, a few Hawks have raised their games significantly. Whatever the case may be, we can only hope this continues. In the scoring department, Joe Johnson and Al Horford have both raised their averages by 3 points per game. Al’s improvement has him as the team’s second leading scorer so far in the playoffs. Coming in at third place on the team is Josh Smith, who has raised his scoring average by about 1 point. The guy with the biggest spike in points per game? None other than Mike Bibby, who is averaging 14.9 per contest, after posting 9.1 ppg in the regular season. It just about goes without saying that this could not have come at a better time. Overall, the Hawks are executing rather well on offense, even against a tough, scrappy Milwaukee squad that wants to prove a point on the defensive end. Every member of the starting lineup is shooting better than ever, led by Josh Smith’s insane 71.4%
On the glass, Al Horford has fallen some, posting 1.5 boards less per game. However, his low post partner has chipped in to more than make up for it: Josh Smith looks like he’ll win the fabled windex award at 12 grabs per game (more than 3 per game over his regular season average), and who knows…he may actually maintain this pace. Also helping the cause is Joe Johnson, who is snatching 1 more per game than his season average. Joe, Mike, and Josh are also dishing out more assists in the postseason, with Josh leading the team at 6.5 per game.
Continuing on the defensive side of the ball, several Hawks are looking quite good so far. Horford and Smith look like they are trying to set new records with a combined 7 blocks per game (Horford has 4bpg, Josh has 3bpg). Meanwhile, Joe leads in steals (2 per game), followed by Marvin (1.5 pg) and Jamal (1.5 pg). Kinda makes you feel a little better about the lagging defensive efforts of the regular season, doesn’t it?
Of course, not all is picture perfect.
The Atlanta bench has seen better days, and if the Hawks want to see better days later in the playoffs, these guys have to get it together. A popular refrain might be bashing Mike Woodson and his staff for shortening up the rotation, but at this point, that argument is baseless. Mo Evans leads the second unit in shooting at 40%. It drops off significantly from there. Perhaps the scariest part is Jamal Crawford’s pathetic field goal percentage (28.6%) and pedestrian scoring average (11ppg) , which represents a drop of roughly 7 ppg from his regular season average. Worried about Joe Johnson logging 41+ minutes per game in the playoffs? You can start looking Crawford, the man who was signed to take some of the pressure (and the double teams) off of our number one option. Assuming the Hawks make the second round of the playoffs, and we have little reason to assume otherwise, the #2 scoring production that Crawford brought during the regular season will be sorely needed. Maybe it’s “first time in the playoffs” jitters. Maybe not. Either way, the Hawks will have to help Jamal find a cure.
Zaza Pachulia and Joe Smith are needed just as much as Crawford is, but in different ways and obviously for some different reasons. With the Hawks starters playing well and getting out to good leads, somebody has to hold the fort down while they get a breather. On defense and on the boards, this falls to Pachulia and Smith. Both players are averaging more fouls than they are rebounds (literally), and neither one looks comfortable out there. This is a bit disconcerting, considering that neither of them are playoff virgins, perhaps the only excuse available for Jamal Crawford. Giving up leads at home is one thing, and bad enough. Give up a lead on the road, and you might never get it back. Pachulia and Smith won’t be called upon much to provide much scoring, other than on dump-offs or opportunistic situations. But keeping a lead isn’t just about keeping a scoring pace. It’s also about maintaining a defensive pace. Reserves can and must do that, or the starters will get burned long and hard each game. What can happen in the second round of the playoffs goes without saying….
Get this show on the road!
The Hawks have to what’s working with them. The defensive intensity. The offensive efficiency and execution. But they will need help in from the bench in both aspects of the game. Mike Woodson should be able to go 9 deep, as needed. Right now he can’t. And to his credit, he has not bowed to the panic or pressure, pulling those guys before things got bad. As for the starters, we probably should not expect them all to keep up their torrid pace, as nice as it might be to see. More than that, we should not expect them to have to do so.
Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks came home with the award, much to the chagrin of some, and the expectance of others. Whatever you might think of him or the list of other candidates and how many votes each got, what do you think about Mike Woodson in all of this? Woodson’s 7 total points (2 second place votes, 1 third place vote) was good for 9th place overall, and a full 16 points behind mentor and former boss Larry Brown, who was in 6th place.
Personally, I don’t think Larry did something that much better with Charlotte than Mike Woodson did with Atlanta, nor should he have been ranked above George Karl and Rick Adelman. At the same time, Woodson didn’t find himself in very bad company, getting more votes than Stan Van Gundy, Mike Brown (he got it last year), and Rick Carlisle.
But what do you think? Does Woodson deserve more recognition? Would you take his place in the COY voting to mean he’s a top 10 coach in the NBA? Is he better than that? Worse?
Have the Hawks become more balanced in their scoring production? Will Jamal Crawford get back to his usual self, or will he make people wonder if Flip Murray wasn’t a better postseason option? Can the bench get it cranked up?