The Indiana Pacers are no longer a pushover, but until they become a playoff team, the Hawks are going to have to settle for having another game with an asterisk beside it. On Friday night, they get another chance to prove that they can beat the good teams, too. The good news is that the Hawks will be at home, and the Dallas Mavericks will be coming off of what will likely be a hard fought game against the Chicago Bulls. Well, that should be good news. If the Hawks win, would this one come with another asterisk?
Offense Switches Gears
The offensive game plan that Larry Drew instituted has coincided with the growth of some of the Hawks’ younger players, while changing the game of others. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford finds himself in a different position from last year. Oh sure, he’s still the top offensive sub off the bench, but no longer is he second on the team in scoring and shot attempts. Fact is, Jamal is now fourth in both categories, giving way to big men Josh Smith and Al Horford. Things are a little different for Joe Johnson as well, what with his scoring average dipping to just over 19 points per game, though arguably his struggles from the field are a major factor. Still, what once seemed like the only sword Atlanta could live or die by, has become a strong point that finally has adequate support. Remember the days when we talked about having credible offensive threats alongside Joe Johnson? Well, it seems those days are here.
Al Horford has vaulted to the position of second leading scorer for the team, averaging exactly one bucket less per contest than Joe Johnson. It’s not just the increased shot attempts that has brought this about. It’s also the way Horford has worked on his game. Still lacking a couple of sure-fire post moves, Horford has enough in his arsenal to get some baskets on the block, but it’s his perimeter shot that does so much damage these days. Not only can Al hit it on occasion, he can hit it several times in a row before ducking back in for a running baby hook or a baseline turnaround shot. The best part? How about a 63.7 field goal percentage? All of that in just a tad over 31 minutes a game, and you have to wonder what this guy will do if he gets to play 35 per night.
Josh Smith’s game has also taken on a transformation. While he may still have maddening moments where he tries to do too much, Smith has managed to improve areas that seemed all but lost last season. Believe it or not, the man’s shooting stroke has improved, even if we still think we’re daydreaming after 12 games. The unexpected prowess from beyond the arc notwithstanding, Josh looks like he actually worked hard on that part of his game. Here’s the part that flies under the radar, however: free throws. That’s right, after stinking it up from the charity stripe last season, smith is now right back up under 70%, where he belongs. It could get better from here. But for now, we get to watch him shoot a good percentage from the field, and hope that this never stops. Is Josh’s jumpshot legit, or is it just a mirage?
Either way, the Hawks aren’t one-dimensional on offense anymore, and they no longer are front-court challenged when it comes to bonafide scoring. Between the two, the Hawks might just have three all-stars at this season’s half way point. You never know.
HAWKS VS. MAVS
Dallas has always been dangerous, and like Atlanta in recent years, they’re good for an early season run. We know who all of the usual suspects are. So much is possible with the cerebral Jason Kidd in the game. Dirk Nowitzki is going to score (and rebound). Jason Terry is a dangerous super sub who can shoot his team to a win. Juan Barea is anathema to any team that has trouble keeping up with quick little point guards. But what about some of the newer faces on the squad? Shawn Marion and Caron Butler have seen better days, what with both of them struggling from the deep perimeter. However, neither guy can be slept on completely. Here’s where the Mavs differ the most, though – in the post. Gone is the apathetic Eric Dampier. In his place is Tyson Chandler, who just happens to be backed up by Brendan Haywood.
There’s the rub. If the Mavs want to, they can go pretty big against us. We’ll be looking at height all night long. Of course, the Atlanta advantage is in speed and full court capability. If the Hawks can get out and run, they’ll give the Mavs fits. The only thing is, if you want to run, you have to rebound on the defensive end. If you want to rebound, you have to play defense (or hope the other team misses a lot of shots). Naturally, this is two areas the Hawks are having trouble in. Defend and rebound, and the Mavs will leave the Highlight Factory with a loss. Fail to do so, and we could be looking at a double digit loss.
Matchups to Watch
Will Larry Drew try to match size with size? Let’s assume he’ll put his five best guys on the floor to start things off, then go from there. So…..
Horford vs. Chandler – Look for Al to draw Tyson Chandler out with his jumper, and see if Nowitzki gets switched onto him. If not, Horford will torch the Mavs as long as his shot is on. On the other end of the floor, Horford won’t have much trouble denying Chandler position in the post, but he’ll have to be careful of quick dump-off passes from the Dallas guards.
Jose Juan Barea vs. Jeff Teague – the Teague watch continues! The second year pg will get his chance to continue proving that he’s a viable option off the bench as he goes up against the Dallas slickster, who has caused the Hawks enough grief in the past. Teague has the speed and on ball tenacity to stay with Barea. But will he have the savvy to stay out of foul trouble?
Josh Smith vs…..?
How will Dallas guard Smith, particularly if they start getting burned by Horford’s 18 foot jumper? Brendan Haywood is too slow, and really so it Chandler (though he’s quicker and a better leaper than Haywood). The Mavs won’t want Nowitzki in foul trouble, and neither Shawn Marion nor Caron Butler have the size and strength. This could be a big key to the game, as Dallas will have to choose which Hawks big man to clamp down on. The Mavs say they have been winning with defense. The Hawks will challenge that idea.
What are YOUR keys to the game?