It was supposed to be a blowout game. Expectations were certainly met on that front, but I don’t think either team saw it happening the way it did.
The Detroit bench torched the mostly listless Atlanta Hawks, while a less talented Detroit frontcourt showed a level of physicality that the Hawks hardly tried to match. To make matters worse, the Atlanta backcourt stayed overmatched all night, and never could seem to even things up, despite solid efforts from Mike Bibby on offense, and Damien Wilkins on defense. What can be said? Any number of cliches fit here, but at least it was a road game. A loss like this to a team with a record like that is hardly acceptable, but it would have been even more deplorable in the Highlight Factory. Anyway, we’ll all play the blame game with our favorite targets, of course.
Changing Lineups and Habits
Head Coach Larry Drew has been under the immediate pressure of trying to find the right lineup each night for each opponent while star guard Joe Johnson has been out. Perhaps there simply was no “right” lineup against Detroit, as they continually exploited the backcourt matchups, and the Pistons outhustled them from end to end. All too often, Rodney Stuckey was blowing by Mike Bibby (or Jamal Crawford), or Rip Hamilton was posting him up and/or running him off of screens. Damien Wilkins was able to help a good deal when in the game, but then the Pistons simply went to Tracy McGrady, who stayed hot from well beyond the 3 point arc. Without Joe, Wilkins and Mo Evans are the only credible defenders on the perimeter, as Marvin is too slow to contain guys like Stuckey and Ben Gordon. What were the Hawks going to do? Well, they could have made their presence felt down low, but outside of Josh Smith, that almost never happened. And, the whistles clearly did not go in favor of the Hawks last night, as Josh Smith was the recipient of several non-calls.
Unfortunately, this loss also highlighted some recent trends, some of which are good, and others not so much:
- Al Horford. His stats are better than ever, and his offensive game is now very much legit. However, Horford appears to be convinced that he is a power forward, and not a center, even when called upon to be so. One can certainly understand not wanting to mix it up all night with guys like Dwight Howard or Shaquille O’Neal. But Horford’s physical nature has become inconsistent. Again, it’s hard to read that in the stat box, what with Al putting up a career high 17 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. On some nights, Horford makes his presence known, outworking and outplaying his low post counterpart. On other nights, Horford does most of his damage from the outside, and gets his rebounds when the more physical guys aren’t on the floor. The Hawks need for Horford to mix up his game a little more, and get tougher down low. Again, his stats are great, but his demeanor isn’t always what the toughness-deficient Hawks need it to be. In short, the Hawks need Horford to be “The Boss” a little more, down in the pivot.
- Josh Smith. Say what you want about the electrifying forward. He doesn’t consistently bring it on the glass, and still gets discouraged if he’s constantly pushed hard off the block or fouled, and no whistle ensues. Still, Smith manages a respectable 8.3 rebounds per game and sometimes has games where it seems like every difficult-to-get-to rebound is his. Offensively, Smith has ceased to be a major liability on the perimeter. Clearly his hard work has paid off, as Smith hits jumpers on the regular, and is even shooting a smoking 46% from 3 point range. Safe to say, nobody saw this coming, and most never thought he would ever come up with a reliable jump shot. All of that considered, Smith still goes for his down low, looking to match up on post ups, and often succeeding. His 12 free throw attempts against Detroit (he hit 8 of them) are a testament to this, right on the heels of 10 attempts against Indiana the game before. What does this all amount to? It allows the Hawks to start games with a bigger lineup that has often included center Jason Collins. Say what you want about Smith, his expanded game has allowed the Hawks more options and flexibility, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
- Jason Collins. While Zaza Pachulia gets the lion’s share of the minutes at backup center behind Al Horford, it’s usually Collins that starts when the Hawks go big. Right now, Collins is arguably the Hawks most effectively physical center. Zaza has better stats, but lately when he has been physical, it’s not resulted in large numbers of rebounds, free throw attempts, or defensive plays that have stymied opposing players. It’s usually been a foul of some sort. That is certainly not to paint Zaza as garbage or someone who needs to be sent to the end of the bench. But when the Hawks go big, they go with Collins. And right now, he’s the most physically effective, particularly on defense.
Even when Joe comes back, we might be seeing a lineup that features the three frontcourt players above, particularly against certain teams. It’s up to Larry Drew what works best, but an effort such as the one against Detroit will nullify any lineup changes Drew could possibly come up with. In the meantime, how do the Hawks bounce back against Boston, who promises to be more physical, and execute much better? The last matchup ended in an embarrassing blowout. Will the Hawks have some pride and get after the Celtics? If so, they have a shot at this game, regardless of the matchup problems Boston presents (especially with Joe Johnson missing). If not, well….another blowout.
What do YOU think?