Atlanta will leave 2010 with a chance at padding that 8-7 road record, what with three of their year-ending four games being played away from the Highlight Factory. Of course, there is always the chance that they go in the other direction, considering that New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Oklahoma City are a combined 30 and 14 in their home arenas. Which will it be for the Hawks, break even, surge ahead, or fall behind?
Catching Up With the Joneses (or rather, the Hornets)
A bit of a buzz (yes, pun intended) was made earlier in the season when the Hornets jumped out to a 6-0 record to start the season. Alongside the Hornets were the upstart Atlanta Hawks, who were no stranger to quick early season starts. The fact is, experts, fans, and pundits alike were largely writing the Atlanta fast start off due to schedule, while proclaiming the Hornets a sure-fire playoff team. Twenty-nine games later (for the Hawks it’s 31 games later), it’s a bit of a different story.
Both teams are all but guaranteed to be good enough to make the playoffs, but there are some differences. The Hornets have proven to be better when playing at home (12-3), than the Hawks (11-5). Meanwhile, Atlanta has fared better on the road (8-7), than has New Orleans (5-9). When it comes to division play, Atlanta once again enjoys a better record (5-2), than New Orleans (3-3) does. Lastly, they are exact opposites in their last 10 games, as the Hawks have gone 6-4, while the Hornets have gone 4-6. So what of it? Are the Hawks every bit as legit as the Hornets, or are they better? Seems like it would hardly matter since the two teams are not from the same conference, and therefore not rivals of any kind. All the same, the Hawks kick off the last of their December campaign tonight against a Hornets squad that is pretty good at home. Homecourt advantage might be one of the largest deciding factors, seeing as how both teams have lost games to inferior opponents.
As mentioned above, earning a win in New Orleans has proven to be quite difficult this season. Only three teams have done it, through either sheer firepower (New York, Oklahoma City), or supreme discipline and execution (San Antonio). The Hawks are capable of delivering all three, but will they?
Everything in New Orleans starts with Chris Paul, as we all know. The all-star point guard can score with the best of them, but he hasn’t had to so far this season. Alongside his seemingly pedestrian 16 ppg, Paul drops nearly 10 dimes a game, and rebounds (4.4 per game) at a rate unheard of amongst point guards, especially those who hardly stand six feet tall. The jaw-dropping stat that goes unnoticed, however, is his 2.8 steals per game. Paul’s offensive capabilities are plenty scary enough, but perhaps more bothersome are those steals. The Hawks haven’t been particularly good at taking care of the ball lately. But Paul isn’t the only one. Teammates David West (1.14) and Trevor Ariza (1.48) are known to haunt a passing lane or two as well. Turnovers will be a key stat in this game, mark it down.
Rebounding continues to be an issue for the Hawks, and it will be against New Orleans. Emeka Okafor isn’t better than Al Horford on this front, and David West isn’t better than Josh Smith. But if either Atlanta low post player brings less than his A game, his opponent will eat him up. Likewise offensively, where Josh and Al (32.5 ppg combined) are better than Emeka and David (29.5 ppg combined) on paper. Both teams need good games out of their respective starting center and power forward.
Joe Johnson vs Chris Paul, of course. Johnson is on the mend, and Chris Paul knows how that is.
Paul is shooting a pretty darn good 49% from the field and has proven that he is still one of the top players at his position. He figures to have the advantage in backcourt matchups, facing the League’s best 3 point shooter in Mike Bibby, but having the speed edge there. Could backup point guard Jeff Teague help slow Paul down?
Joe Johnson continues to struggle with his shot (40.4% from the field), but does not look hamstrung at all out there. Johnson rebounds quite well, and is quite a playmaker from the 2-guard position. The Hornets won’t have an easy time of it with Johnson, who can spark his team with 5 or 6+ rebounds and upwards of 7 or 8 assists on any given night. Moreover, he is bigger and stronger than most shooting guards, which would include New Orleans guard Marco Belinelli. Johnson just may hit his stride in this game as he overpowers Belinelli on one end, then suffocates him on the other.
Under The Radar Matchup
Marvin Williams vs Trevor Ariza. Here is a tale of guys who are basically averaging 10 and 5 for the respective teams at the small forward position. Ariza is struggling mightily from the field (36% shooting), while Williams is actually hitting a career high (48%). Both are underwhelming from 3 point range this season, but I’ll take Marvin’s stroke any day over Ariza’s and that isn’t even a product of homer-ism. Marvin is simply better. Looking at the stat column, Marvin also commits fewer fouls and turnovers at a significant rate. Who’s the better defender? Not easy to say, as both can bother an opponent into a rough shooting game, and Ariza has the edge on paper when it comes to steals. But who cares? The bottom line is, there could very well be a stalemate at other positions, and it may come down to either bench play, or the play of these two starting small forwards. If there is to be an offensive explosion….my money is on Marvin Williams. Why? Easy. Just look at the month of December.
In 12 games, Ariza has had double figure scoring five times. By comparison, Williams has notched double figure in scoring in 8 of his 13 December games. Not only that, but Ariza has hit on 50% of his field goal attempts just twice in that span, while Williams has done so seven times while shooting just a hair under 50% on two other occasions. Suffice it to say, this is a game that the Hornets may need Ariza to step it up, while the Hawks will need Williams to maintain his good play of late.
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS!!!
Okay, so it’s a bit early for resolutions, what with a whole five-and-a-half days remaining in 2010, but why not come up with some ideas for our very own Atlanta Hawks? Name anything you want, within reason or without (did I just open up a can of insane trade ideas, or what?). Here are a couple/few of my own:
1. Larry Drew – stop with the two foul paranoia. If Al Horford gets two early fouls and he looks totally overmatched or is having some other set of fundamental issues, then fine…take him out. Otherwise, let the guy play! Horford is now the team’s second leading scorer by a frog’s hair, and like anybody else, his game requires some rhythm. The Hawks can’t even play the same way when he’s not in the game, as no other big man is as automatic from 18 feet as Al, and that includes the much-improved Josh Smith. Not only that, but his man-up defense and rebounding is missing, which can also hurt the team. Take it easy with those long stretches of bench time, Larry.
2. Jeff Teague, please bring this fire every game. We fans would just LOVE to get used to seeing you on the attack every game, and we won’t even complain about the fact that your jumper is in need of restoration. Speed can’t be taught, and the combination of that and aggression, along with your low-turnover style of play, and your willingness to pass the ball to a big man right where he needs it….it’s all gravy, baby. Besides, EVERYBODY loves a point guard who will dunk it every chance he’s given.
3. Josh Smith – three things for ya, buddy. First, stop letting your attitude affect your play. The refs still don’t like you as much as you think they should. But the real issue is that you’re incapable of playing neutral or being a non-factor (unless of course, you’re not in the game at all). When you play, you either affect the game positively, or negatively. There is no middle ground. Keep your head up. That’s your role and niche as a team captain, because this team is so good when you’re good, and it’s so hard to win when you’re bad. Second – rebounds, rebounds, rebounds. New rule for ya – if you can’t get at least 7 boards in a game where you’ve put in 30+ minutes of work, then you need to be scoring, like 20 points or more. And it should be on 50% + shooting, with maybe more than a few trips to the charity stripe. Fact is, you could be snagging boards like Shawn Marion used to do. You should be battling Al for the team lead. Lastly, love what you’ve done with that jumper. One caveat, though: use it to add to your arsenal once you’ve begun abusing the other team down low or getting to the free throw line. Don’t use it to get yourself going, that rarely works all that well for you.
4. Larry – we’re back to you again. Play Jordan Crawford more. Especially while Jamal is out. Chances are, Jamal may have injury issues again later this season, as a bad back tends not to just “go away” during a season, and some guys aren’t as tough as others. Besides, Mo Evans needs to heal as well. What could it hurt? We don’t know if Jamal will remain with us for the rest of the season, so I’m thinking JC2 could use a little seasoning, no? That’s another thing – Jamal isn’t Joe. Joe comes back with a jumper that isn’t back to form, but he gives you so many other things when he’s on the floor. What does Jamal give you when his shot is off?
Chime on in, Hawks fans. Feel free to call me on my New Year’s Resolutions “suggestions”, or come up with your own. It’s all good!