It’s probably a little early to be talking about how the Hawks will do in the second half, to finish the season. All-star Weekend hasn’t even come and gone yet. Then again, 51 of 82 games have been played, and that only leaves 31 games to be played, so why not? Of the remaining 31 games, 14 are road games. Of those road games, only 4 of them are against winning teams (Lakers, Knicks, Blazers, and Nuggets). But don’t let that fool you. Some of those “losing” teams are quite dangerous, and have the ability to take the Hawks out if they’re not careful (or worse, if they’re not healthy). A perfect example is the Houston Rockets. The Hawks struggle against teams that have sound fundamentals, play solid defense, and more than anything - have good rebounders. On the other hand, Atlanta is sometimes a victim of their own lax defense. High scoring teams that catch fire in transition and from the perimeter can have a field day if/when the Hawks fall into lethargic mode. Examples include Golden State and Phoenix. That brings up another point – the West has been pretty tough, so those teams that are hovering just below .500? They’re all dangerous. Those just above .500? They earned their way there.
Here’s where things can get tricky: the Hawks have 17 home games left. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Hold the phone….11 of those games are coming against opponents with winning records. And not just teams with records that are a couple games above .500. No, we’re talking the Lakers, Spurs, Heat (twice), Celtics, Bulls (twice), and Thunder. What do these teams all have in common? They all have a better record than the Hawks do. Atlanta has yet to meet up with Chicago and L.A., but Miami, Boston and Oklahoma City have already beaten them this season. The road ahead could get really bumpy for the Hawks. Or maybe it’s not the road they have to worry about. What do you think?
How the Mighty Have Fallen…or so it seems
One and a half games. That is all that separates the Hawks from the Bulls. It’s also what separates them from the Magic. As long as Derrick Rose and at least one of his talented teammates (Boozer, Deng) remain healthy, the Hawks will have a rough time catching the Bulls and reclaiming their status as the East’s third seed, which they managed to obtain last season. But enough of the Bulls, what about the Magic? Who knew this would be the case at this stage of the season? Take a close look at the standings. Orlando’s schedule may be a tough one (or it may not), but as of right now, you can’t deny the facts. The Hawks have the better record. They’re better on the road, better in the Eastern Conference, and better in the Southeast division. Are the Hawks really better than the Magic? Maybe this is a better question – are the Hawks better, or are the Magic simply worse? With the season record notched at one victory apiece (and both of them pretty close games) and only one contest between them remaining, the Hawks have a chance to prove themselves the better team. Then again, the Hawks swept the Boston Celtics during the regular season last season, and we all saw how that translated to the postseason. So would beating the Magic 2 to 1 on the season (and finishing with a better regular season record) really prove anything? The Magic are most definitely not the Celtics, but they still figure to be the better playoff team.
Why is this even important? Simple. If the Hawks can’t overtake the Bulls, and the Magic can’t overtake the Hawks, guess who is going to meet in the first round of the playoffs? The 4th and 5th seeds. Hawks. Magic. First round of the playoffs. The perfect storm, and NOT in a good sense. Stay tuned, Hawks fans….
It Begins Tonight
Tonight’s matchup features Atlanta versus Philadelphia in the Highlight Factory. Right now, the Sixers aren’t getting a lot of press, but they’ve always played the Hawks pretty tough. In fact, I’m not sure I can remember a time that the Hawks were able to blow this team out of the water. Two things make the Sixers dangerous for the Hawks – their guard play, and the fact that they are currently a 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. If you want to know what a sad state the Eastern Conference is in, just look at Philly and Indiana. Both teams are below .500, but if the playoffs started today, they’d both make it to the dance. Compare that to the West, where one team above .500 wouldn’t make the playoffs today, and that one coupled with two more, have better records than both Philly and Indy. Just look at the next three teams that would supposedly mount a challenge for the last two playoff spots in the East: Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Detroit. The Bucks were supposed to win the Central Division. Not going to happen, not even close. The Pistons, well they’re a hot mess all the way around. What happened to the Bobcats? Proof that star power does not equate to management genius, I say. Anyway, the Sixers won’t easily give up their current spot, which means they’ll be willing to fight anybody and everybody to remain a postseason invitee.
Matchups and Pitfalls
When the Sixers last came to the Highlight Factory (back on December 3rd), it took an exemplary performance from Marvin Williams and good supporting efforts from Al Horford and Jamal Crawford to pull out the win with Joe Johnson watching from the bench and wearing a suit. The Hawks didn’t shoot well, and got beat on the glass as well, but the bench was a big key to the win.
Now, the Sixers have to deal with a very dangerous, very healthy, red hot Joe Johnson. Everybody’s healthy and ready to go. What do the Hawks need to do to win? First, they have to isolate and contain Andre Iguodala. He’ll likely get his anyway, but the Sixers feed off of the plays they run for him, exploiting his fluid game and supreme athleticism. Second, they’ll have to keep Elton Brand from returning to anything like his old form (which doesn’t happen a lot these days). Make things easy for Brand and allow Iggy to run around as he pleases, and it will only be easier for the Sixers’ more marginal players. Third, neutralize the high energy qualities and play of Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner. Both guys are willing defenders, rebounders, and chasers of loose balls. Every loose ball is a possession for the Sixers that the Hawks don’t need to give up. These guys can run, so they can score in transition. What’s an Atlanta weakness? Transition defense. Finally, contain Lou Williams as much as possible. Williams won’t likely be stopped by the efforts of Jamal Crawford or Mike Bibby. So that leaves Joe Johnson and…….Jeff Teague. Can Teague get in the game? Can he have a positive impact like he did last time? Or is he that far buried behind the rotation? One thing is for sure – if the Hawks backcourt struggles on offense as well as defense and Teague doesn’t get any burn, it won’t make Larry Drew look too good.
With Samuel Dalembert gone, there isn’t much to stop Al Horford and Josh Smith. Both guys should be able to have an impactful game on offense, especially if neither one gets too jumper happy. Pound the ball inside and work the inside-outside game. Marvin got to the free throw line 8 times in the last contest. He showed it can be done.