Saturday, April 16th can be the beginning of the end for the Hawks. Or, maybe the beginning of the end was several games back in the regular season, when they got trounced by the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that had no business beating Atlanta by 41 points. The Hawks insist it’s not over, that they’ll rise in the playoffs, that a season record against Orlando is proof that they can win this otherwise dreaded first round playoff series. Losing six straight games to end the season hasn’t given fans and experts any reason to believe the Hawks, and some have already written them off for the postseason.
So perhaps few people believe in the Hawks. What reasons do they have for believeing in themselves? Does a 3-1 regular season record against the Magic really mean anything in the playoffs? All such speculation and pondering aside, let’s dive into some matchups:
Talent and star power make a big difference in the game of basketball, but there can be no substitute for solid, good, or elite coaching in the NBA postseason. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy is a veteran coach who has been deeper in the postseason than Atlanta’s Larry Drew has, and he’s been there with his current team the last few years. Van Gundy and the Magic have endured some rough moments this season, and despite “sinking” to 4th place in the East, they still managed to put up 52 wins. That’s pretty solid, considering that they changed their core pretty drastically. Talent can get you far, but you need solid coaching as well to overcome such obstacles. Van Gundy has the edge here not only with experience, but also with motivational capability. He can get more out of the Magic than Drew was able to get out of the Hawks. The Magic players listened more to Van Gundy than the Hawks did to Drew. Why would that change for the playoffs? Lastly, there is the ever present issue of strategy, or Xs and Os. Van Gundy’s guys know how to do what they do, and the formula is simple – feed Dwight, and then hit outside shots by the bunches when the defense collapses on Dwight. In the case of the Hawks, Drew’s offensive formula seemed like a good thing in the beginning. However, statistics have shown that either the system simply does not work, or the Hawks players haven’t bought into it nearly well enough to make it work. You can argue this one either way, but the results speak for themselves. The results make the effusive Charles Barkely seem absolutely correct in his opinion about former head coach Mike Woodson…
The Magic win this category.
Orlando’s Dwight Howard is a more dominating individual force on either end of the court than anybody on Atlanta’s roster. Basically, the rest of the Magic roster is supporting cast. Howard is tough to deal with and is all but guaranteed to get 20-something points and get up into the teens in rebounds. At the same time, he has all but worn out his welcome with NBA officials. Expect Howard to get more calls (and non-calls) than any Hawks fan will agree with, but don’t think that he’ll get away with everything. The offensive fouls and technicals mounted up this season, prompting an scathing complaint from his coach. Howard will do what he does, but without adequate support, it might not be enough.
The Hawks have what should be an advantage when it comes to star power. Joe Johnson is a 21 point/5 rebound/5 assist threat anytime he hits the court, though he fell off of that this past regular season. Joe’s body language and attitude in the wake of a massive max contract have rubbed many fans the wrong way, and the playoffs will be his chance to make people think differently of him. He can’t repeat last postseason’s miserable performance for the Hawks to have a chance at success, but there is already a caveat in place, however slight it might be. Clearly Joe has not recovered from all of his injuries (bad thumb), and though he always plays through injury, it’s silly to think it will not have any effect on his game. For what it’s worth, both Joe and those around him think he’s in the right mind/mode for the playoffs.
Al Horford, Atlanta’s other multiple all-star has to get back to his roots. Said another way, if the guy who showed up in his rookie year against eventual ‘08 NBA Champion Boston Celtics happens to show up in THIS series, the Hawks have an even better chance of advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Horford’s game has expanded to a deadly 18 foot jumper, coupled with quick moves to the basket when he’s in attack mode. But that isn’t all Horford has to bring to the game. He also needs to bring that same lunch pail attitude and will to outwork his opponent that he had in his first two or three years in the League. He can’t be afraid to match up against Howard when necessary, and absolutely MUST work the glass hard in every game. If Horford hangs out on the perimeter, forgets to rebound for an entire half, or becomes indecisive and slow to attack on offense, the Hawks are going to have a hard time of it. In short, Horford needs to become a double-double guy once again. Rather than worry about which position he has to play, Big Al needs to keep it simple – just be a basketball player.
Josh Smith may not be an all-star in name yet, but no player on the Hawks squad has the potential to be as dynamic as he can. Smith’s instinctive help defense is impossible for most teams to gameplan against, and if he plays within himself on offense (and within the flow), few teams have the personnel to contain him, as he is just as capable of tossing a nice assist as he is throwing down a vicious dunk. The key for Smith has never changed – he must play under control, and he must spend more time under or near the basket. When the team struggles, Smith often tries to take over and fix things. The problem is that he doesn’t always use the right tools for the job.
Who has the edge here, Atlanta or Orlando? It should be Atlanta.
Nelson is a one-time all-star at point guard, but hasn’t played like an all-star this season. All the same, Nelson is capable of 17 point/8 assist performances on a given night. Gilbert Arenas would figure to be a star, but he’s nowhere near what he used to be and can’t even be counted on as a double figure scorer on a night-to-night basis. Does this make him less dangerous than before? Well, yes and no. Gilbo can put 25 + on you if he’s given enough minutes and gets hot. But that has only happened once since…well…2010. After showing he wasn’t worth the money in Toronto, Hedo Turkoglu returns to the squad that he did his best work for, only to show that he too, is past his best days. All the same, these three guys, along with J.J. Reddick and Jason Richardson, can shoot the lights out in a gym if they get enough good looks. It’s one thing if these guys simply get hot. The best you can do is limit their open looks and ride it out while contesting every shot. But if you let them get hot by continually allowing back door cuts and open looks along the perimeter, well then you’ve signed your own playoff death warrant. Where the Magic are vulnerable is in the frontcourt. With no 7-foot Gortat to back Dwight up, Orlando has to rely on the hustling and athletic Brandon Bass, as well as the more finesse-than-rugged Ryan Anderson. Still, both guys will beat you to the ball out of effort alone, if you let them.
The Hawks have a core of support players that sometimes work very well together, and sometimes fall apart separately. Backup center Zaza Pachulia is a good source of phsyical play and rebounding (especially on the offensive end), and can also provide some timely buckets here and there. Jamal Crawford has struggled this season while being asked to do something he’s never really been that good at – play point guard. However, few can be as frustratingly hard to contain as Crawford when he’s cut loose as the gunslinger he’s meant to be, much less when he’s hot. Crawford’s scoring can be pivotal to the Hawks’ success, especially if some of the starters are struggling (which they’ve done often this season). Backup point guard Jeff Teague struggles with scoring in traffic or when tightly defended, but has the speed to gain separation and keep the opposing team on their heels. In addition to this, Teague can pester and harass opposing point guards all over the floor, and can get some astounding blocks when following guys to the basket. The Hawks also have a leg up on defense in the backcourt with the midseason addition of Kirk Hinrich, who is also a capable defender who will never give up, even when he’s struggling to contain someone. The Magic may find it a different game altogether when Nelson and Duhon have to face Hinrich and Teague on defense, as opposed to the departed Mike Bibby and a steady diet of Jamal. Then again, coach Larry Drew is quite capable of nullifying that all by himself, so we’ll see.
Finally, there is Jason Collins, whose sole part in all of this is to play Dwight Howard for 20 or more minutes per game, allowing Al Horford to play the power forward position and not have to bang as much. Along with Collins is Marvin Williams, who will likely be coming off the bench for the Hawks. While this may seem like a demotion, Williams has proven to be effective off the bench, producing more than his season averages on several occasions. Williams’ ability to defend the perimeter, run on the break, and provide needed support on the glass could make a big difference for the Hawks.
Who has the advantage? Orlando. Why? Because they have shown up in support of their star player more often than the Hawks have shown up in support of the struggling core.
End of the Bench X-Men
Every playoff matchu has an X-factor. But what about bench guys who don’t play much that can make a difference? For the Hawks, I would submit Jason Collins, but everybody knows his role is to frustrate and bang on Dwight Howard, so that’s a foregone conclusion. What about Etan Thomas or Damien Wilkins? Thomas may be a good beefy and energetic option for the Hawks against either Howard or Bass if the starting front line is struggling on the glass. Wilkins is a very good perimeter defender who can help keep the clamps on guys like Jason Richardson and J.J. Reddick. Will these guys have a significant impact, or will they keep the bench warm for everybody else?
Well, that’s my take on this series. What’s yours?
Big Ray, Hawks Fan Nest Blog