Making a prognosis based off of the first game of a playoff series is anything but an exact science. Teams that have been blown out in game 1 have come back to win the series. Teams that have been victorious in game 1 have lost the series. So, there’s little point in trying to make a prediction. However, there is something to take from Game 1. It’s like watching a boxing match or a sword fight – you get to see who lands the first blow (lucky or not), and how the recipient reacts to it. And so, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves in an unfamiliar position in the 2nd round of the playoffs – having thrown (and landed) the first punch.
Having disposed of their favored opponent and former nemesis in six games, it was a concern as to whether the Hawks would know how to handle winning. If Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls was any indication, the Hawks have grown and matured enough to move along to the next task. Or have they? Some would argue that Chicago did as Orlando did, and failed to take the inconsistent Hawks seriously. I say that’s hogwash. If nothing else, this is a completely different series against a completely different opponent. And, at some point you have to give the winning team some credit.
In the case of the Hawks, a good deal of the credit goes to Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, who have performed in ways that might make you forget how they did the previous postseason. If not for them, these close games are losses. And the losses might not be that close. Some say that if Joe or Jamal struggle, the Hawks will struggle. Yeah, well no kidding. What do you think will happen to the Bulls if Rose can’t play on a bum ankle? What happens in Dallas if Dirk can’t buy a shot? Would Oklahoma City survive a drought from Durant and Westbrook? Every team struggles if it’s top scorer or scorers struggles. The question is whether or not a perimeter-oriented team like the Hawks can continue to find ways to score the way they score best. Right now, they’re simply finding ways to win, whether it’s mostly defense, or mostly offense.
On the flip side of the coin, the regular season gave very little indication that Atlanta would be 5-2 through 7 playoff games so far. No wonder last night’s victory is so quickly and easily labeled a stunner. Most pundits gave the Hawks no chance against the Bulls in the playoffs, going so far as to say it would be total destruction for Atlanta. And what might this hype be based on? Derrick Rose’s MVP campaign? A 60-win season? None of these things matter in the postseason, especially if your team has yet to prove a thing in the postseason, to date. As Lebron what that was like in Cleveland. How about the Dallas Mavericks? They’ll tell you that their experience didn’t come from consecutive 55-win regular seasons. It came from the repeated knockouts they suffered in the playoffs year after year, erasing the euphoria of those regular season records.
So maybe the Bulls aren’t the giants that the national media wants to pen them as. Maybe now is the time when Rose, who IS a giant, gets to learn what Michael Jordan had to learn in his early years. Maybe Atlanta can take advantage of that, having faced tougher high seeds in recent years. And maybe we’d be a bit hasty. After all, a boxing match has several rounds to it, and nobody has been knocked out yet. This match could very well go 7 rounds.
Survival of Those Who are Fit
Most of us probably surmised that for Atlanta to have a chance against Chicago, their would have to be more production from the frontcourt. Well, so far that hasn’t happend much, but the devil is in the details, or so they say. And in the backcourt, there was a bit of a surprise. But should it have been a surprise?
Marvin Williams – After coming off the bench in Round 1, Marvin gets to start again against the smaller Chicago Bulls. So far, Williams has been an also-ran with a key play or shot here and there. If the Hawks need more from him, it will have to come out of pure desperation. As it stands now, some modest defense is the most they figure to get, but he was never the first, second, third, or even fourth offensive option for Atlanta. He’s also as likely as not to be on the bench at the end of a game.
Josh Smith – The statistics are rather generous in comparison to what the viewer sees during the game. Smith’s rebounding has been somewhat steady, and the defensive capability is still there, but everything else leaves something to be desired. The jumpers aren’t falling (but he still takes them), he’s vying for the team lead in fouls per game, and his assist averages have fallen behind his turnovers per game. To top it all off, his free throw percentage is back down in the midden heap. The scary part is that Josh doesn’t really seem to notice. If the Hawks need somebody in the frontcourt to step up, Team Captain #3 may not be able to fill the bill. Or can he? Right now the Hawks are surviving his play a bit more than they are benefitting from it.
Al Horford – With a more efficient game and a deadlier midrange jumper than his athletic cohort, “The Boss” would figure to be the frontcourt go-to guy for the Hawks. However, Horford has continued to struggle from the field, shooting just barely north of 40%. Then again, after getting the ball just 7 times against Chicago last night (and hitting 4 of those attempts), maybe not all of the blame goes to the all-star center. Still, he has to produce more and finger pointing won’t change that. On the bright side, Horford is leading the team in assists with a ratio to turnovers of nearly 3 to 1, and best of all…he’s become Mr. Double Double again, averaging over 10 boards a contest to go along with his 12 ppg. If Drew can figure out a way to get his center to a higher shooting percentage and more touches in the right spots (plus whatever motivation is needed), then the Hawks will be able to put additional pressure on the stunned Bulls.
Zaza Pachulia – How can you be mad with him? He doesn’t get the minutes, but he comes in and does what he’s supposed to – lays some hard fouls, gets physical, and never fails to work the glass. Perfect example – last night’s game includes an 8 minute stint in which Pachulia collected 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 fouls (and you can bet they weren’t love taps).
Jeff Teague – You know he’s going to get victimized at least a couple of times by Rose (and the officals…come on you know it’s coming), who is arguably the League’s best point guard. But you have to hand it to Teague. The kid barely sniffed hardwood in Round 1 of the playoffs. Yet when called upon, he hits nearly 50% of his shots, plays under control, committs just a single turnover, only 2 fouls, and hands out 5 assists. All of this in 44 minutes of play. Somewhere, somehow, Mike Woodson’s left eyebrow just fell off, all by itself. If Larry Drew sits this kid for any other reason than poor play, his right eyebrow is going to fall off. I’m just sayin’….
People can keep on saying it until they’re blue in the face. “The Hawks can’t continue to shoot like this.” “Rose will explode at some point.” Both statements are probably true. But neither guarantees that the series predictions will come to pass. Game 1 has told us that already. The Hawks may very well be in just the right place to win. Believe it or not, their much-maligned coach and his unpredictable lineup schizophrenia may even have something to do with it.
What do YOU think? Are the Hawks in the right place at the right time, or will this be their lone second round playoff win after going 0 for 8 in consecutive years? Can Al and Josh raise their level of play? Is Jeff Teague finally getting his chance to truly prove himself before our very eyes? Can Joe and Jamal carry the Hawks further?
Big Ray, Hawks Fan Nest Blog