It all seemed to come together at once.
The Hawks played the way they needed to nearly all game long, the guys who needed to step up did, and they even had some calls go their way (the jump ball after Rose was fouled on a long jumper attempt was bizarre). All of this, and the Hawks reached a true milestone. Two wins in the second round of the playoffs, you say? So much more than that, I say. The goal should never be to lose better, or to just take the smallest of baby steps. The goal is to put yourself into position to take leaps and bounds. Winning game 4 did just that for the Hawks. Not only have they done what they needed to do to win games against their favored opponent, the Hawks have put themselves into actual contention for a place that only the elite teams in a conference can go – the Conference Finals. Atlanta has shown that it can beat Chicago, and that this is no fluke. Is the series over? Of course not, and that goes both ways. Which team is headed to the Eastern Conference Finals? Many automatically assumed it would be the Bulls, and the Hawks just made it a question that every expert and pundit has to think about for a few seconds before giving an answer. Both teams look like they believe in themselves, and that was never a question for Chicago. But it was for Atlanta…and now that question is answered. They believe. What’s more, they are giving everybody else something to believe.
The Hawks are now competing for real. Milestone reached.
Making all the Right Moves
This really starts with coaching. Larry Drew did quite the job Sunday night, getting his guys to do what they needed to, and keeping their heads in the game. Drew’s decision to start Jason Collins paid dividends as Collins immediately added the physicality that Atlanta needed to start the game. Collins is one of those guys who never could claim the boxscore as his friend, as it can never tell the story of the impact he has on a game. Despite not claiming a single rebound, his presence was felt in his size and body weight down low, as well as his ability to get good positioning. If you don’t believe it, just as Noah how difficult it was to get rebounds with Collins in the way. Ask Rose how good those fouls felt. All that and Collins gave the Hawks a couple of confidence-inspiring inside baskets.
Even better was Drew’s decision to play Zaza Pachulia for 25 minutes or so. Pachulia responded the way he normally has when given good minutes – smart play, toughness, and very much needed rebounding. Fact is, Zaza kept the Hawks all but even in the rebounding category (Bulls 37, Hawks 36), something Atlanta had been struggling with.
Of course, much of this came at the expense of one Marvin Williams. But here’s the thing – Marvin has been largely ineffective, as he was in game 4. Yes, he did look like he got fouled a few times out there with no calls coming his way. On the flip side of the coin, there were times that even Rose didn’t get the call after charging to the hole. As such, it’s hard to argue the foul calls in his favor, and aside from a couple of nice blocks, he wasn’t getting much done (0-5 from the field, no rebounds). Bottom line, it wasn’t about what Marvin failed to do, it was about what the Hawks needed that he doesn’t provide – physicality. Larry Drew knew this, and he played guys accordingly.
This wasn’t just Josh Smith’s best game in the playoffs. It was his best game all season. The early jumpshot attempts had the home crowd groaning and cringing, and his insistence on running the fast break after the rebound probably made even his teammates want to pull their hair out. Fortunately for the Hawks, Smith managed to abandon the perimeter game and went work inside, to wondrous results. The post game comments made me think Smith still doesn’t recognize the vastly different results of his inside or outside play, but the majority of his play, particularly in the second half suggested otherwise (uhh….we hope). Smith’s hyperactivity around the glass (16 boards) and his passing (8 assists) were pivotal in this game, as was his scoring at the basket. Again, his decision to run the break seemed like one of folly, but then it became obvious – the Bulls lacked the speed to keep up with him for the most part, and even the fleet-footed Rose seemed unable or unwilling to try and pick Smith’s pocket.
We can only hope to see more such play from Josh Smith. Chicago doesn’t have an answer for him when he plays with passion, yet under control and in the areas where he can excel. Smith was MVP for a night. Now he has to be consistent for the series.
Back in the Game
Limited by foul trouble, it seemed Al Horford wouldn’t be able to get back on track, but he maintained an aggressive stance on offense and also was more decisive with his moves. While his 5 rebounds were nothing to write home about, his efficiency from the field (9 made shots out of 11 attempts) and heady play (4 assists) were absolutely on time. We knew that Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford would not be able to keep up the twin 20+ point per game performances up forever, and somebody would have to step up besides them. Last night, Horford did that, and the Hawks will be needing a similarly efficient offensive threat more often, to take this series.
If there are two guys in this playoff series that are performing pretty consistently, it’s Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague. Unlikely combo? Perhaps, but you’re not getting many complaints right now.
Johnson was solid against Orlando, but he continues to prove himself to be the team’s best player against Chicago. The best guys step up their game in the playoffs and Johnson is doing just that in the 2nd round with 54% shooting from the field, including a hair under 67% from three point range for 21 points per game. Johnson struggled a bit against Chicago’s League-best defense but poured it on in game 4. Look for him to continue to attack quickly and keep on hurting the defense after seeing how well it’s worked so far.
If there any questions about Jeff Teague at this point, they should only surround his jumpshot. The lightning quick point guard has more than proven himself in the heat of battle in ways that nobody saw coming during the season (if you tell me you KNEW he’d do exactly this well in the playoffs, then I want you doing my financial investments). Shooting 52% from the field, Teague is also doing exceptionally well with the ball in his hands (3.8 assists to 1.2 turnovers per game, a 3-t0-1 ratio!), and finds himself as the team’s second leading scorer in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Missing Kirk Hinrich? With all due respect to the smart and tough veteran point guard (and we do miss him at times), his absence might have actually been the best thing that could have happened to the Hawks, in some ways.
Now it’s On!
It’s good that the Hawks know what to do now, they just have to keep doing it. It’s even okay if they think they’ve arrived, because they have. What’s important is that they know where they’ve arrived – at the heart of the battlefield, not the Promised Land. With the series tied at two games apiece and shifting back to Chicago, both teams are under pressure. The Bulls don’t want to fall down in front of their fans at home. Meanwhile, the Hawks have to prove that their Game 1 win was not a “surprise victory” against Chicago. This is when teams have to dig deep and the competition is fierce.
The Hawks travel into enemy territory on Tuesday, where there will be very few friendly faces in the crowd (if any). Can they take the Bull by the horns? Can they continue to play the way they have to see is the only way to win?
Big Ray, Hawks Fan Nest Blog