HAWKSVILLE - If the Hawks felt like there was some cosmic [Dwyane Wade-fueled] wave of energy trying to keep them from reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals, wait until they get on the floor Tuesday night in Cleveland.
That’s where they’ll get their first taste of the NBA playoffs, King James version.
In short, if they thought Wade was an issue – the so-called one-man team that they couldn’t get past in anything but seven games – wait until they face LeBron James and his crew.
Not only have the Cavaliers rolled to the best record in the league, boast the NBA Coach of the Year in Mike Brown and the league’s probably MVP in James, they’ve also had nine days to rest and load up for the Hawks on their way to what all of the basketball-loving world assumes is a table for two in the NBA Finals with Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.
I can’t think of a better time to be the Hawks.
No one thinks you have a chance. No one is expecting you to be anything more than a speed bump on the Cav’s road to the NBA Finals.
“We’re the team that wasn’t even supposed to make the playoffs right?” Hawks forward Josh Smith said. “If you let [the media] tell it, we didn’t even belong here. And we were supposed to lose to Miami. And here we are. We just keep showing up where we’re not supposed to be.”
The Cavs have lost twice on their home floor all season, so Tuesday night’s series opener should be interesting. The Hawks should still be in a groove and the Cavs have been off for so long … it should be interesting.
MIKE BIBBY’S BEST SHOT of the entire first round of the playoffs came before halftime of Sunday in Game 7 and it had nothing to do with his 3-point stroke.
Hawks coach Mike Woodson roasted him for passing the ball to Smith in the corner on in the final seconds. As Smith’s 24-footer bounced off the rim with 10.9 seconds left, Woodson jumped Bibby’s case for making the pass.
The surprise was Bibby’s response. He jumped Woodson right back, much to the delight of those of us sitting close enough to hear the entire exchange.
“If you don’t want me to throw to him put him somewhere else,” Bibby shouted. “He’s wide [@*&$%] open. Wide open. What do you want me to do? If you don’t want him shooting that then put him somewhere else. You tell him.”
After getting it back as good as he gave it, Woodson crossed his arms, did a pirouette and smiled at everyone watching as he strolled back toward the Hawks’ bench.
Woodson said later it was the first time Bibby’s “really lit into” him. And that’s why he was smiling about it. He loved seeing that kind of fire and emotion from his veteran point guard.
It was by far Bibby’s best shot of the night. And his reaction was right on the money in so many different ways. Because it’s clear that Smith has to curb his own enthusiasm for long distance shots (did you see him working in the paint early? The up and under moves, the ball-fake and step back and then lefty kiss off the glass. It was stick stuff. The Heat didn’t know what to do with him). And since he’s struggling in that department, it’s up to Woodson to find ways to help him curb it.
THE HEAT LEARNED A LESSON MANY TEAMS have this season about the Hawks when they play on their home floor. Forget what you thought about them away from Philips Arena, because for whatever reason, once they got on their own floor they’re a totally different team.
“They’re just terrific at home,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra Sunday after the Hawks had finished using his team as a dust mop. “They play with a great deal of confidence and energy here at home. We’ve struggled against them here in this building all year long, but it’s not just us. Everybody has struggled here as well. And it’s because they’ve built a pretty tough home court advantage.”
By Sunday night Spoelstra’s rage about the Hawks trying to embarrass his team a couple games ago had morphed into sincere praise.
“They’re a tough team,” he said of the Hawks. “They’ve really gotten a lot better. We’ve seen them mature over the years. They’re a team similar to us two or three years ago. They’ve developed their young guys, and more importantly they’ve kept the same coaching staff to help develop those players and have a consistent system.”
Wade might have summed it up best, though, after the game when he highlighted the difference between his team and the Hawks.
”They got more than one guy,” Wade said. ‘They’ve got four or five different guys they give the ball to and say, `Go make a play, either for yourself or somebody else.’ That makes it tough to guard.”
YOU WON’T SEE JOE JOHNSON BEATING HIS CHEST or poppin’ his jersey after big plays the way some other NBA stars do. It’s just not his style.
He drained two of the most wicked shots of the entire series Sunday, two 3-point bombs in Wade’s face, and didn’t do anything more than ball up his fists at himself. He glanced over at his family and friends that sit along the front row across from the Hawks’ bench, making sure they understood that whatever was ailing him early on in this series was no longer an issue.
The first smile he cracked was with five minutes left, when he headed to the bench to a rousing ovation from the crowd after his 27-point, five-steal explosion.
“I had to wait until it was late in the lock when I pretty much knew it was over,” he said of why he didn’t hop on a scorer’s table or call any attention to himself beyond his monster performance. “We’ve blown big leads before, so I had to make sure. If we win a championship you’ll see a whole lot [of emotion from me]. Other than that, it’s just competing, going out and having fun and trying to win ball games.”
And if you wondered if he felt any relief after finally playing like the All-Star folks around here have become accustomed to seeing, don’t.
“The only relief was that we won,” he said. “I’m putting this Miami series behind me and moving forward to Cleveland. And hopefully, we’ll make it an even better series.”
All THE TOP SEEDS IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE MADE IT TO THE FINAL FOUR. Boston and Orlando are set to scrap on one side of the bracket and the Hawks and Cavs are set to duke it out on the other side of the bracket. That’s actually the way it was supposed to work out.
They basically went wire to wire as the top four teams in the East, with some momentary shifting along the way. Dallas and Houston crashed the Final Four in the Western Conference. Houston won the 4-5 matchup with Portland while Dallas knocked off the depleted Spurs in the 3-6.
There’s something to be said for the Hawks making sure things held form in the East, though. It validates their 47-win season and legitimizes all the talking they’ve done the last six months about being one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Knock ‘em all you want, but they said they were headed to this point and here they are.
And they’ve yet to play their best. When you consider the injuries to both Al Horford and Marvin Williams and the fact that neither guy has played up to his own standard this postseason, the Hawks actually have quite a bit of room to improve upon their performance against the Heat.
And both Horford and Williams will return to action in this series. Williams could play a huge role, if healthy enough, defensively. Because the Hawks are going to need an active defender with the size, agility and athleticism to at least keep James occupied for long stretches.
Williams worked well against James during the regular season matchups (the Cavs took the season series 3-1 but the Hawks actually had one of those wins snatched from their grasp on a questionable late foul call) and again, if healthy enough, could potentially do similar work now.
Time will tell.
But admit it, you like talking Hawks this late in the season don’t you?
I know I do.