It would seem the pressure is on J.J for the playoffs.
He faded during the playoffs last spring and dismissed Hawks booing Hawks fans. J.J. came out of last year’s free agent summer with the most expensive contract in the league, one that limits the team’s financial flexibility going forward. He made his fifth consecutive All-Star game but just finished the least productive and efficient of his six seasons with the Hawks.
J.J. is the Hawks’ lead dog, and lead dogs in the NBA usually are judged by how far they take their squads. But J.J. said he doesn’t feel that burden.
“Not at all,” J.J. said. “In this case, it is not like that. We’ve got equal opportunity around here. We ain’t just depending on one guy. We’ve got two All-Stars. It’s not just going to be all on me. I don’t get all of the glory when we win so I don’t get to take all the [blame] when we lose.”
But as he said during the Orlando series last year, chances are J.J. will “take a lot of heat” if he stumbles and the Hawks fade like in the last two postseasons. Injuries were a factor both times for J.J. This year he had elbow surgery in December and sprained his shooting thumb in March.
Each time he’s queried about those injuries, he’s gone out of his way to say they won’t be an issue.
“It’s not going to affect anything,” he said. “I ain’t worried about it.”
All season J.J. has said he was looking forward to the playoffs so the Hawks could “prove everybody wrong.” And now that the postseason is about to start, I’ve noticed a difference in his mood. He seems more restless, as if he can’t wait to show what the Hawks can do.
J.J. has never been one to provide much clue to what he’s really feeling, but L.D. and his teammates have noticed a difference, too.
“You don’t get a lot of him from an emotional side, but just watching the things that he’s doing I can see that his focus is there,” L.D. said.
“I think he is ‘grind mode,’” Smoove said. “I know he definitely wants this series and definitely wants to play, and it all starts with him. If he looks like he is passionate and really wants it, I think it will trickle down. I think it might be a little bit more emotional for him this postseason.”
Perhaps J.J. feels slighted and disrespected. Maybe that could end up being a good thing.
“That’s the mentality we need him to have, and that’s the mentality we all should have is playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Al said. “That’s important.”
J.J. always has said he doesn’t care about the perception of outsiders. Now that it’s time for the Hawks to prove they are better than the beatdown they took from the Magic last spring and several times this season, he seems to be using the doubts as fuel.
“Speaking for myself, we are all we’ve got in this room,” J.J. said. “So we can care less what anybody else thinks about us. We are going to move forward. We know we are a pretty good team. We have just got to show it.”
Joe’s has played with more of an edge lately, too.
With the No. 5 seed locked up, he said he was using the last four games to “get in a rhythm.” You could see he was playing faster and getting to his sweet spots regardless of how defenses tried to play him. J.J.’s spot-up jumpers still weren’t falling–they haven’t all season, really–but there was purposefulness in his moves to the basket.
He got his post-ups and his floater. He made decisions quicker when the double teams came. It won’t be easy against Dwight and the Magic but J.J. going to the basket can be an an
anecdote antidote to Atlanta’s jump-shot happy attack.
“I am really looking for him to get out of shooting slump he has been in,” Drew said. “He has been doing all the other things hard and I can’t really fault him on any of that. He’s doing things hard; he’s doing things with a pace; he’s doing things with energy. That’s where it all begins.
“I’m going to be going to him a lot in this series. He’s played well against Orlando [this season] and I expect him to do it again.”
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat