Their often praised offseason notwithstanding, the difference between where the Hawks are and where they want to go isn’t about the roster. It’s not about having more depth at point guard or more size coming off the bench or even some assurances that Josh Smith won’t again fall into a black hole immediately following the occasional spectacular 25-point, 15-rebound, seven-block, I-own-this-game kind of night.
The difference between good teams and great teams in any sport is mental toughness. It’s winning road games, close games, games that are decided by intangibles, not talent. It’s a coach making the right decision in the final two minutes. It’s a team and a go-to guy acting accordingly.
Mike Woodson is the Hawks’ coach. Joe Johnson is the Hawks’ go-to guy. Both will be operating in the final year of their respective contracts when the Hawks open the season against Indianapolis Wednesday night. If this organization takes that next step, it is up to Woodson and Johnson. It’s prove-it time. Because how this year unfolds will go a long ways toward defining not only this season but their respective futures in Atlanta.
Give Johnson credit for this: He’s saying all the right things. The Hawks were drilled by the Magic in their final dress rehearsal, 123-86, Friday night. He was still angry about it after practice Tuesday.
“I didn’t care that it was a preseason game,” he said. “I wanted to send them a statement. But I guess we weren’t ready. I guess we weren’t prepared.
“For Orlando it was pretty much a statement game — they were trying to send us a message, or maybe the league, period. We just didn’t answer the challenge. Even though it was a preseason game, we should’ve come out with a better start. We shouldn’t have let them take over like that.”
Johnson knows it starts with him. He turned down a significant amount of money — $60 million for a four-year extension — for a chance to prove he is worth more in free agency. To accomplish that, he’ll have to show he is a leader. Only elite level players — difference-makers on successful playoff teams — make the numbers that he is seeking. He has proven to be a very good player, an All-Star. But it stops there.
If Johnson takes a more active role as a leader, if he becomes more vocal on the court and in the locker room, then the Hawks have a chance to do something special. Otherwise, they are no better than the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and a second-round playoff team. There are three teams clearly ahead of them in the East. Boston, Orlando and Cleveland all have players and coaches who have proven themselves in the post-season.
Woodson validated a 47-win regular season last year when the Hawks survived a seven-game playoff series with Miami. But they were swept in the second-round by Cleveland. Atlanta went 36-11 (.766) in the regular season and playoffs combined but only 17-29 (.369) on the road. That’s not going to get it done.
Said Johnson, “When we got down on the road last year, it was almost like impossible to come back. Our body language told it all. It was like a team would knock the fight out of us. But it should be different now. We shouldn’t go through those growing pains. We should know what to expect.
“We can’t say we’re a young team any more. Down the stretch, we pretty much know who’s going to have the ball in their hands, and a lot of times it’s going to be me.”
It’s prove-it time.