They nearly lost a playoff series to Milwaukee, which was missing starting center Andrew Bogut. They certainly lost their dignity in a second-round sweep by Orlando, which won four straight by an NBA playoff-record 101 points (give or take a major organ).
That’s not about strategy. That’s not about intelligence. That’s not about speed or size or length.
On the eve of the NBA playoffs, the Hawks need to locate all of the intangibles they too often lack: desire, heart, toughness.
People doubt them because too often they play small. Or soft. They fold quickly, quietly, comfortably — as if knowing it doesn’t matter because they’re on direct deposit.
If they want to change that perception, this would be a good time to knock somebody down.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks go against the eminently beatable Magic. The series opens Saturday in Orlando. Forget socks. Pack an extra elbow.
They have beaten Orlando three out of four this season. Regular seasons bear little resemblance to playoffs. But it’s significant that the Hawks, who had gone 2-10 against Orlando in the previous two seasons (regular season and playoffs) were 3-1 this season. This Magic team is not the Eastern Conference power of recent seasons. But a big reason the Hawks have had some success is they’ve beaten up Dwight Howard, utilizing the Bruise Brothers defense of Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia.
The Hawks’ flaws are no secret. They have a reluctant star (Joe Johnson), an athletic wonder who can be either their greatest asset or biggest liability (Josh Smith) and an all-around great player who is out of position (Al Horford).
But what really has prevented them from winning more playoff games is the lack of a consistent effort, toughness and resiliency.
Players say they expect a physical series. But when it unfolds that way, will the response echo the line from the pledge in Animal House: “Thank you sir, may I have another?”
Quoth Pachulia: “We need to have that blue-collar mentality. We’re more dangerous when we play that way.”
He spent a little extra time in the weight room after practice Thursday.
Not a coincidence.
When asked if he expected bodies to be hitting the floor, he said: “Sure. That’s the history of the playoffs. You’ll watch all of the highlights on TV, and there’s always some blood.”
Collins has more playoff experience (78 games) than anybody on the Hawks’ roster. It seems strange to cast a guy averaging two points and two rebounds as a key to the series, but that’s the case.
If the Hawks can successfully rotate Collins, Pachulia and Horford against Howard, that’s 18 fouls to work with. Less double-teaming inside theoretically means better defense on the perimeter.
“You’re obviously not trying to go out there and hurt anybody, but you definitely want to set a tone,” Collins said. “Keep body contact on him.”
Collins has been the designated hit man before in his career, against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
“I don’t think Shaq likes me too much,” he said.
We’ve seen this bunch turn to mush too often. They’ve been blown out and checked out, usually on the same night. The signs haven’t been good in the past two weeks after playoff seeding was set.
“Some guys expected to have games off,” coach Larry Drew said. “Some guys took games off.”
It’s one thing to lose to another team. It’s another to open the door, let them wipe their feet on your back and make them a sandwich. That’s what happened against Orlando in last year’s playoffs.
“That was such a brutal series,” Drew said. “Seeing the body language in our team — even being down 2-0 and coming home, you should never show signs of defeat like that. After Game 1, I saw players in a state I’ve never seen before. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
Drew admits the Hawks were outworked and not mentally prepared for that seven-game series against Milwaukee. “That took something out of us,” he said.
The Milwaukee series exposed the team’s flaws. The Orlando series, he said, “exploited us.”
We’ve seen enough “exploitation” in Atlanta. Also enough surrendering. This is the time to hit back.
By Jeff Schultz