ORLANDO – This can get lost in the euphoria of Joe Johnson coming up big in a playoff game, Kirk Hinrich looking almost young again on defense and Jason Collins getting head-butted from a frustrated Dwight Howard.
But it’s worth noting: The Hawks followed Larry Drew.
They followed his game plan. They followed his season-long cries for a consistent effort and passion, his pleas for mental and physical toughness. They won their playoff series opener against Orlando on Saturday night, and in doing so put to rest any suggestions that players had tuned out or quit on their first-year coach. Wins like this simply don’t happen if guys aren’t paying attention.
It doesn’t explain the absurdity of some Hawks performances during the season, including five home losses by 21 or more points. But it gives credence to the theory that the problems have been less about Drew’s ability as a head coach than it is about his players’ occasional reluctance to accept his ideas.
“He has had a plan throughout,” Jamal Crawford said of Drew on Sunday. “Maybe at times some people, or even us, didn’t understand it. But there’s a method to his madness.”
Al Horford, the most universally respected player in the Hawks’ locker room, said, “Nobody has ever quit on Larry. It was more about frustration. I felt like some guys got discouraged because their own games weren’t going the way they wanted it to. That happens during a season.”
It is only one game in this series. But consider the significance: The Hawks were 2-12 in road playoff games in the last three years. Fact is, they hadn’t won a road playoff game against a higher playoff seed in 14 years (at Chicago in the second round in 1996-97).
Drew understood why there were doubters when the Hawks hired him. He was the assistant to the guy who got fired (Mike Woodson). The perception was he got the job because he came cheap. Rumors had circulated lately that he could be in trouble. His contract: only two years and a team option at a relatively modest salary of just over $1 million.
Hard to know if the rumors had any foundation because what in the Hawks’ organization isn’t up in the air? Ownership? Check. Management? Check. Roster? Check.
Pinning the team’s radical mood swings solely on the first-year head coach seemed a tad unfair, especially given he was trying to force a new offense on a group of players that, let’s just say, doesn’t always come off as having that “all for one and one for all” mentality.
Drew said Sunday that he expected “some ups and downs. I was going to have to deal with it and try to find the balance.” The new coach appears to have adopted the philosophy of Mr. Miyagi.
“What this team did last year in the regular season [winning 53 games] was phenomenal,” Drew said. “Could we duplicate it? I didn’t know. To be perfectly honest, my biggest concern was implementing a new system. Would they buy into it? You go through certain situations, different personalities. A clash here, a clash there. Doubt sometimes seeps in. Finger-pointing seeps in. The last thing I was going to allow this team to do was fragment.”
That didn’t happen. Horford said that if players had quit on Drew this season, “It would be the same as quitting on your own teammates. That didn’t happen this year.”
Did it happen last year under Woodson?
“In all honesty, I think it did,” he said.
He pointed to the team’s play in the postseason, particularly in the four-game sweep by Orlando, which also dominated the Hawks during the regular season.
“Part of it could have been Woodson and that some guys had been with him for a long time, but part of it also was we were playing Orlando.
“This year has been a strange season, but the feeling in the locker room seems OK. It’s just a matter of getting acclimated to what he’s trying to do.”
Drew says often, “I believe in this team.” On some days, that puts him in exclusive company.
But at least now, he has a significant playoff win on his resume to back up the words.
By Jeff Schultz
Last few Hawks blogs