(UPDATED: 11:45 p.m.)
This is what effort looks like. This is what defense looks like. This is what Josh Smith taking over in the fourth quarter with his feet in the paint and not near the three-point line looks like (quick, somebody take a picture!).
Imagine if every game was like this.
The Hawks rebounded from a miserable performance again Sunday night, and the only reason to see it coming was because there was no reason to see it coming. Throw a whiffle ball in a wind tunnel and guess which direction that sucker will fly. That’s sort of like predicting the Hawks. But they showed us something again: potential.
After flopping in Game 3 and failing to lead after any quarter in consecutive games, the Hawks’ 100-88 win over Chicago at Philips Arena showed us how good they can be. They showed us what happens when an occasionally dysfunctional bunch plays hard and plays smart.
Remarkably, they have evened this best-of-seven series at 2-2 wins each against the team that finished with the NBA’s best record (62-20).
“We played with energy, that was the difference,” coach Larry Drew said. “And we shared the basketball. When we do that, we’re an effective ballclub.”
How did it happen? Well, start with players crashing the boards and diving on the floor. Start with effort. And yes, start with Josh Smith.
He had his best game of the postseason. He finished with 23 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists. He took over the game in the fourth quarter, when he scored 11. This is what he is capable of.
“I’m going to bring the tape in and bring him in the office [Monday],” Drew said. “And he knows. Josh and I have a number of talks and I know what he brings to the table. He just sometimes finds his way out on the perimeter and lets it go. When he’s rebounding and running the floor and pushing the basketball — that’s who he is. He has a unique ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor.”
Smith had some of those oh-no moments early in the game when he fired up jumpers, although not to the extent of his Game 3 performance.
“There are people who don’t understand the game, who don’t know the game, but that doesn’t faze me,” he said. “My teammates matter more than anybody else. They believe in me. They have confidence in my game. When I was in my rut, they told me to stay positive, to stay in the game, just do what I’d been doing all season long. I stayed with it.”
Even before tip-off, the Hawks could be comforted by one thought: No matter how the rest of this series went, they were assured of winning one more game in the second round of the playoffs than the Los Angeles Lakers (who were swept by Dallas). In most years, that would be considered a monumental success.
But even at this point of the season, the Hawks are still trying to prove something that shouldn’t even be a question in May: a beating heart. Their propensity to not show up for games, let alone playoff games, is maddening. After splitting two games in Chicago, they returned home for Game 3 and, in Drew’s mind, made one huge miscalculation: They suddenly thought they were good. They lost by 17 points.
It was different Sunday. They came out with energy and attitude – defense even. They led after the first quarter (28-26). They led at halftime (47-46). The significance: They hadn’t led after any quarter since winning Game 1.
Things went so well at the outset, Drew didn’t feel a need to use his first timeout until 12:40 into the game, slightly behind the 49-second pace the last time around.
Joe Johnson, who hit only 4 of 12 shots in the last game, hit his first four on this night. His 15 points at halftime exceeded his 10 on Friday. The effort on the boards were better, thanks in part to Drew’s pregame decision to “go big” with his lineup and start Jason Collins at center.
The defense against Derrick Rose (44 points in Game 3) also was superior, partly because Jeff Teague was better but also because he received far more help from teammates. There was one play in the first quarter when Rose drove to the basket and was surrounded by four Hawks: Teague, Collins, Smith and Al Horford. If the Hawks brought that kind of focus and intensity all the time, there wouldn’t be nearly as many skeptics in this town.
The game was tied at 84-84 with four minutes left. Then Teague and Horford hit runners and the Hawks led the rest of the way. Horford scored the next two buckets, both on assists from Smith.
Suddenly, five players were working in unison. They shared the ball on offense, with five players scoring in double figures. Imagine if it was like this all the time.
By Jeff Schultz