(UPDATED: 7:50 p.m.)
Not that anybody had been worn out by victory parades at any time in recent history (or ancient history). But it seems like the Atlanta pro sports world has been strapped to a wrecking ball lately.
Since last May, an NHL franchise was crushed by local ownership, then packaged, sold and shipped to Winnipeg. The Braves collapsed down the stretch of the season and missed the playoffs. The Falcons could’ve avoided a lot of pain by missing the playoffs, for when they got there they were dismembered again.
The Hawks had been our shining light. OK, maybe a 60-watt bulb. But they eliminated Orlando in the first round of the playoffs last season and gave Chicago a run in Round 2.
Then on Thursday, Atlanta gravity pulled them back down into the rubble.
Al Horford — the one player the Hawks could not afford to lose, the one player on the roster that other teams actually want, was counted out by an MRI. Horford suffered what had appeared to be a shoulder strain in Wednesday night’s loss to Indiana when he had his arm pulled back after having his shot blocked by the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert. But an MRI revealed a torn pectoral muscle.
This is not a day-to-day thing. It’s closer to a see-you-in-training-camp-next-year thing. Horford will have surgery and miss three to four months. It’s mid-January. The regular season runs through April 26. Do the math.
Hawks coach Larry Drew was asked what the Hawks will miss without Horford, other than the 12.4 points, seven rebounds and a couple of blocks and assists per game. His answer suggested this was like a live body losing a vital organ.
“Leadership and presence — that’s going to be sorely missed,” he said. “He’s kind of a glue for us. He’s a stabilizer. He’s a guy who huddles the team, who talks in the huddle. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to call people out. Certainly the guys respect him. You can see how guys respond to him.”
Horford is — was — the Hawks’ most important player. It’s not Joe Johnson, the five-time All-Star who too often disappears in big moments and has seldom exuded much in the way of leadership. It’s not Josh Smith, the athletically wonderful but occasionally head-scratcher of a player.
Horford isn’t a brilliant offensive player. But he’s as smart and consistent a performer as the Hawks have on the roster. He rebounds. He bangs. He distributes. Equally important, as Drew noted, is his presence off the court.
“I was hoping it was a strain and I’d rehab it for a couple of weeks and I’d be back,” Horford said.
That, the Hawks could manage. Every team has, or will have, injuries in this condensed season. But the Hawks couldn’t afford a debilitating one like this. What now — trade for Dwight Howard? That has long seemed like a pipe dream because Howard, an impending free agent, has said nothing to indicate he would be willing to sign an extension with the Hawks. And if the Hawks ever had a shot at Howard, Horford figured to be one of the players that Orlando would ask for in a trade.
What do the Hawks offer now — Horford with a torn pectoral, Tracy McGrady with back spasms and Marvin Williams with an ankle sprain?
Whatever it was that you believed the Hawks could achieve this season, adjust down. They’re probably still a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, although Drew said only, “I hope we are.”
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the team reacts to this loss. Said Horford, “All of the guys have to raise their game, help a little bit, and it all starts with Joe and Josh.”
Johnson was the eternal optimist of the group in the locker room Thursday.
“We still have enough talent to be an elite team in the East,” he said.
He gets points for being a rare ray of sunshine. But the reality is, it feels like a wrecking ball just hit another team.
By Jeff Schultz