A curious thing has happened since Al Horford’s pectoral exploded: The Hawks’ season hasn’t exploded along with it.
They have won three straight. Granted, Charlotte, Minnesota and Toronto are somewhat like the last three ingredients listed on the wrapper of a QuikTrip microwave burrito. They make you think, “Huh? What’s that?”
But it says something that a notoriously fragile team such as the Hawks hasn’t caved. It says something that a bunch that trailed by 18 points late in the third quarter against Minnesota not only didn’t roll over, but actually rallied to win.
“Last year in most cases like that, heads would’ve been down, and we would’ve surrendered,” coach Larry Drew said.
Now, this is not to project that the Hawks will be just fine without Horford (who was scheduled for surgery Tuesday and is a long shot to return before the playoffs, if even then). But it says something about Drew and what his players think of him.
In Drew’s rookie season as a head coach, the Hawks upset Orlando in the first round of the playoffs and took Chicago to six games in Round 2. In his second season, we’ve seen Josh Smith morph into a smart and consistent basketball player and young point guard Jeff Teague play with more confidence and aggressiveness. We’ve seen the Hawks start 10-4 despite a schedule that saw them open with a league-high nine games in 12 days following a training camp and preseason that lasted approximately seven minutes.
It hasn’t all been great. The embarrassingly lethargic performance nearly two weeks ago in the home overtime loss to Miami (which was minus Dwyane Wade and LeBron James) provided Charles Barkley with a sledgehammer and a three-hour monologue. But the Hawks are 6-1 since then (the only loss coming in the game at Indiana when Horford was injured).
After the injury, Drew’s soundbites to players hardly qualified as ground-breaking. Stay mentally strong. Elevate your game. One soldier goes down, another picks him up. It’s probably nothing Mike Woodson didn’t say to them a million times. The difference is they’re listening to Drew.
“It helps that he has been here for a while, and he knows everybody in this locker room,” said Smith, referencing Drew’s days as an assistant under Woodson. “It would’ve been hard for a guy who wasn’t familiar with the team to pull this together. But I think he knew exactly what to say and how to act when [Horford's injury] happened.”
On Monday at Philips Arena, Drew grabbed a microphone before the opening tip-off against Toronto and addressed the crowd on the significance of playing in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He touched on all of the right themes. Then the game started and he connected with his players. Smith (28 points, 15 rebounds) made his first six shots, then Hawks led by 13 in the second quarter, survived a couple of hiccups and won by nine, 93-84.
Sometimes it’s easy for a first-year head coach to get the attention of players, simply because he’s new. But there’s a tendency for players to get comfortable in Year 2.
Smith’s take: “It’s like drafting a guy in the second round. The first year, he may be guaranteed [a job], but you have to prove yourself to come back and then prove yourself again. He might have more pressure on him than any other coach right now.”
Drew says he has been watching and “listening to the whispers” of his players since Horford’s injury. Have they bought in?
“I sure hope so,” he said. “I’ve tried to look at our team and pinpoint the personality of it. In the past in these kind of situations, we’ve been known to just put our heads down and succumb to what’s happened to us, but that hasn’t happened. At some point we’re going to hit some more bumps in the road. I’m just hoping we can respond to it and crawl our way out of it.”
The early signs are encouraging.
By Jeff Schultz