Larry Drew walked into the Hawks’ practice gym early last week and saw a herd of unicorns frolicking in a field of purple daisies. Or possibly a crowd of players. They seem to be one and the same.
“I saw all of these bodies — it looked weird,” the Hawks’ coach said. “I think Al [Horford] had just been cleared for non-contact, and I walked out and everybody was there. I thought maybe they had let some people in the gym who shouldn’t have been there.”
It has been that kind of a year. Imagine an NBA team playing a full regular season and not having its starting lineup together even once. Only two players, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague, have played in every game. Drew has used 11 different starting lineups, and 10 of the roster’s 15 players have combined to miss 111 games with everything from a torn pectoral to an appendectomy.
Guard Kirk Hinrich missed the first 18. Center Horford missed the last 55. In a 66-game season, they overlap. Backup center Zaza Pachulia has been shelved for the past seven, and that number likely will grow. Jason Collins, another backup center, missed 21 in the middle.
Yet, somehow the Hawks went into Thursday night’s finale against Dallas with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and shooting for 40 wins. So we ask this question: Why is it so crazy to believe they can defeat the Boston Celtics in a seven-game playoff series, wounds and all?
There hasn’t been a sense of surrender all season. To the contrary, this has been a Hawks team of uncommon resolve. Horford went down in Game 11, and as Drew said, “Everybody wrote us off.” They were 4-2 before the Dallas game with a Munchkin-esque lineup (minus Horford and Pachulia), sliding over Smith or even plugging the 6-foot-8 Ivan Johnson in the middle because, well, Jannero Pargo would’ve looked even sillier.
Still, they’ve made it work.
“We’ve learned a lot, at least I have, about the makeup of the guys on this team,” Drew said. “They have shown that they can persevere.”
There is a belief factor in the Hawks’ locker room that hasn’t always been present in the past. It could stem from Smith having the best season of career. Or Joe Johnson’s play since the All-Star break (his 3-point shooting: 34.3 percent before the break, 44.1 percent after the break). Or Teague’s improvement at the point. It also means something that the Hawks have a stronger bench this season (credit to general manager Rick Sund for his work during the lockout) and that they finished with the fourth-best road record in the East (17-16).
The question is how much of that will carry over into the playoffs, particularly against a team like the Celtics. In the past four postseasons, Boston has won an NBA championship, two conference titles, nine of 12 playoff series (4-0 in the first round) and 43 playoff games. They also were 23-10 (before Thursday) to close the season. So stories of their age and imminent demise notwithstanding, we can safely conclude they have something left.
Players aren’t blinking. Neither is Drew.
When asked why he believed his team could defeat the Celtics without Horford or Pachulia, without giving strategy away, Drew smiled and said, “I would be giving strategy away. But I can go back and look at some of our past games and see things. When we’re clicking, even with those guys out, I have all the confidence in the world that we’re capable of winning. Obviously our three main guys, Joe, Jeff and Josh, have to play well. So does our bench. One or two guys won’t carry us. It will be by committee.”
This has been a strange NBA season. The grind has led to injuries. Some players have been rested, maybe even have held back, because of the schedule. We really can’t be certain how some teams will look in the playoffs.
At full strength, this Hawks team could’ve been very good. Dented, they’re still interesting, certainly not dead. That’s more than most expected when Horford went down and others followed like dominoes.
Maybe they have one surprise left.
By Jeff Schultz