Hawks overcame injuries during season, so why not now?

Can Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and the Hawks pull off a playoff surprise? (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Can Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and the Hawks pull off a playoff surprise? (Curtis Compton/AJC)

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

66 comments Add your comment

Admirable Snackbar

April 26th, 2012
5:24 pm

a heard of unicorns? I have heard of a herd a unicorns.

Admirable Snackbar

April 26th, 2012
5:29 pm

We can start with a win tonight over Dallas for the homecourt. I imagine the Celts are not 100% either.
Go Hawks.

Najeh Davenpoop

April 26th, 2012
5:29 pm

Damn, this was a positive article. Did Levenson buy you dinner or something?

LT

April 26th, 2012
5:37 pm

Good article Jeff!!

Calibre Springs Dawg

April 26th, 2012
5:38 pm

Really wish the Celtics didn’t beat the Heat. Noticed they put in Paul Pierce in the 3rd to get them the win? We got it them…it’s that second round we need to worry about. Go Hawks!

LakeDawg

April 26th, 2012
5:39 pm

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Jeff Schultz

Hawks overcame injuries during season, so why not now?

Because they’re the Hawks! They lose the opening series 4-2.

ignition

April 26th, 2012
5:46 pm

If the our big 3 play well along with our bench, we can beat every team in the East..
We have beaten every team in the East and OKC..
Im confident I hope the Hawks are as well..

Dawg Haus

April 26th, 2012
5:51 pm

It’d be nice for the Hawks to get that green monkey off their back.

Luke Cage

April 26th, 2012
5:52 pm

Hawks win game 7 @Phillips

Jeff Schultz

April 26th, 2012
6:00 pm

“Damn, this was a positive article. Did Levenson buy you dinner or something?”

<<< Hahaha. Uh, no.

chokeup

April 26th, 2012
6:03 pm

the hawks will go meekly in round 1, as usual—bet the house. A bunch of overpaid millionaires, another failed season.

ag

April 26th, 2012
6:05 pm

I think we play Boston really well. I think we should rest Joe and Josh and get them prepared for Sunday. We have to beat the Celtics twice in Boston anyway, so home court is not that important.

Also, LD should post Charles Barkley’s lastest dig on the Hawks. “Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, England, Tokoyo, it does not matter. The Hawks will not beat the Celtics.” He said it during the Heat Celtics games on Tuesday.

LakeDawg

April 26th, 2012
6:06 pm

I see the interest in the Hawks is off the charts! There isn’t going to be enough bandwidth to hold all of the comments. Seriously though, this city gave up on these Hawks two years ago. With good reason.

JSS

April 26th, 2012
6:07 pm

Yeah, I’m a born cynic; but who kidnapped the “real” Jeff Schultz? ;-)

JSS

April 26th, 2012
6:09 pm

Run Lindsey, run videos are on sale at UGA dot com… Just saying…

Blahblahblah

April 26th, 2012
6:14 pm

@chokeup – they didn’t go meekly in round 1 in 2011.

Or 2010.
Or 2009.
Or 2008.

Sorry to interrupt your ignorance with facts.

Brent

April 26th, 2012
6:15 pm

Shultzie must have found Bradley’s stash of “Happy Homer Juice”.

ASHCAN!!!!!!

April 26th, 2012
6:19 pm

It don’t matter if they do or don’t,fact is they will NOT go to the conference final or finals.

phil

April 26th, 2012
6:24 pm

Lol.

Hawks are toast.

phil

April 26th, 2012
6:24 pm

Finish the season.

Fire everyone.

JASon

April 26th, 2012
6:27 pm

“Who says hawks can’t win?”

-a lack of mental toughness
-a playoff choke
-let me down so many times before, tired of wasting the effort
-Welcome to Atlanta

Big Lou

April 26th, 2012
6:47 pm

Kiss of death.

Every time a good article is written about the Hawks. They fail. They fail HARD. Here comes the sweep…

I’m hoping they prove everyone wrong, though.

Doug

April 26th, 2012
7:16 pm

A “Fan” since 1978 and I will say this is possibly the most effort on a consistent basis I have seen from the Hawks. They HAVE overcome a lot. EXCELLENT job of coaching for a first year head coach. GO HAWKS!

drmaryb.(*_*).

April 26th, 2012
7:20 pm

Mr. Schultz

Did you eat the “pink slime” at the RED Restaurant? Come on now, you secret is safe with us. LOL

drmaryb.(*_*).

April 26th, 2012
7:22 pm

* YOUR secret is safe with us …

Jethro

April 26th, 2012
8:10 pm

It’s mental. The Hawks, as an organization, have never gotten past the second round. This is a team that co that, they have the talent, they have the chutzpah. I wish one of them – just one – would say, either in public or private – “F— all y’all, I’m gonna win this.” Al? Josh? Jeff? Collectively? I give them a better than fair chance.

Ben

April 26th, 2012
8:27 pm

LOL. Win what? A first round series? I guess it’s possible.

A title??? Pure comedy Schultzie!

NBA- the most predictable post season of all sports

OldTimer

April 26th, 2012
9:18 pm

I’ll be there to see whatever happens.
There will be quite a few Boston fans in the crowd too.
They’ll be easy to spot.
They’ll be with the girl with a mustache.

realitycheck

April 26th, 2012
9:31 pm

This Celtics team has momentum now and that’s something it didn’t have at this time last year following that Kendrick Perkins trade. The Celtic veterans are not going to get knocked out by a team that’s never made it past the second round since arriving in Atlanta some 40 plus years ago. As usual, Schultz is trying to energize the locals, but regardless of how many games it goes, the Celtics will definitely advance to the next round.

phil

April 26th, 2012
10:25 pm

Um, Doug? He’s a second yr coach….

Wake up.

Phil Lunney

April 26th, 2012
10:51 pm

The advantage of the injuries is that Drew has had to play everyone. On some recent nights, the bench ran his offense better than his starters (and I think the starters watched and learned). The Larry Drew Motion Offense works especially with the Hawks swooping attack defense (sad). If the Hawks can beat the Celtics (without Horford and Zaza) and get everyone healthy and they have all learned the offense, it could be fun. Al is more important for extended play-offs. I would love to have Zaza back for any Celtics game, physically and mentally he loves to be mean to the green.

falCANS

April 26th, 2012
10:59 pm

Im guarantee we make it to the ECF. How much are tickets vs Boston???

Heard it here first

falCANS

April 26th, 2012
11:02 pm

In Josh I Trust

cpsman_atlanta

April 26th, 2012
11:11 pm

BOYCOTT ATLANTA SPIRIT GROUP!!!!!

Phil Lunney

April 26th, 2012
11:21 pm

Already boycotting the NHL.

JustinTRUHAWKSFANKeathley

April 26th, 2012
11:23 pm

To read these comment’s are just sad…… “true” Hawks fans wouldnt doubt we would believe! Oddly enough it seems when we (the fans) give the Hawks support and put our faith into what they are capable of doing they tend to strive! For example last who thought annalyst wise that the Hawks were going to beat the Magic….. C’mon us Hawks fans lets stick together and I promise the hawks will not let us down!! P.s Great article!

JustinTRUHAWKSFANKeathley

April 26th, 2012
11:27 pm

falCANS I agree!!

FunDog

April 26th, 2012
11:39 pm

Let’s GO HAWKS!

blackprix

April 26th, 2012
11:40 pm

As a Celtics fan, I put all my eggs in that basket. True, Hawks play them well but not well enough to be a team with better chemistry, players and COACHING … GO C’S!!!!!!!

Hawksalltheway

April 26th, 2012
11:48 pm

Yes, the Hawks have had their bad games, but who hasn’t? Obviously most of these people haven’t seen the Hawks play the top contenders, would’ve split the season series with Miami if we weren’t blatantly ROBBED in Miami with “homecooking” referees, beat the Bulls & played them tough every game, beat the Thunder, beat the Mavs, beat the Clippers, beat the Pacers, this is a team that is the best Atlanta team, since Nique was at the head!!! Would’ve finished 2nd or 3rd in the conference with a healthy team, Horford was a top guy last season, let’s hope Al can return for the 2nd round when we beat the Celts 4-1, & Zaza hopefully in the Boston series. GO HAWKS!!!

chico and the main

April 26th, 2012
11:53 pm

so why not now? because they are the hawks. period.

William M. Head

April 26th, 2012
11:53 pm

As a misplaced Falcons, Hawks, and Braves fan in Nashville, TN, I am usually alone in my support of the before mentioned teams. I’m the only one with a Hawks hat or Falcons Para on most places i go (easier to find a Braves fan, but its still a small group). I’m usually the only one that stand up for the Atlanta teams and i usually get the same response:

“People in Atlanta don’t even like (insert team name here)!”

I usually read the AJC just to get some positive coverage of my teams and maybe some tough love for them as well. What i see here are a bunch of unappreciative people who either forgot what it was like to play and fight as a team for one common cause or who have never played a team sport in their life…

Yes, The Hawks have let us down numerous times before…

Yes, they have struggled in their history to provide us the memories that we would love to hold on too…

No, They are not the losers yall people make them out to be. They have fought hard all year (at sometimes, harder than others) to be in the position they are in now. Now, its on us to believe, with them, what they can accomplish…I don’t care about Boston cause Boston showed me in 08 that they are beatable and THEY STILL ARE…Its on US to believe in what we can do: Them as players and Us as fans believing in their vision…

I truly believe that My favorite city in the entire world is due the World Championship it deserves…But only when WE KICK ALL THE TRANSPLANTS OUT OF THE NARRATIVE AND SPEAK FOR OURSELVES AS TRUE ATLANTA FANS…We let every other fan come to our home and tell US what we should think of our team(s)…Its time that REAL AND TRUE ATLANTA FANS speak up…

Signed,

A Mad Transplanted Atlanta Fan…

PS: If you are offended by what I just said, then you’re part of the problem and I got the reaction I sorely wanted…I’ll be the one with the balls enough to say…

ATL 4 LYFE!!!!!!

DaTruthHurtz

April 27th, 2012
12:04 am

You have your head up your a$$ William. You are no doubt one of the many ignorant fools to root for any ATL franchise. Good luck on winning any title, no matter what pro team. Pathetically fielded teams, incompetent owners and coaches, and a sorry a$$ fan base equals= NO SUCCESS WHATSOEVER!!

Brian

April 27th, 2012
3:03 am

Go William speak your mind!!!!

Brian

April 27th, 2012
3:07 am

datruthhurtz is a bobcat fan. Just like his owner he is in a state of misery now. why did i used to be a weiner but i just suck now?

Brian

April 27th, 2012
3:13 am

Justintruehawksfankeathley

April 27th, 2012
3:51 am

LETS GO HAWKS LETS GO HAWKS LETS GO HAWKS!!!!! Might I add in that everyone said the samething in 2007 when the BIG 3 was at its prime!! Hawks didnt shy out of that one we gave them one hell of a series!! oh that was the year after the Hawks had the worst record in the NBA…. Now we have a veteran team thats been there before and starving for a 2nd chance….. One time guys……….. LETS GO HAWKS LETS GO HAWKS LETS GO HAWKS!!!!!!!!

rudy

April 27th, 2012
4:25 am

Dear hawks, do your best not to let your fanbase down this time around cos the braves and falcons are still licking their wounds…GO HAWKS

ThatBengaliGuy

April 27th, 2012
6:15 am

Wow! Can’t blame a team for underachieving/under-performing when their own fans don’t believe in them. THE PAST MEANS NOTHING RIGHT NOW!!! LETS GO HAWKS!!!

tomxconn

April 27th, 2012
6:57 am

How many times has Boston ended our season? Too many! It’s time for payback! Time to finally exorcise the ghosts of Bird, McHale, DJ, Ainge, Parish…WE have the homecourt this time! Even if we don’t get past round 2, it would make my YEAR to see the Celtics get slammed. COME ON HAWKS!!!!