(This is an early column that will serve as the live blog for tonight’s Hawks’ playoff game against Boston. It will updated afterward. Hawks coach Larry Drew said after this morning’s shoot around that center Al Horford and forward Marvin Williams will start, joining Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague and Josh Smith. Kirk Hinrich will come off the bench. The move allows Johnson to go back to the shooting guard position and get away from defending Paul Pierce, possibly reserving more energy for the offensive end. Whether it works is another matter. By the way, checked with a pal, Todd Fuhrman of the Caesars Palace sports book in Las Vegas. He said that while he hasn’t posted odds on this, he would make the Hawks an 11-1 underdog to win the next three games of the series. I would’ve thought it would be even higher but the fact two out of three games would be at Philips Arena might be a factor.)
Timing is everything, as the partners of the Atlanta Spirit have learned the hard way.
The Hawks’ owners this week sent an email to season ticket holders with a link to a survey, “Help us improve your experience.” Canvassing fans for their opinions on Monday — the day after the team’s humiliating Game 4 playoff loss at Boston Sunday night – probably wasn’t the best strategy, even if the defeat came on the road and the survey focused on the cost of hot dogs and the music played at Philips Arena.
In the end, fans primarily are going to be focused on the product, not the window dressing. They will watch a winner in a damp warehouse with a leaky roof if necessary.
Which brings us back to the Hawks. They faced playoff elimination going into Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the Celtics at Philips Arena. They could point to injuries. They could concede that Boston simply is a better postseason team (as illustrated by the past four years). But folks are getting a little fed up with this same core of players coming up short in the playoffs, and that’s why, “Blow it up,” has been the most prevalent command from the masses.
The complaints might have seemed premature before Game 5. The season hadn’t officially ended yet. But what is an Atlanta fan if not somebody with a feeling of impending doom?
Coach Larry Drew said he’ll sit down with management after the season, commenting, “They’ll be making the decisions on direction, as far as what we’re going to do. Some of these guys have been together for a while. We’ll be talking about the possibilities, but we do that every year.”
As does every team. But this is what sets the Hawks apart from other NBA franchises, and most in professional sports. No part of the organization here may be safe.
• Ownership: The Spirit put the team up for sale and seemingly had a deal with Los Angeles businessman Alex Meruelo. But the purchase fell through in November and the season opened the following month with the same ownership in place. Spirit partners say they are no longer interested in selling. We’ve learned in the past what they say and what they do often don’t intersect.
• General manager: Rick Sund’s contract is up. He has an offer to return but hasn’t decided if he wants to come back. He lives in Seattle. He’ll be 61 in June. He’s financially secure. He might prefer taking the less stressful role of consultant elsewhere rather than take on the potential significant headaches of a team makeover.
• Coach: The two-year, guaranteed portion of Drew’s contract is up. He has a team option for next season but hasn’t been told yet if the team is picking that up. Bringing him back seems logical, but a new general manager (or owner) would complicate that.
• Roster: Where to start? Josh Smith has asked to be traded. Nine players have expiring contracts (Kirk Hinrich, Tracy McGrady, Jason Collins, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jerry Stackhouse, Jannero Pargo, Willie Green, Erick Dampier, Ivan Johnson). Joe Johnson almost certainly will be back because he has four years and $89.295 million left on his contract. And no, the Hawks aren’t going to amnesty him because nobody is going to cut a check for $89.295 million just to get him off the books.
The Hawks realize the city hasn’t embraced them. They ranked 23rd in league attendance during the season, and that’s with inflated crowd counts (their claimed average: 15,199).
Still, this team had been a resilient bunch this season until the 101-79 loss in Boston.
“We haven’t had a game like Game 4 in quite some time,” Johnson said Tuesday morning. “It was mind-boggling, honestly. I can’t get why we came out and played so poorly when we were so close in Game 3. I’m still puzzled on that.”
Drew responded in the aftermath of the loss the way he has most of this season: with a positive message.
“Like I’ve told our players, I think we’ve had a great season despite that one game, and that game is no reflection on the rest of our season,” he said. “It happened. We watched film. We talked about it and learned from it. Now it’s time to move on.”
The question was: For how long?
Check back later and I’ll let you know of any late lineup changes. Then we’ll live blog from tip-off at 8 p.m.
By Jeff Schultz