Come April Fool’s Day, we’ll know if the Hawks have been fooling us these past four months. Over the 33-day day stretch that began Friday, they’ll play 18 games, 14 of them at home, 10 against teams with winning records. We’re about to learn exactly what the Hawks are, and quite possibly where they’re headed.
The interminable NBA regular season is filled with red herrings. A team can look good for a week or a month and wind up in the lottery. The Hawks aren’t going to drop that far, but for most of calendar year 2009 they’ve been running in place. It’s time now to spin things forward.
“It is a big month,” Josh Smith said, speaking before Friday’s game. “With so many home games and tough teams coming in, we want to create some separation for the fourth spot.”
Conveniently enough, Friday’s opponent was the team the Hawks need to outrun. The Miami Heat had closed on the Hawks and had made a deft trade – plying Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon from Toronto – at the deadline. The Heat was rising and the Hawks were coming off their annual lousy Western swing, and maybe this happy yarn was coming unraveled.
To this nervous premise, the Hawks snorted and said, “Ravel? He’s nothing but a dead composer.”
Let the record reflect that the Hawks handled the Heat. The first half was a wretched display – the pro equivalent of Michigan State versus Wisconsin – but in the third quarter the local team reminded us just why we came to notice it. The Hawks slammed Miami so hard even Dwyane Wade had no reply, and in so doing they banked their biggest victory since Game 6 against the Celtics.
Much of this had to do with Josh Smith, who had been playing indifferently and who was so lost in this first half he drew boos. But the observer who discounts J. Smith on the strength of a bad patch is someone who misses the bigger picture. J. Smith is a game-changer, and he changed this one.
It was 41-35 when Smith lent wings to this halting affair. He dunked off the break. He fed Al Horford – who finished with 21 points and 22 rebounds – for a jam, then Marvin Williams for a layup. And then came one of those J-Smoove Moments, the kind maybe four other players in the world could author.
Horford missed a jumper. Smith took the rebound with his back to the basket, his momentum carrying him farther away. Somehow he flipped the ball over his head – and it wasn’t a wild fling but a controlled blind shot, if that makes any sense – and into the hoop. That made it 54-43, and the addled Heat could do nothing but call timeout and watch the wondrous sequence being replayed on the matrix board.
Had Smith ever made such a shot? “Oh, no,” he said. “Never. I just reacted to the ball. I thought I had a good touch on [the outrageous shot].”
And did he sneak a peak at the replay? “You know I did,” Smith said, laughing.
The Hawks would win 91-83 – Smith stole a Mario Chalmers pass and scored to seal the deal – and thus did the big month-plus receive the needed kickstart. They lead Miami by 2½ games, and since the No. 4 seed plays No. 5 in Round 1, with No. 4 having the homecourt edge, it was the sort of game that could resonate well into spring.
The playoffs are a whole ’nother animal, but these next 32 days could tell us if the Hawks are capable of lasting beyond Round 1. Said Mike Woodson: “These are all meaningful teams coming in here with something to play for, and that’s how you want it. It puts you in the mode of playoff basketball … We’ll see what we’re made of.”
On Friday the Hawks were eight points better than their nearest pursuer. On this night they were made of mighty tough stuff.