There was something old (Joe Smith, who’s 34), something new (Jeff Teague, who’s a rookie), something borrowed (Jamal Crawford, acquired from Golden State) and something blue (the Hawks’ pregame warmup shorts). There was a brand new bench, which did its part, and better balance among the starters. And at the end there was …
He deferred to Josh Smith and Al Horford for a half, and then the Hawks’ best player reminded us that, even though this team has more good players than at any time in two decades, he’s still the Hawks’ best player. And if that’s the new method — let others get involved early and let JJ save it for later — it just might work.
The Hawks weren’t smashing in their opener. They yielded 65 points to tepid Indiana in a half — is Willie Martinez coaching basketball? — and trailed in the fourth quarter. They held — wrong word, I know — Danny Granger to 31 points. But they won pulling away, and en route they dropped powerful hints that this might well be the best Hawks team in … oh, two decades.
Something old: Johnson scoring 17 second-half points. Something new: Horford taking 17 shots. Something borrowed (from John Stockton): Josh Smith making eight assists and five steals and scoring 18 points on only 10 shots. Something blue (presumably): Jason Collins, a veteran big man who signed as a free agent but who went unused.
Before the game, Mike Woodson had been asked about the strange new feeling of having 11 real players at his disposal. Said the coach: “You can’t find 30 minutes a night for 11 or 12 guys.” Also this: “I will not sacrifice games just to satisfy someone.”
Which is why we saw the Hawks’ bench work long minutes in the second and third quarters but only a total of five in the fourth. “I kind of jumped my bench for losing the lead,” Woodson said. Then: “We’re all trying to get used to each other, especially them to me.”
Something new: Johnson having a tepid half and the Hawks still being in position to seize the game. Something old: Johnson seizing the game. He had 10 points and four assists in the fourth quarter, and two of those assists resulted in Mike Bibby treys. Which meant JJ had a hand in 20 of the Hawks’ 25 final points.
“I kind of wanted to get into the flow [earlier],” Johnson said. “But I was feeding off [Josh Smith and Horford]. They carried us in the first half.”
Seventeen shots for Horford? Was this by design? “We were just playing basketball,” he said. And then, sounding like Urban Meyer: “We were taking what the defense gives us.”
Something else new: Ten different Hawks working at least 10 minutes, none exceeding 40. “We are [deep],” said Rick Sund, the general manager who fleshed out this roster. “But it’s going to take some time for Woody to equate the combos.”
Ultimately the Hawks wore down the Pacers. Indiana scored 65 points in the first half, only 15 in the fourth quarter. This wasn’t so much pretty basketball — though there were instances of that, the most notable being a Bibby-to-Johnson-to-Josh fast break — as it was inexorable basketball. And only the best teams can be described as inexorable.
Before the game, Woodson said of his players: “If they continue to grow, we’ve got a chance to be in the hunt the next three or four years.” And they do.
The new Hawks didn’t trip the light fantastic in Game 1, but neither did they trip over themselves. For the first time in two decades, the pieces are in place. These guys could go places.