Speaking before his team’s home opener, the NBA’s reigning sixth man of the year said: “We’ve got a whole new scheme, a whole new everything.”
Jamal Crawford was right, but also wrong. The Hawks have a new head coach, even though Larry Drew has been on staff the past six seasons. They have a new offense, even though it wound up looking like the old offense in the fourth quarter Saturday night. They have the same core personnel, even if it is being differently deployed.
As much as we might want to call these the Same Old Hawks, they’re not quite. (Not that being the Same Old Hawks was all that terrible. They did win 53 games and claim the No. 3 seed in the NBA East last season.) But they’re not the Brand New Hawks, either.
I know. It’s kind of confusing. The Hawks won Friday in Philadelphia with Joe Johnson taking fewer shots than Al Horford or Josh Smith and working the fourth-fewest minutes among starters. They won here Saturday with Johnson playing 43 minutes and 28 seconds — a regulation game is 48 minutes — and taking eight of the team’s 20 fourth-quarter shots and scoring five of its nine fourth-quarter baskets.
Said Drew: “Joe — obviously he’s our guy.”
Which sounded odd, given that Drew’s case for being promoted to head coach was essentially, “I’m not like Mike.” (Meaning Mike Woodson, who requested two weeks ago in a high-decibel phone conversation that his name no longer be invoked in this correspondent’s discussion of the Hawks. That request has been inspected and rejected.)
Woodson’s Way was to give the ball to Johnson — Iso-Joe, as it became known — and get out of his way. The Drew Method involves more ball movement and less reliance on one man. And yet, come the season’s third game, here was Joe Johnson doing pretty much the Joe Johnson thing.
Drew’s explanation: “[The Washington Wizards] ran a lot of zone. We went to some of our zone offense.”
Whatever the cause, this was the effect: Drew is 3-0 as a head coach and the Hawks, who needed a good start to win back some of the good will lost by the egregious playoff exit against Orlando, emerged from the season’s first week unblemished. Even if this game seemed a throwback … whatever works, right?
Said Smith, who scored 10 points and took eight rebounds despite misplacing his signature headband during the second half: “We got the job done tonight. We definitely had to grind it out.”
About the headband: Where’d it go? “It got missing. I was looking for another one. My face got too sweaty. I feel naked without it.”
About the game’s biggest basket, a set play called by Drew inside the final two minutes that ended with Smith feeding Horford for a one-handed lob dunk: “It was the perfect play. [Mike] Bibby is the best screener on the team — ask anybody — and he got Horford’s man.”
If it wasn’t always pretty — it was, to be fair, the Hawks’ third game in four nights — it yielded the needed result. The Hawks won 99-95 and have as yet been afforded no reason to doubt themselves. And that’s good. And so, in its way, was this:
After scoring 25 points and making the shots that counted, Johnson offered his thanks to those in attendance. (The game was announced as a sellout. In truth, it was rather less.) You’ll recall that the same Johnson said after Game 3 against Orlando that he cared not a whit what the fans thought. But here were his words Saturday: “It’s great to see everyone come out and show us support.”
So that part really was new. Maybe these aren’t the Same Old Hawks after all.