If ever we needed a reminder that it’s not how you start but how you finish, the Hawks and the Celtics provided it. The Hawks finished third in the NBA East and were 4-0 against the Celtics, who wound up with the East’s No. 4 seed, in the 2009-2010 regular season.
Emphasis on “regular season.”
The Hawks got swept in Round 2 of the playoffs by an aggregate 101 points and were so mortified they dumped their coach and promoted his longtime assistant, which presumably made sense to somebody. The Celtics beat Cleveland in Round 2 and Orlando in Round 3 and reached the NBA finals. And now the Hawks, who were seen seven months ago as a rising power, seem in retreat, while Boston is doing as royalty always does — biding its time until the playoffs.
Seven months ago you’d much rather have been the Hawks than the Celtics, who were regarded as too old and too cranky. Now it’s hard to know what to make of the Hawks, who in the course of 13 games under new coach Larry Drew have managed to muddy the waters even more.
The Celtics arrived at Philips Arena to play the Hawks on Monday, and before the game a Boston writer asked Drew a question containing the E-word. And Drew flat-out admitted that his Hawks don’t deserve to be considered among the NBA’s elite.
“It’s a very difficult challenge,” Drew said. “In order to get to the next step, there has to be more of a sense of urgency with every team we play, not just in certain games.”
Then: “Good teams don’t take possessions off.”
Then: “We’re hoping to get to that level.”
Then: “I don’t know if you can teach it [elitism]. I think you just harp on it.”
Then: “If we were at that [elite] level, there were certainly a couple of ballgames we’d have won. We’d have toughed it out.”
Then: “You can see when the better teams reach a certain point in a game, they tighten it up. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
We pause to ask: Wasn’t the whole point of replacing Mike Woodson with his assistant of six seasons the feeling among ownership that the Hawks were only the right coach away from elite status? (Drew himself conceded Monday: “I think we have the personnel to get to that level.”) If so, why have these Hawks started worse under the kinder, gentler and presumably more innovative Drew than they did a year ago under Woodson?
The Hawks entered Monday’s game 8-5, having lost five of seven after a 6-0 start achieved against an array of opponents listed in Who’s Not Who. Of the Hawks’ eight victories, none had been over a team that holds a winning record. Worse, four of the Hawks’ five losses had come at home.
A year ago the Hawks were 11-2 after 13 games, and those 13 included road stops against the Lakers and the Celtics. Last season’s Hawks lost their first home game on Thanksgiving, their fourth on New Year’s Day. This time a year ago the Hawks appeared much closer to elite than they do today, which makes no sense when you consider that these Hawks are essentially those Hawks plus Jordan Crawford, Josh Powell and Etan Thomas. And Larry Drew.
In sum, the Hawks entered Monday’s game in dire need of a victory over somebody who can actually play. The schedule won’t always be so soft. Of the Hawks’ first six road games, only two had come against a team that made the playoffs last season, and one of those two was against Cleveland, which lost a free agent of some consequence over the summer. And Drew isn’t exactly working under a vote of the utmost confidence: He’s the NBA’s lowest-paid head coach and he’s working on a two-year contract.
Said Drew, speaking of his team’s uphill climb: “We’ll keep working at it. We’ll keep trying to get there.”
Good idea. Better hurry, though.
And with that, the floor is again open for questions, comments and reader submissions as to why Mike Woodson wasn’t so bad after all. I’ll be here all game, and I can already impart one snippet of information: Rajon Rondo, who destroys Mike Bibby, isn’t going to play. That’s the good news. The bad news: Rondo’s backup is Nate Robinson, who does likewise to Bibby. Pick thy point-guard poison.