Sometimes I think we’re too hard on the Hawks, and by “we” I mean not just you but me. It wasn’t so long ago that a team on pace to finish with 50 or so victories this season was losing 69 games in a season. It wasn’t so long ago that we wondered if this franchise would ever again make the playoffs, let alone win a series.
So, just for the record, the Hawks are no longer losers, and they’re nowhere close to being a terrible team. They’re a pretty good team, and they have been since May 2008. And yet …
Being human, we want more.
Said Jamal Crawford, who played on his share of lousy teams before becoming a Hawk in 2009: “Fans are appreciative of how far [the Hawks] have come. But now they’re saying, ‘OK, we want more than the second round [of the playoffs], more than winning close to 50 games.’ ”
We’re about to learn if there is indeed more to these Hawks. This month the Hawks will play the Bulls, Wednesday’s stellar opponent, twice more, and also the Thunder, the Knicks, the Lakers, the Heat and the Magic. And then, on April Fool’s Day, they play the Celtics. All but one of those games will be staged at Philips Arena. If there’s to be a great leap forward, it has to start now.
Said coach Larry Drew, speaking before the game: “The month of March could be a good month, or it could be a bad month … We’re in a position where we control our own destiny.”
Drew’s team awoke Wednesday 2 1/2 games behind Orlando for fifth place in the East, whereupon matters got complicated. Josh Smith, whose tender knee was reported not to require an MRI, didn’t suit up because he was off having … er, an MRI. This forced Drew to cobble together a new starting five, which featured Jason Collins at center, Al Horford at power forward and the new man Kirk Hinrich at point guard.
Early returns weren’t positive. The home team required almost seven minutes to score, by which point the Bulls had put up two touchdowns. Right about here, everyone had visions of those epic home wipeouts — a 23-point loss to Boston, a 41-point loss to New Orleans, a 34-point loss to Philadelphia — that have littered this season. Sure enough, the Bulls led by 17 points at halftime, and nothing suggested the second half wouldn’t double the deficit.
But then a funny thing happened, and by “funny” we mean “improbably stirring.” The Hawks made a stand. They took better shots, played tougher D and beat the Bulls to all the loose balls, of which there were many. In sum, the home side acted as if it was tired of being pushed around at home.
Al Horford, stoked by the sight of his old Gators roommate Joakim Noah, played with a focused fury. Horfy, as Noah used to call him, would finish with 31 points and 16 rebounds, and afterward he’d call it “one of the hardest [effort-wise] games I’ve ever played. Playing a team like the Bulls, without Josh, I had to bring that.”
Said Crawford: “That guy’s special. He’s a winner.”
He was also inspirational. From a budding embarrassment, this became a big-time game between serious opponents. The Hawks spent the second half knocking the Bulls backward, and a Horford free throw — he was fouled by Noah — tied it with 56 seconds left. A Noah free throw — he was fouled by Horford — put the Bulls back ahead.
A Horford dunk off a pick-and-roll with Crawford gave the Hawks their first lead. Then Derrick Rose, who had a terrible second half, fumbled the ball, and Joe Johnson dunked. Then Rose missed and Kyle Korver missed, and it was over.
The Hawks had won without Josh Smith after trailing by 19 points. They’d beaten a team they could see in the playoffs. They’d won at the beginning of a month in which they need to keep winning. They’d won, and for the first time in a long while, it felt as if this win meant something.
By Mark Bradley