This is the strangest Hawks’ team I’ve ever covered, and I’ve seen some doozies. It got the head coach it wanted — Larry Drew, who’d been Mike Woodson’s kinder, gentler assistant for six seasons — and has performed as if it wants him to become an ex-head coach very soon.
Example: On March 2 the Hawks surged from 19 points down to beat Chicago. Afterward they spouted the usual this-proves-we-can-beat-anybody platitudes. They lost their next four games.
Another: On April 1 the Hawks beat the Celtics, prompting Al Horford to suggest his team has started to “figure things out.” They’ve since lost five in a row, the latest coming Monday against the star-spangled Miami Heat in a game the Hawks didn’t try to win but almost did anyway.
Did I mention that this is an odd team?
The playoffs begin this weekend. Drew acts as if he doesn’t know what to do with his club, which isn’t surprising. Dr. Jack Ramsay crossed with Dr. Sigmund Freud wouldn’t know, either. The Hawks have suffered so many egregious losses — Saturday’s loss to 22-win Washington was the fourth of the season by 30-plus points — that you’d swear they can’t play a lick. But sometimes, for reasons unclear, they do.
This is essentially the same team that won 53 games last season. It’s 44-37 with one to go, and even near its end Drew has seemed unsure how to proceed. Speaking before Monday’s game, he said: “When we got in the situation of being locked in as the No. 5 seed, I had every intention of limiting guys’ minutes.”
On the other hand: “I don’t care who the opponent is — I want to see us come out with energy and focus after the way we’ve played the last two games.”
On yet another hand, regarding the riddle of how a resting team can then re-light its fire: “I don’t know if we are good enough to do that.”
Maybe Drew found what he sought in Monday’s fourth quarter. The Hawks’ B-team — no starter worked a fourth-quarter minute — surged from 12 points down and rattled Miami, which was obviously trying to win. (LeBron James played the entire second half.) With 3:28 left the game was tied. Was this VCU-Kansas or what?
Nope. James Jones converted a four-point play and then made a trey. The Hawks lost again. But can you begrudge such an effort from the likes of Josh Powell and Damien Wilkins? Which prompts another question: Why don’t all the Hawks play this hard all the time?
It’s clear that most of whatever message Drew has sought to impart as head coach hasn’t gotten through. He inherited a roster of gifted players, and under his stewardship this has become just another bunch of jump shooters. The Drew-designed cutback on isolations for Joe Johnson have seen the $120 million man go from being the NBA’s 11th-leading scorer last season to 26th-best now.
Worst of all, there has been no consistency of effort. The Hawks can still play when they’re of a mind, but their response to Drew — or, more precisely, the lack of same — is indicative of a team that has tuned out a long-time head coach, not someone who has worked only 81 games.
And yet … Drew has done one thing that gives this uninspiring and uninspired team a chance to play beyond Round 1. He has done what Woodson would not: Chosen to guard Orlando’s Dwight Howard one-on-one, the result being that the Magic’s gaggle of shooters remains covered. “We’ve kept ourselves out of so many rotations,” Drew said.
As luck would have it, the Hawks will play Orlando in Round 1, and this Magic team isn’t half as potent as it was. (Orlando dismissed the Hawks by an aggregate 101 points over four games in the 2010 playoffs; the Hawks won three times in four this season.) Jason Collins isn’t much of a player, but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to pester Dwight Howard so the other four Hawks can keep guarding the other four Magic men.
This will likewise make no sense, but here it is: There’s not much about these Hawks I like, but I like their chances of beating Orlando.
By Mark Bradley