Let’s not get ahead our ourselves. The Hawks must beat Orlando twice more to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals, and it’s possible the MRI on Derrick Rose’s ankle could show nothing beyond a sprain. But, as we speak, the playoff prospects of these Hawks are looking somewhat better than they did nine days ago.
Ten ESPN analysts picked the Magic to win Round 1. Four SI.com writers likewise tabbed Orlando. None of the watchers on either site took a flier on the Hawks, who are, let’s note, the No. 5 seed. The 4-against-5 series is usually a toss-up thing. (The Hawks needed seven games to beat Miami in one of those two springs back.) But the Hawks were playoff-picking poison when this postseason commenced, and now they’re halfway to a Round 1 victory.
Before tonight’s Game 4, Hawks coach Larry Drew was asked if his team’s sudden success was a function of playing better than it had in a disappointing regular season or a reflection of a specific matchup. “I’d say it’s a combination of both,” he said, and he’s surely correct. The Hawks were 6-16 against teams that won 50 or more games this regular season — but three of those victories came against the team they drew in Round 1.
Much of this has to do with Drew. Even if his players stopped heeding him against certain teams, they pay attention when Orlando’s in the house. “What we were doing against Dwight [Howard, the Orlando center] in the past wasn’t working,” Drew said. “It opened up two cans of worms.”
Meaning: In trying to double-team Howard, the Hawks weren’t denying him much of anything and they were absolutely clearing the perimeter for the Magic shooters. And by switching on every screen — a Mike Woodson staple — the Hawks were left in a never-ending lurch. They couldn’t handle Howard, couldn’t rotate onto shooters, couldn’t stop Jameer Nelson from driving. No wonder they lost a playoff series by 101 points.
The Hawks no longer switch on every screen. The switch only on what Drew calls “same-size” screens. No longer will you see Al Horford trying to shadow a little man like Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings — this actually happened during a late-game possession in Game 4 against Milwaukee last April — and looking lost.
It doesn’t hurt that the Magic shooters aren’t as skilled as they were a year ago. Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus might not have been capable of hoisting the Magic to a championship — that’s why they were traded in December — but they were better standstill shooters than the imported Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas. Better defenders, too.
The Hawks have been the better team in this series. They’re capable of winning it. They showed in Game 3 they were also were capable of wasting a double-digit lead. They won anyway, but subsisting on a banked 3-pointer at the end isn’t a diet for continuing postseason nutrition. The Hawks need to keep the Magic in backpedal. They need to win Game 4 and force Orlando into elimination mode. And if they get to Round 2, who knows how Rose will feel?
The Hawks have again caught our eye. They need to hold it this time. They need to win this series and see if they can carry Round 1 into Round 2 against the Bulls.
Game 4 will go some distance toward deciding who prevails in this one, and we’ll be here to monitor the doings. Please consider joining the online festivities. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.
By Mark Bradley