At issue is whether the Hawks lead 3-1 because they’re playing better or because they’re playing the Magic. Asked that question before Sunday’s Game 4, Hawks coach Larry Drew said: “I’d say it’s a combination of both.”
The Hawks were 6-18 in the regular season against teams that won 50-plus games. Half of those six victories came against Orlando, which became the only team that mattered once the playoffs commenced. Even if almost nobody else felt good about the 82 games they’d played, the Hawks felt good about their chances against Orlando.
The Hawks accomplished little from October through mid-April, but they did manage this: They learned to play the team that humiliated them. “Whatever we were trying to do against them hadn’t worked,” Drew said, and here we come to a key point: If it had worked, Drew wouldn’t be the head coach.
Mike Woodson presided over a team that went from 13-69 in 2004-2005 to one capable of gaining the East’s No. 3 seed last season. He oversaw an ever-improving record and two Round 1 series victories. But his insistence on double-teaming Dwight Howard in Round 2 last spring led to a loss of such historic dimensions that it overrode most everything the coach had accomplished.
Game 4 of the 2010 Hawks-Magic series was played on a Monday, two nights after the visitors had won Game 3 at Philips Arena by 30 points. Hawks ownership learned after the morning shootaround that Woodson planned to do again as he’d done — doubled Howard — in Game 4. The decision to fire him was essentially made that afternoon.
Sure enough, the Magic would make 16 3-point shots in Game 4. Howard scored only 13 points, but his team won by 14. The Hawks players knew their method was doomed, which is why they quit on Woodson that series.
NBA teams don’t usually quit in the playoffs because there’s pride involved, but those Hawks did. They felt as if they’d been given no chance. By double-teaming Howard, they freed the Orlando shooters. Drew’s evocative description: “We opened up two cans of worms.”
Drew’s plan has been to make Howard score 40. Sure enough, he scored 46 in Game 1 — and his team lost by 10. There came a time in Game 4 where he was working with disdain against Hilton Armstrong, and the Hawks’ measured response was to run a guard at him but not to deploy a full-blown double-team. It takes guts to keep guarding a man one-on-one when he’s so obviously better than his defender, but against Orlando that’s the only way that works.
Drew again on his Magic scheme: “We’ve stayed away from so many rotations.” Meaning: The other Hawks can stick with their assigned men, as opposed to sagging off and chasing back.
Another Woodson staple was to switch every screen, leading some opponents to create quick-on-slow mismatches. Drew’s Hawks will make “only same-size switches,” he said. Meaning: No Al Horford trying to shadow the 6-foot-1 Brandon Jennings, an actual pairing that led to the key Milwaukee basket in a Game 4 victory last April.
Remember those 16 treys Orlando made in the close-out game a year ago? The Magic have made 21 3-pointers this entire series. They were 2-for-23 in Game 4. Even after two December trades diluted the level of shooting, Orlando still led the NBA in 3-pointers. By staying home against those shooters, the Hawks have taken that away. That’s coaching.
What we’re seeing from the Hawks is both departure and continuation. They don’t play this well against anybody else of comparable worth, but they came in knowing they could hang with Orlando. As Jamal Crawford said after Game 3: “Even after we lost the first game [of the regular season] to them, Coach Drew said, ‘We’re going to beat this team.’ ” (Fact check: The Hawks are 6-1 against Orlando since.)
After his team threw back a 16-point lead Sunday, Drew said: “We made some plays that weren’t very characteristic of us and took some ill-advised shots.” Actually, such plays are entirely in keeping with the Hawks, but in this series they’ve been stout enough to overcome their excesses. (They do have talent, you know.)
To answer the question: Yes, they’re playing a bit better — Crawford didn’t have a run like this during the regular season — but the reason they’re leading 3-1 is that they’re facing the one good team they know they can beat. And yes, it’s the same team, give or take, that beat them by 101 points a year ago. Go figure.
By Mark Bradley