Are the Hawks playing better, or is this the right opponent?

It's called wrong-footing the opposition. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

This can serve as a textbook example of wrong-footing the opposition. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

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

96 comments Add your comment

juvenal

April 25th, 2011
11:05 am

good morning,Mark…

me

April 25th, 2011
11:06 am

Josh Smith is a baby, Grow up man!

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:06 am

Good morning, Dr. j. Kudos.

Tale of Woe

April 25th, 2011
11:09 am

I am not surprised that the Hawks have handled the Magic up to this point. We played them well during the regular season. The post-season is all about match-ups and the Hawks match up well against them… It would be more surprising if we lose to them (though, really, that wouldn’t be that surprising). I don’t think we should make this out to be more than it is. The Magic are not that good and the Hawks just match up well against them. Watch the Hawks offense is tough to do. It is abysmal. Where is the ball movement that Drew spoke so highly of? Did we pay Joe Johnson $140 Million just to make a couple of free throws? This team isn’t going anywhere and LD needs to get fired as soon as the Hawks are eliminated. We need a coach who can light a fire under Joe’s butt and get J Smith to understand that he belongs on the low block.

I was pulling my hair out last night watching this team play. It was atrocious (and we somehow won which is really beyond belief)

Rusty

April 25th, 2011
11:23 am

This is a different Magic team than last year’s version that swept and embarrassed the Hawks. Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis abused us a year ago. Orlando panicked early this season with the trades to get Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and Hedu Turkoglu. Michael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat were valuable pieces that departed with VC and Lewis, and they simply don’t match up as well against the Hawks as they used to. Bottom line: this is all about the Magic and NOT the Hawks.

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:25 am

I’d agree that Orlando weakened itself. But it still won 50 games.

NCBravesFan

April 25th, 2011
11:30 am

Assuming they make it to the second round (and with the Hawks “you never know until you know”), we’ll see how the Hawks are able to contend with a team they don’t match up as well against.

Mark: what’s your take on what happened with the Hawks from February on in the regular season? THAT team may have beaten ORL, but I sure wouldn’t have wagered money on it.

WreckBuzz

April 25th, 2011
11:31 am

Maybe this success seems overblown because so far it’s only against one team, but do you not feel more confident that the guy calling the shots (Larry Drew) gives the Hawks a better chance to win against any team than they had with Woodson?

I think the Hawks can match up with the Bulls okay. What they should do against Rose is a similar tactic. Let Rose score 40, but don’t let him be a distributor. Play back and don’t let him penetrate against you and don’t rotate help over allowing him to pass off to an open man. If he scores 50, so what? It’s the same principle that’s beating the Magic. Dwight Howard can’t score 65, and that’s what it would take to win with this scheme.

Ted M

April 25th, 2011
11:31 am

Orlando just looks really bad to me.

Veteran Fan

April 25th, 2011
11:32 am

If JJ shows up in the fourth quarter in game two in Orlando, we would already be talking about the next series! It was good to see him finally taking the ball to the hole in the fourth quarter Sunday and that was the difference! Now if we can finally get Josh to do the same and get a few offensive boards, we can make some noise in these playoffs! Josh forget the threes!

JeJe

April 25th, 2011
11:32 am

Isn’t half this blog from last night or something?

ATTACK THE BASKET

JeJe

April 25th, 2011
11:33 am

MB, do you think we can win tomorrow and finish this inferior team off?

Worried that we will lose tomorrow, take game 6 for granted, and lose game 7

Just win tomorrow.

Should have swept this team

allan in texas

April 25th, 2011
11:33 am

Do the Hawks have a realistic shot at beating the Bulls if they get by the Magic?

JeJe

April 25th, 2011
11:35 am

MB posted half this blog last night LOL

FIRE LD

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:37 am

I think the Hawks pretty much skated through the final two months of the regular season. I don’t know why they did, but that’s how it looks.

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:38 am

And it’s true that the Hinrich trade has helped against Orlando. As Drew said, “He fights through every screen.”

Hinrich makes it much tougher on Jameer Nelson.

D in ATL

April 25th, 2011
11:39 am

It is amazing that if the Hawks either win this series or blow it that it would be no surprise. The more frustrating part is we will face a team in the next round (Chicago) who outside of point guard to their favor and shooting guard to ours, we should be fairly evenly matched. However, they play with passion and discipline, two things we are still yet to prove when playing a team with equal or slightly better talent. Why? Because they have the coach we didn’t consider. What’s even more frustating is that we locked in with Joe Johnson who is a very good player, but lacks top the top end athleticism and leadership expected when offering a max contract. All of this means that even if we pull a even larger upset in Round 2 the cap is already set – not for just this year but for the next 4 – 5 years. I am excited about this series, just frustrated by the lack of both short term and long term vision when it comes to decision-making for this team.

Tale of Woe: I agree. Could you imagine J. Smith playing so undisciplined and out of position with Tom Thibodeau as our coach? Hmmmm…….

Stuart

April 25th, 2011
11:39 am

I agree with Tale of Woe. We are managing to win, but the offense is flat out awful. Lots of dribbling and iso; lots of fade away shots. No ATTACKING THE BASKET, even when Dwight could have been in serious foul trouble (i.e. he would not have fouled). And when, oh when, is Josh Smith ever going to take the ball down low and drive toward the basket instead of settling for these long jumpers? Unless the Hawks start working from the inside out (as opposed to outside in…or really only the outside), it’s the second round that may be quite embarrassing yet again…

[...] …Atlanta Hawks Contain Dwight Howard, Stifle Magic Shooters In Playoff WinSB Nation ArizonaAre the Hawks playing better, or is this the right opponent?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Magic season is now on life supportBoston HeraldLos Angeles [...]

dap01

April 25th, 2011
11:42 am

We are being tougher but it is scary on relying on 25 foot bank shots always going in.

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:42 am

I’ve been a big Josh Smith defender over the years. But I thought he was pretty bad in Game 4.

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:43 am

Having said that: Josh Smith did make the hook shot that put the Hawks ahead to stay.

This Gets Old!

April 25th, 2011
11:43 am

Not to kill the buzz but this is more about what Orlando is not rather than what the Hawks appear to be. I find it difficult to criticize success but there still is no offense. If you can watch a Hawks game without once cringing while thinking “What are they doing?” then you’re not really watching. As I tried to write last night winning this series brings no more confidence in them than at any other time.

OT

April 25th, 2011
11:46 am

Enjoyable article, Mr. Bradley. You asked the question, dissected the reasonings, and threw in a few quotes and statistics, which I liked to see. One of your better articles in recent months, thank you.

Old Blue

April 25th, 2011
11:48 am

What ever happened to Woodson? He seems to have become invisible.

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:51 am

Mike Woodson has expressed his interest in the Houston coaching position.

bfred

April 25th, 2011
11:54 am

Rick Adelman, folks. Heck, I think any top-flight coach would look at this talent pool and salivate.

PMC

April 25th, 2011
11:55 am

Agree with Drew, combination of both.

PMC

April 25th, 2011
11:55 am

The good news about Josh having a bad game in game 4 may mean that he will be the difference in game 5.

bfred

April 25th, 2011
11:56 am

Gaah – Mark, I wish I’d waited a couple of minutes longer to post my comment – I live in Houston now and will freaking kill myself if the Rockets hire Woodson. But thankfully I don’t really see it happening.

Mark Bradley

April 25th, 2011
11:59 am

Mike Woodson isn’t a bad coach. He could be stubborn about certain things, though.

oldmike

April 25th, 2011
12:00 pm

Hard watching this series. Pretty awful basketball by both teaqms most of the game. But I will say this year’s Hawks playoff incarnation does have a bit of fire in them that last year’s didn’t. Maybe it is the result of the different scheme. It exploits our strengths and their weaknesses. But to make a significant run they will have to play smart for 4 quarters not 2 per game. And the ball will need to move more and Teague will need to get off the bench to run at Rose at times.

biz

April 25th, 2011
12:06 pm

The defense looks improved (Henrich plus a more viable game plan?) but the offense still looks pretty bad unless those long 2’s are falling (thank you Crawford). We flail around and toss up the j without setting a play or stand around wasting 10 seconds only to have JS shoot a three(?). We are talented and can be physical but either we don’t understand what we are supposed to be doing, refuse to do it or the offensive gameplan is just plain bad. Dwight is a great defender but our refusal to drive to the basket is kinda scary (didnt we used to run and play inside more last year?).

biz

April 25th, 2011
12:08 pm

“Mike Woodson isn’t a bad coach. He could be stubborn about certain things, though.”

You mean like sitting Horford with two fouls?

Ward

April 25th, 2011
12:12 pm

I think it is about match-ups and timing… for once the Hawks catch a break. I am starting to get giddy about playing a Chicago team that the Hawks match-up well with too. Especially if Rose is limited 15-20% with a bum ankle. I just have a feeling that we will beat the Bulls and play the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals… WOW; I cannot believe I said that and actually believe it. If that does turn out to be the case, I think we would have a chance against the Celtics.

Walker, Texas Ranger

April 25th, 2011
12:13 pm

Right opponent, Hawks too athletic for Magic but length of Bulls will be too much for Hawks in round 2 (unless Magic start hitting their 3’s which is why they won 50).

BravesFan79

April 25th, 2011
12:21 pm

The Hawks can beat the Bulls in the next round, but they cannot have stretches like in the 2nd quarter of last night were they seemingly tried their best to let the Magic come back. Bad shot after bad shot!
Does Josh Smith wanna win a Title or not!?? Take it to the HOLE Josh!! Stop shooting so many outside shots! And why in the world is he standing on the perimiter instead of crashing the offensive boards??

Time

April 25th, 2011
12:22 pm

Yes, it’s a different Orlando team than last year. I don’t know if it’s any better or worse. They looked really good against us last year, but got destroyed by Boston in the conference finals last year. So, I don’t think they were anything special last year, and never were this year, before or after the trade. Last year the Hawks played awful, as Bradley notes had a bad strategy and ended up quitting.

So, given that Orlando wasn’t that good last year, still won over 50 this year, I’d say this series lead is much more about the Hawks improvement than Magic decline.

Talking about future matchups is always dangerous (especially for Atlanta teams) but I think they match up fairly well against the Bulls. Who I think are pretty overrated at this point. No team that relies as heavily on a scoring PG has ever won a title in the NBA. So, they’re not some unstoppable force as some would suggest.

BravesFan79

April 25th, 2011
12:25 pm

The guy the Hawks need to hire as coach is Jeff Van Gundy! Easily one of the top defensive coaches in the league! I watched his teams in NY, and Houston, and they played smart and with passion.

Dr. Warren

April 25th, 2011
12:28 pm

LD is one win away from keeping his job, unless the Hawks get to the second round and got clobbered as badly as last year. One thing is for certain: Thibodeau will coaches circles around LD.

Stockdog

April 25th, 2011
12:28 pm

I totally agree with you Mark, the Hawks coasted the last 2 months of the season and took the last 2 weeks off completely. Woodson’s stubborn believe in thinking that he was always right is why he got fired. If he had made any significant adjustment last year and won one game against the Magic, the ASG would have kept him. Woodson, like Josh Smith, is his on worst enemy.
As for the Bulls, if the Hawks would stop playing iso-Joe and iso-Jamal ball and pass around the perimeter, they could beat Chicago. However, the basketball IQ of the Hawks is 5 points below Forest Gump’s. So, Chicago in 5.

yeahsure

April 25th, 2011
12:28 pm

With Zaza coming back, LD can actually bench Josh when he starts being Josh. Jamal Crawford is clutch but man, distribute the ball some when there’s time on the shot clock.

Ted Turner was in attendance. C’mon Ted, you saw the passion when we have a competitive team. Buy Them!!!

JASon

April 25th, 2011
12:33 pm

“By double-teaming Howard, they freed the Orlando shooters.”

There you have it. The reason orlando has led the league in 3 pointers the past 3 years is because teams double Howard. They simple channel the ball to the man who is left open. Its much easier to hit a 3 pointer with no one in your face. For Stan van Gundy to act like he has no clue why his shooters are missing open shots is just a lie. He knows, but he does not want to say it, because it exposes his entire system: man up on Howard, and you can embarass the Magic’s offense.

tom

April 25th, 2011
12:41 pm

wasn’t isaiah thomas a scoring PG who won a title?

Section 212

April 25th, 2011
12:46 pm

We need more “Gorilla Dunks” from Josh like he had in the 2nd qtr than the 3’s. Only if Smoove understood that he is his own worse enemy. I expect a dominant game from Smoove in game 5. Also, Horford should have a break out game since Orlando will start running an extra man at JC.

gcs

April 25th, 2011
12:54 pm

Orlando is too one-dimensional. It’s all about Dwight.

There is no way the Hawks can beat Miami, Boston or Chicago in the next round.

.

clay

April 25th, 2011
12:57 pm

Does anyone realize that the reason we have been shooting outside is because of guy named dwight howard. I mean he is a beast in there and anything inside will just get blocked. If they go on and face the bulls you will see alot more of al and josh down low.

bfred

April 25th, 2011
1:00 pm

Mark, Woodson may not be a bad coach but I’d be hard pressed to say he’s a good one either. Houston has a lot of scrappy young talent right now and I’d hate to see what his development “skills” would do to those guys. It’s been a largely successful franchise under guys like Tomjonovich (sp??), Van Gundy and Adelman. Coaches who command respect and demand defensive intensity, and are good in-game generals. LD could be one of those guys; he already showed more in his prep for Orlando than Woodson ever did.

DawgDad

April 25th, 2011
1:01 pm

I’m not a deep follower of the NBA anymore, but I’ve tuned in to this playoff series to root for the home team. The Hawks remain a deeply flawed team. What team, nursing a tenous lead with a minute twenty something left in the game, calls a timeout then comes out and STANDS AROUND idle with no movement whatsover in the half-court offense, settling for a forced shot? No picks, no cuts through the lane, no nothing. Even if the Magic put up an unexpected defense, there is a point guard out there for a reason, right? This kind of thing happens over and over, it was just painfully obvious in the last couple of minutes there. What have these guys been doing all year?

I give them credit for working hard on defense against the Magic. It has been very refreshing watching this, as compared to the typical regular season effort. But man, their offense is all guard and Josh Smith isolations, not team play, and they’re not going very far on that formula.

honest_abe

April 25th, 2011
1:02 pm

this orlando team is nowhere close to last years team. 50 wins in the regular season means squat. the hawks proved that last year. they got rid of guys that were terrible matchups for the hawks. vince always had good games against the birds, pietrus was an athletic defender who could shoot, gortat gave them a size advantage even when dwight went to the bench and rashard pulled our best defensvie rebounder out to the perimeter. the magic are a million times worse than last year. and no thats not an exaggeration.