The Hawks are playing great. So what the heck happened?

Al Horford menaces Carlos Boozer. So who's got the upper hand now? (AP photo)

Al Horford menaces Carlos Boozer. So who's got the upper hand now? (AP photo)

Chicago — More than just disappointing, the way the Hawks played this regular season was maddening. A team of such talent shouldn’t lose 38 games, shouldn’t be beaten so badly at home, shouldn’t be outscored over an 82-game schedule. But that’s in the past, and that team is not this team.

In the 17 days since the playoffs began, the Hawks have become something else. They’ve become the team we suspected was there all along — a team of surpassing skill and depth, a team that understands, as Joe Johnson said before practice Tuesday, “we can beat any team in this league.”

Yeah, we’ve heard that before. We’ve heard it since the Hawks forced the champs-to-be Boston Celtics to the wall in 2008. But now, for the first time in a while, we’re seeing it. We’ve been reminded that the gushing opposing coaches keep doing over the Hawks’ personnel isn’t just lip service.

Not many teams can put more good players on the floor at one time than these Hawks. The Orlando Magic, who had the league’s defensive player of the year, could not. In Game 1 here Monday, the Chicago Bulls, who have the NBA’s MVP, could not. When the Hawks manage to play to their capacity, not many teams can stay with them.

But here we return to the regular season, and we note: Peak capacity was seldom attained. Against teams that won 50 or more games, the Hawks were 6-18. (And three of those victories were against Orlando.)

So what went wrong that has since gone right? Said Al Horford of the regular season: “Guys were just focused on the playoffs, and now we’re in the playoffs. And for the first time I truly believe we have a real opportunity.”

They do. They beat Orlando, which squashed them last spring, in a series that, apart from the Game 5 mail-in, was played entirely to the Hawks’ tune. They made 51.3 percent of their shots in Game 1 against a Chicago defense that was the NBA’s most efficient. In a way it’s not surprising to see a team of such resources bring those resources to bear, but in another way it’s stunning to see the Hawks figuring it out.

Horford again: “We knew we have talent. We just got distracted [during the regular season]. We were very inconsistent.”

And now? “It’s amazing what can happen when all the guys are tuned in and locked into what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Are you surprised by the Hawks?

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“Amazing” describes the doings of Monday night. The Hawks were without Kirk Hinrich, acquired for the express purpose of guarding point guards in the playoffs, but with Jeff Teague in for Hinrich they looked better than they’d looked since … when? Game 6 of the Boston series in 2008? Game 7 of the Boston series in 1988?

Said Jamal Crawford, who along with Johnson has given the Hawks, at least in these playoffs, a finely balanced finishing tandem: “We’re getting better at handling adversity.”

Two days before the regular season ended, coach Larry Drew said of his Hawks, who were in the process of losing their final six games: “I’m not sure we’re good enough to flip the switch.” On Tuesday, he admitted that’s exactly what has occurred. It’s not often a team works six tepid months and re-invents itself, but that’s what we’re seeing.

The Hawks themselves don’t act surprised by what they’ve done, even if everyone else is. When last they’d faced Chicago, they trailed by 47 points at home. In Game 1 they led 9-0 after three minutes. Same two teams, radically different result. And that’s the beauty of talent: It has no memory.

Gifted players always feel confident, even when common sense suggests they shouldn’t. Just because the Hawks didn’t make many big shots or key stops in December or March hasn’t dissuaded them now. As Josh Smith said: “We understand how talented we are.”

Then: “We’re playing to our ability. We’re playing to our talent.”

Then Smith added one word. “Finally,” he said.

By Mark Bradley

88 comments Add your comment

Reid Adair

May 3rd, 2011
3:12 pm

I think Kenny Smith nailed it on the TNT post-game show last night. He said the Hawks lose when they take terrible shots; last night, he said, they moved the ball and took good shots.

He obviously was ignoring all of the missed jump shots by Josh Smith, but I think everyone has pretty much given up on trying to convince Smith to take the ball to the basket.

Bill

May 3rd, 2011
3:14 pm

MT

May 3rd, 2011
3:14 pm

Great column. It was a maddening regular season but I can definitely tell that their tempo on offense has been ramped up considerably and now that defense is more than an afterthought they are limiting scoring opportunities galore.

Reid Adair

May 3rd, 2011
3:15 pm

I think Kenny Smith nailed it on the TNT post-game show last night. He said the Hawks lose when they take terrible shots; last night, he said, they moved the ball well and took good shots.

Obviously he was ignoring all of Josh Smith’s missed jumpers, but I think most fans have given up on getting Smith to take the ball to the basket.

TylerThe Creator

May 3rd, 2011
3:15 pm

Not suprised at all Bulls are just a regular season team

BobDawg

May 3rd, 2011
3:16 pm

The Hawks are playing with House Money in my opinion…. No Pressure since they are a #5 seed… Keep playing total team ball and see where it goes from here!

GO HAWKS!!!!

Mark Bradley

May 3rd, 2011
3:19 pm

The Chicago Bulls have issues. Didn’t think I’d say that, but here we are.

Bill

May 3rd, 2011
3:19 pm

Finally after all this time!

Anyway, this season really took a toll on me as a Hawks fan. It was so frustrating to see this much talent being run out of the building, but now, I can finally see what it looks like when they put it all together. Unfortunately, for most fans, we still can’t get too excited because of their recent history of falling apart at key moments. Win or lose, I just want to see a team busting their ass (Marvin diving for the loose ball last night) instead of quitting when the pressure is on (too many games to post). GO HAWKS!

BobDawg

May 3rd, 2011
3:20 pm

Also Teague has fresh legs and is driving to the Rack which is getting us good up close looks for shots… We have to take their best shot in this next game. Wondering how good Derrick Rose will be with his ankle now becoming a nagging problem…

clay

May 3rd, 2011
3:22 pm

Its def nice to have another sports team to root for in this town. I think they can do this and get to the eastern finals. That would be really good for the team and this town. I know everyone and even myself complains about j smith, but you have to agree he showed up in the 4th quarter. Keep it up and GO HAWKS. (Never thought I would be saying that.)

Bill

May 3rd, 2011
3:24 pm

BobDawg, good point on Teague having fresh legs. I thought about that last night prior to the game and wondered if he may just catch the Bulls by surprise. Great game by the young Hawk! Now, if we can just get Josh a Basketball for Dummies 101 book before game 2.

Just The Facts

May 3rd, 2011
3:24 pm

Mark the “not many teams can put as many good players on the floor at once, not even the Bulls” is certainly not the tune you were singing prior to the series beginning. Got a side gig at “Waffle” house? You writers kill me:)

steve brown

May 3rd, 2011
3:26 pm

Unprofessionally they took a good part of the season off. Now they are minimizing the damage that Josh Smith causes to his own team while using fresh legs and some teamwork to play their best ball of the season.

Mark Bradley

May 3rd, 2011
3:27 pm

I’ve never said the Hawks didn’t have talent. I questioned whether their talent blended as well as the Bulls do.

Joey

May 3rd, 2011
3:35 pm

Even when he is missing jumpers, Josh impacts the game with pretty good passing skills, blocking shots in the paint, running the court on fast breaks, and rebounding.

And, he did finally hit a 16 footer late last night with the game on the line.

ole richie

May 3rd, 2011
3:35 pm

For the first time this season IMO Joe Johnson earned that contract. He and Jamal carried us offensively. Jeff Teague was outstanding on defense and the points he scored were an added bonus. If we can get Josh Smith driving to the basket and utilizing his athletic advantage over Carlos Boozer and let Al Horford work the boards and hit the mid range shot then i firmly believe the Hawks have a great shot at winning this series in 6 games!

blazerdawg

May 3rd, 2011
3:39 pm

Not surprised by the talent. Somewhat surprised by the coaching in the two series. Very surprised at the effort – going for loose balls, improved rebounding, hustle back on defense. Glad to see it -this team is as talented as the mid-late 80s Hawks teams, which were very, very good during an inconvenient era.

supa

May 3rd, 2011
3:41 pm

Teague looked terrific yesterday. He can be our Rondo. He doesn’t have to take many shots…just drive the ball and make good passes. There’s no one else on the Hawks that has both of those skills. And we’ve all seen that when they move and pass, the results are usually good.

I’m afraid, though, that after all this praise and the fact that they have 3 home games coming up, Game 2 may be a lackluster effort again. I hope I’m wrong, though.

Crazy Fan

May 3rd, 2011
3:55 pm

Just saying with that win alone, the hawks have done better than years prior, and therefore should give Larry a year extension on his contract. I mean game planing have been great these playoffs, can’t take that away from him.

real atl

May 3rd, 2011
3:55 pm

PLEASE JOSH SMITH DONT MESS UP TEAM CHEMISTRY WITH SELFISH PLAY WHY DO YOU STAY PLANTED BEHIND THE 3 POINT LINE INSTEAD OF GOING HARD IN THE PAINT. ARE U SCARED TO BANG WE HAVE ENOUGH JUMP SHOOTERS AN ONE IS NOT YOU PLEASE PLEASE GO HARD IN THE PAINT

Beast from the East

May 3rd, 2011
3:58 pm

All I can say is….WOW! Where has this team been hiding all year? LD has done a FANTASTIC job in the playoffs of creating great match-ups for his guys and keeping them grounded and focused.
WOW!

newkid

May 3rd, 2011
4:00 pm

Playing better, yes; playing well enough to win against Magic and Bulls, yes; playing great, absolutely not. Saying the Hawks are playing great is like arguing that one can commit suicide by leaping from the basement window. Some of these cats are indeed giving much more effort than they showed in the regular season, some are playing with intelligence and situational awareness, and some are allowing themselves to be coached much more than in the regular season. If they’d played half a season with the same focus and commitment many now show, the ‘team’ performance would have been honed to a point where they’d blow teams like the Bulls and the current Magic out of the arena by 20+ most nights. Tragically, we’re only getting a smidgen of a glimpse of what ‘playing great’ could mean for this team. And that is indeed unfortunate.

Not A Hewitt Fan

May 3rd, 2011
4:08 pm

Who the hell was wearing Joe’s number, and where is Joe Johnson?

Stockdog

May 3rd, 2011
4:12 pm

I am totally thrilled. I’ve followed this team since the Lou Hudson, Pete Maravich days and I was totally shocked by their performance last night. This team has talent but it their problem is between their ears. We will see.

Vick Supporter

May 3rd, 2011
4:16 pm

Philips is going to be ROCKING this Friday

Peachtree Corners

May 3rd, 2011
4:22 pm

I have always said that the main problem with the pro game is that no one plays basketball until the playoffs.

Ron in Vegas

May 3rd, 2011
4:25 pm

When looking over the comments in the Hawks blogs over the past two months, I would estimate that at least 70% of the comments are directed at Josh Smith and his shot taking decisions. Mark, can you please tell me if all of us basketball fans are recognizing this, how can Hawks coaches and management not see this???? Can those entities not get this into Josh Smiths obviously thick skull???? What will it take for this grown man to listen????

BjohnDawg

May 3rd, 2011
4:28 pm

If they lose it will be because Josh Smith continues to make poor shot selections.Others are playing within themselves and that is the key. Josh will barf up any old shot. 28% from 3 point range does not do it.
They also need to start doing a better job of boxing out on defense. They have been fortunate on that respect last night and against Orlando. that will not be the case as the quality of teams improve.

But so far so good. Like the way they have played as a team.

doc

May 3rd, 2011
4:39 pm

what issues mark do you see?

Vick Supporter

May 3rd, 2011
4:41 pm

If we get 20pts from Marvin we will win again in Chicago

chas

May 3rd, 2011
4:41 pm

We still haven’t seen these Hawks play to their ability, but they are showing signs. If they can focus on team defense and move the ball around on offense they can be very very good. I don’t know if we will get past the Bulls, but we have proven that we can. If we could get a good post up presence in the offseason and Teague starts to mature I feel very good going forward.

HEY BRADLEY

May 3rd, 2011
4:48 pm

HOW CAN YOU WRITE THAT HEADLINE TWO DAYS AND ONE GAME AFTER YOUR PREVIOUS HEADLINE OF “REALITY WILL SET IN DURING SECOND ROUND”??????

You, sir, make me sick.

mike

May 3rd, 2011
5:02 pm

First, I’m a Bulls fan. All i kept hearing in chicago and nationally was how the Bulls would beat the Hawks in 5. I never thought that. Obviously, the Hawks can flat out shoot. They also have played well defensively against Orlando and last night. That was the worst i’ve seen Derrick Rose play all season and much of it was because of the defense. If Rose can’t elevate his game and Bulls d doesn’t step up this one could be Hawks in 6.

Beast from the East

May 3rd, 2011
5:05 pm

@HEY BRADLEY,
I think his headline says it all (The Hawks are playing great. So what the heck happened?). Most rational fans would not have expected these results so far in the postseason based on what we saw all year. Be sick if you want to. Most of us only believe what we can see.
Having said that……………Go Hawks!

Dawg Reflections

May 3rd, 2011
5:14 pm

Has anyone considered the fact that Josh Smith just does not handle the ball very well? If he gets the ball on the perimeter he can’t get to the rim without dribbling, something that is difficult for a man of his size. I think his position on the court has had a lot to do with his jump shooting, particularly against Orlando where he was playing the 3 much of the game. His defense is outstanding every night. Posting him up, he should be getting to the rim a lot more.

Stuart

May 3rd, 2011
5:20 pm

Realistic chances the Hawks will win Game 2 and come home with a 2-0 lead…? Mark? Anyone?

ag

May 3rd, 2011
5:23 pm

“Now they’re here again, and an even bigger chill has fallen: Kirk Hinrich, the man designated to defuse Chicago’s Derrick Rose, is listed as “doubtful” for the series with a bad hamstring. The only way for the Hawks ever to reach the Eastern Conference finals, a place they’ve never been, might be if the league grants them a bye.” -Mark Bradley
ag
April 29th, 2011
4:50 pm
Funny how a lot of you think KH is the X factor for this series. Rose has gone ‘ham’ in two of the three games they played. The real X factor is Jeff Teague (even if KH is not injured). Will Woody-Lite play an 80% KH or a 100% JT. I think JT will have a good series.
ag
April 30th, 2011
4:13 pm
The Hawks will win in 6 if JT averages 30 minutes per game

ag

May 3rd, 2011
5:23 pm

Wanted to repost

MitchC

May 3rd, 2011
5:24 pm

I dont know where the other blog went, but I’ll comment on this one.

No, Stuart. Realistically, I dont think the Hawks will win Game 2. I’m not being negative.. I just think the Bulls know they have to win Game 2, because.. as I said in the other blog, conceivably, the Hawks are now in position to sweep their three home games, and win the series.

If the Hawks win Game 2, the Bulls will then be in serious trouble. I’m a veteran of too many baseball and basketball playoffs.. to say.. “Up 2-0 going home is “over”, but.. if the Bulls go down 2-0 going back to Atlanta, that would spell huge problems for them.

ag

May 3rd, 2011
5:38 pm

I do believe they will win game two. They must not fall into the hype of the ankle of Rose. The Hawks at times play to the level of their competition. That is why the Bulls made their move while Rose was on the bench. Similarly, the Magic blew the Hawks out when Howard was on the bench.
The key will be JT. I believe he will have an extremely good game (20pts) and a bad game (3+ to’s). Rose is going to come out and show the world he is the MVP. JT cannot be intimidated and RUN him to death! If we can run, we will win game two.
Remember, we should have won game 2 against Magic. I think LD has learned from his mistake (Horford picked up 3rd foul in 2nd quarter last night), but did not foul out. Josh and Al will play better also. Marvin will give us a little more also.
Great job by Coach Larry Drew last night. He saw Deng killing Marvin, and went with a three guard lineup that won us the game. He also took Josh out in place for ZaZa who played very well.

ag

May 3rd, 2011
5:39 pm

dave

May 3rd, 2011
5:48 pm

I spent most of the season trying to decide if I thought making Drew coach was a good move. the way he has adjusted lineups and game pace in the playoffs, has been remarkable, so I think I am becoming a fan.

Mark Bradley

May 3rd, 2011
5:56 pm

Fact: I thought the Hawks were all but done when Kirk Hinrich was hurt. I’m not denying that.

Chi-Town

May 3rd, 2011
6:08 pm

Nice game Hawks. You guys kicked our butts last night….

JD

May 3rd, 2011
6:14 pm

Agreed MB. I know this is going to sound crazy but ZaZa is playing like the 6th man award is all his in the playoffs. Dude brings it, we’re still talking in the office about how he managed Dwight in the last series, and here he is jamming up Deng….

JT’s play against Rose last night was a thing of beauty. Q: can they get 3 more wins like this???

Cousin Vicker

May 3rd, 2011
6:36 pm

I still say it takes one more win at Chicago. May as well get it tomorrow :)

chipontheroadbirdsrus

May 3rd, 2011
6:39 pm

Hawks are hitting their stride as a team and it is at just the right time its cosmic

Ken Herrock

May 3rd, 2011
6:50 pm

Last year the Celtics were an old looking team that the Hawks shut out in the regular season, but they turned it on in the Playoffs. We should be and can be a better team now than the one that pushed the Celtics to Game 7 in 2008 and in restrospect had a chance to win it all.

Coach Woodson’s teams seemed to run on emotion or adrenaline. That adrenaline ran out in the playoffs. Joe Johnson was used up and flat the last two playoffs. This year, hopefully, we can manage that adrenaline and call it up when we face a challenge rather than collapse. Maybe it has just taken a while to get out of the negative funk from last year’s historic tale whipping by Orlando. To their credit, they have come back and given themselves a chance to prove they are who we hoped they would become after that Celtics series in 2008.

As for Coach Drew, maybe he has employed a little bit of the “Mr. Myagi” strategy and the team will be able to respond.

Nate D

May 3rd, 2011
6:54 pm

Teague can now chanllenge Hinrich for the starting job or maybe next year we do a Teague at the point, HInrich at the two Johnson at the 3 and smith and Al in the same spot.

rick

May 3rd, 2011
7:05 pm

Mark,

I’m getting all goose-pimply…

I find that I am constantly pinching myself to see if i’ dreaming.

Please don’t wake me up….