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.”
“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