The fun part ended four minutes into Game 6. The serious stuff starts now. The Hawks must decide if 12 playoff games, half of which they won, were enough to override a regular season of diminishing returns. They must decide if winning two games in Round 2, as opposed to getting swept, constitutes the kind of progress that can be sustained.
The Hawks did a nice salvage job. Had they bombed out in Round 1, there’d have been no compelling reason to hold this team together or to keep this coach. Larry Drew’s job now seems safe — he did all he could in the playoffs, and much of what he did was inspired — but the question of the Hawks’ core remains.
Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams have been together since 2007. They’ve won three playoff series but never two in one spring. When they play well, as happened against Orlando and for three of the six games against Chicago, they’re an imposing group. (”A quality team,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said Thursday, speaking of the Hawks.) Alas, they don’t play as well as often as they should.
The unscheduled emergence of Jeff Teague gives the Hawks hope that next season, with a real point guard, might be better. (Still at issue is whether Teague is as good as he looked against the Bulls, and if so, why both Drew and Mike Woodson failed to play him before this.) But the Hawks didn’t lose to Chicago because they had lesser players; they lost because their players don’t complement one another the way the Bulls do.
Said Horford: “They were more solid, more consistent.”
Said Smith: “They know their roles. They fit together so well.”
Said Jamal Crawford: “They play hard every second.”
Can we say any of that about the Hawks? The playing-hard part doesn’t fit: The Hawks mailed in Game 5 and Round 1 and Game 3 of Round 2. And we couldn’t really call a team that shoots so many jump shots “solid” or “consistent.” As far as knowing roles: The share-the-ball component of Drew’s offense was taken by too many Hawks as a license to jack up jump shots, thereby lessening dynamic talents like Smith and Horford.
The shifting of Horford from center to power forward and back appeared to affect him. In the six games against the Bulls, he scored in double figures only three times. On Thursday, the day he was named third-team All-NBA — at center, mind you — he made two baskets. For the first time since he became a Hawk, it was possible to be disappointed in Al Horford.
The problem with moving Horford to power forward is that it curtails his back-to-the-basket work, which is quite good, and pushes Smith even further away. It essentially leaves the Hawks without a small forward, which shows us how far Marvin Williams — he had two points in the final three Round 2 games — has fallen.
The advent of Teague means the Hawks will have one new starter next fall. To break the staleness that has settled in, they need another. Horford is too solid to trade and Johnson too expensive, and nobody wants Williams. (And Crawford is no lock to be re-upped as a free agent. The Hawks are perilously close to the luxury tax.) By process of elimination, that leaves Smith.
The reason not to trade him is that he’ll go somewhere else and make All-Pro. The reason to trade him is that he has become a hugely gifted distraction. He played very well in Games 4,5 and 6, but it took so much coaxing and prodding from Drew that you had to ask: Should a guy who has been in the NBA since 2004 not yet know where his strengths lie?
Late Thursday the Hawks’ general manager offered this appraisal. “We had a chance to go from good to great and we fell short,” Rick Sund said. “We made some progress, but we didn’t finish it.”
With these same players, is an Eastern Conference finals run likely? The answer, I submit, is no. The talent is here, yes, but the blend — the attribute the Bulls have and the Hawks lack — isn’t apt to form with guys who’ve been together so long. The Hawks don’t need to blow up their roster, but they do need to change it. Even if it means sacrificing a talent of Smith’s magnitude, they must find a mesh.
By Mark Bradley