The Atlanta Hawks, as we know, are a strange crew. They lost Jamal Crawford, their fourth-best player, to free agency. They lost Al Horford, considered their one indispensable man, to a torn pectoral. Yet they entered Thursday’s game against Memphis tied with Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia for the fewest losses in the NBA East.
They were 7-4 with Horford; they’d gone 9-2 without him. You might be wondering just how. If you watched the Hawks lose to Memphis by 19 points after trailing by 30 Thursday night, you’re wondering still.
“We got out-toughed,” said coach Larry Drew. “That’s something I hadn’t seen in a while.”
Speaking before the game, Drew had said: “When you lose one of your big guys, one of two things will happen. Guys will start to feel sorry for themselves, or guys will elevate their play.”
For three weeks without Horford, the Hawks had elevated like Pogo Joe Caldwell, once a Hawk himself. Against the gifted Grizzlies, the home team never left the pad. Maybe it was simply the effects of returning from a 10-day road swing — as voice-of-the-Hawks Steve Holman noted, the first game back after a long trip is infamous for being ugly — but this was the sort of non-performance these Hawks had managed to avoid.
There was also this: Memphis is 12-10. The Hawks are 3-7 against teams that currently hold a winning record. They’re 13-0 against sub-.500 opposition. That would seem an indication of … something.
Until Thursday, the Hawks had been one of the NBA’s happiest surprises. With Crawford gone, a lot of folks wondered if the Hawks would be as good as they were last season, when they were a not-very-good 44-38. With Horford lost, those same folks had cause to wonder if the Hawks would even make the playoffs. And yet: Had the postseason begun at 7 p.m. on Groundhog Day, Atlanta would have been the East’s No. 3 seed.
Asked before the game if he felt his Hawks belonged in the company of the Bulls and the Heat, Drew said, “Absolutely,” and then he offered this reason why. “Going into the season, one thing we absolutely positively had to do was strengthen our bench. And the guys we did get brought in more of a defensive presence.”
In a jammed-together season where three games in a week is a light load, depth always figured to matter. With Horford gone for the duration of the regular season, depth has become a determinant. Drew: “If we hadn’t made the acquisitions to deepen our bench, I don’t know if we could have survived so far.”
Cheap imports Tracy McGrady, Willie Green, Vladimir Radmanovic and Jannero Pargo — plus the fierce rookie Ivan Johnson — have made the Hawks a true two-platoon team, and now, with Kirk Hinrich returning from injury, the case can be made that they have, one through 12, the deepest roster in the East if not the whole wide NBA. (And there’s a chance Kenyon Martin, the free-agent forward, could join the fun.)
A caveat: Depth stands to be less essential in the playoffs, where there aren’t many back-to-backs and coaches shorten their rotation anyway. And now you’re asking: “Come on, Bradley. Do you really think the Hawks could handle Chicago or Miami in a best-of-seven? Without Horford?”
Honest answer: No, I don’t. But I didn’t think the Hawks would rise to 16-6 without Horford, either. Heck, I didn’t think they’d be 16-6 with him.
But what happened, albeit not by design, is that the dynamics of the Hawks’ Core Four — Horford, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams, all together since 2007 — has changed. Williams can no longer be deferential. (To his credit, he was at last showing signs of assertiveness before Horford was lost.) Without Horfy as a backstop, Smith can’t free-lance as much, and Johnson cannot delegate responsibility to the curious degree he did last season.
Minus Horford, the remaining core members have been forced to shoulder a bigger load, and they’ve worn it well. And Jeff Teague, the discovery of Round 2 against Chicago, has given the Hawks more defense and more direction than any point guard since Mookie Blaylock. (Said Drew, in an obvious reference to non-defenders Crawford and Mike Bibby: “Anytime a defense’s weakest point is at the top, you’re going to have problems.”)
The February schedule is, however, far more demanding, and at some point the absence of Horford has to be felt. We shouldn’t write off the Hawks because they lost big to Memphis. (The Hawks got blown out a lot last season and still beat Orlando in the playoffs.) But this sobering night can stand as a reason not to go planning any Peachtree parades just yet. As if anyone was.
By Mark Bradley