Even by the Hawks’ careening standards, this has been a turbulent season. With shifts in conventional wisdom attached, we offer a recap:
• Opened by winning four of their first five games, including a victory over the Heat in Miami. And folks thought: “Hmmm.”
• Blew a 19-point lead and lost in Chicago. Lost in triple overtime here to the Heat without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And folks thought: “Same old Hawks.”
• Won the next three games but saw Al Horford injured — and subsequently ruled out at least for the remainder of the regular season — in a loss at Indiana. And folks thought: “Stick a fork in ‘em.”
• Won nine of the next 11 without the man considered their most indispensable player. And folks thought: “Hmmm.”
• Came home for a four-game stand and lost the first three games by a total of 39 points. And folks thought: “Same old Hawks.”
• Went to Orlando and won. And folks thought: “Nice win, but didn’t the Hawks prove last season that they could handle the Magic?”
Against this backdrop of forth-and-backing, the regal Heat again arrived at Philips Arena with LeBron’s corporate partner ESPN in dutiful tow. Speaking before Sunday’s game, Hawks coach Larry Drew said: “It shouldn’t take a motivational speaker to get guys ready.”
In professional sports, motivation tends to matter rather less than talent. This game wasn’t one quarter old when it was apparent that the Hawks sans Horfy would offer no resistance. The star-spangled visitors led by 12 points after one quarter, by 22 at the half, by 32 eight minutes into the third period. (For those keeping score, it marked the second time in 10 days the Hawks had trailed by 30 at Philips.)
Yet again, the temptation is mighty to pronounce these the same old Hawks and move on to spring football. That’s not quite accurate. Even with Horford, the Hawks had found their ceiling — Round 2 of the playoffs. Without him, we need to lower the overhead by a couple of feet. No matter what the record might suggest, this isn’t a team capable of challenging the Heat or the Bulls for Eastern eminence.
It is, however, a team of enough skill and depth to make the playoffs and maybe, if it’s lucky enough to draw Orlando in the first round, to slip past. But that’s about it. To hope for anything more is to deny the aggregating reality.
Over the past 10 days, the Hawks have lost four times at home, and none of the losses have been close. What lifted them to 16-6 was a nice bench and a nicer schedule, but you can’t play the Nets and the Wizards every night. The Hawks are 13-1 against teams that are under .500, 5-9 against those above it. In sum, they’re better than the bad teams.
And now you’re saying, “This is news?” In a way, yes. It has taken 28 games to reach some sort of conclusion about this odd crew, and the verdict isn’t necessarily damning. Without Horford, many among us had visions of a total surrender. That hasn’t happened. On most nights, they’ve hung in there.
But you cannot expect a team minus its anchor to hang in against the Heat. Not that there are many, if any, like this. Wade, who’s Miami’s second-best player, destroyed Joe Johnson, the Hawks’ $120 million man, in the first half, outscoring him 21-8. Chris Bosh, third-best among the Heat, put up a first-half double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) against Josh Smith, who fancies himself an All-Star.
Midway through the second quarter, the Hawks had ducked their heads and were looking for the exits. Drew conceded the point: “They were obviously the aggressor. We did not respond.”
An obviously disgusted Smith played 11 minutes in the third quarter and managed more fouls (three) than points (two). Jeff Teague was pulled 3 1/2 minutes into the second half, Drew having seen more than enough. Marvin Williams put the finishing touches on one of those horrid Marvin games — six points, three rebounds — we’ve come to know and hate.
On what was billed as a big night for this franchise, the crowd left early and the Heat didn’t break a sweat. The home side was outrebounded 31-13 in the first half and yielded 63 points in 24 minutes, which doesn’t speak of dedication to duty. But you know what? The Hawks could have played their best and tried their hardest and still lost by 10.
For what they are, they’ve done well this season. But what they are is a cut above middling.
By Mark Bradley