Before Thursday’s game, Larry Drew was asked to characterize the first half of what has been, even by the Hawks’ schizo standards, a strange season. “Given what the schedule was and our situation with injuries,” the coach said, “I have to be pleased overall.”
And you know what? He’s right. Sort of.
The Hawks hit the All-Star break third in the Southeast Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference, and if , before this truncated season began, you’d where this team might rank, third and sixth would have seemed reasonable responses. But, these being the Hawks, they didn’t track a path anyone would have predicted.
They started hot, saw Al Hoford lost to injury and somehow got hotter. On the morning of Feb. 2, no Eastern team had fewer losses than the Hawks. Then, as if on cue, this plucky bunch lost all semblance of pluck.
The Hawks reported for work Thursday having lost eight of their past 11 games, and the eight losses weren’t a string of heartbreaks. They were, to be blunt, a series of heartless non-efforts that you wouldn’t expect from any professional aggregation, let alone a team holding a winning record. In only one of the eight losses had the Hawks not trailed by 20 points, and in three they’d fallen behind by 30.
“We’ll never position ourselves to be making excuses,” Drew said, and then he mentioned the injuries and the schedule again, which made it sound as if he was … er, making excuses. And it’s true that this latest five-game road swing was a bear, and it’s true that it ended with the Hawks missing not just Horford but Joe Johnson, too. (Still, Hawks were getting blown out before they ceded Philips Arena to the circus and before Johnson was scratched with tendinitis.)
The three-week plunge from 16-6 to 19-14 took the edge off the season’s first half. Yet again, the Hawks had run into quality opposition and done their incredible shrinking act. Yet again, we were given cause to doubt this team and its bona fides. Were the Hawks as good as their record? If so, why do they get blown out so often?
Asked if, without Horford and Johnson, his team simply doesn’t have enough players, Drew said: “We’ve got plenty of guys to compete.” Then his guys went out and proved two key points:
Yes, they do still have enough players.
Yes, they do possess more than a dollop of professional pride.
The team that had trailed at the half of its past three games by an aggregate 58 points led this one by 17. Josh Smith (14 first-half points) and sub Jannero Pargo (15) had nearly matched the Magic (30) by themselves. The Hawks had defended smartly — even without Jason Collins to pester him, Dwight Howard only mustered four points in the half — and banked 21 fast-break points to Orlando’s two.
Said Smith: “We played like a desperate team … We played the way we’re capable of playing.”
As quick as you could say, “Where has this effort been?”, you were wondering where it went. Twenty seconds into the fourth quarter, the game was tied. (That’s the thing about the NBA — not all blowouts remain blowouts.) Were the Hawks about to close the season’s first half by throwing away a game at the end, as opposed to the beginning?
Nope. They rebuilt the lead to eight points, saw it dwindle to one, then put it away. The game’s key sequence: Smith missed a jumper, but Zaza Pachulia outfought Howard, who the league’s leading rebounder, and fed Willie Green in the corner. Green’s 3-pointer made it 72-68. The Magic would get no closer than three thereafter.
Speaking before the game, Drew had said, “Going into the all-star break, this would be really big.” And, even if it was technically only a Thursday night game in February, it seemed rather essential in the grand scheme.
“We still have to limit those [blowout losses],” Smith said, “but it was definitely good not to lose by double digits — or to lose, period.”
The Hawks, who’ve mostly lost to plus-.500 teams this season, beat one of those. (Albeit the only one the Hawks have come to own.) After three lousy weeks, they gave themselves a warm and fuzzy memory to mull over the five-day hiatus, and they gave their questioning audience reason to think there might be hope for this strange team after all.
By Mark Bradley