The Hawks’ dilemma: Where to turn when Joe is a no-go?

Joe Johnson in Game 4: Not his best. (AP photo)

Joe Johnson in Sunday's Game 4: Not his best effort. (AP photo)

It took barely a week, but the industrious Hawks have done it. They’ve thrown away a 1-0 series lead and an 11-point advantage in a Game 2 for which the best Celtic was suspended, and they’re back where they feel most accustomed — being given no chance to do anything except embarrass themselves further.

Surely more folks would grant them a chance if they gave any indication they’d know what to do with one, but these are, for better and worse, the Hawks. In Boston they managed an improbable double, even by their crazy-quilt standards: They played a strong Game 3 without Josh Smith and Al Horford and a terrible Game 4 with both on the floor.

Smith scored 15 points in his return from a knee sprain and Horford 12 in his first game since Jan. 11 — and still the Hawks trailed by 23 points after 24 minutes and by 37 after 28. It was as if this were 2008 and these postseason neophytes had no idea how to handle a playoff test on the road, except that it’s 2012 and the Hawks shouldn’t be mistaken for neophytes any longer. (They’ve won a series each of the past three seasons.) But sometimes they revert.

Nobody knows why, though theories abound. They’re weak-willed. (I can see why people say it, but I also know that a weak-willed team wouldn’t have won Games 6 and 7 against Milwaukee in 2010.) They lack a big man. (And who’s that playing center for Boston? Bill Russell?) They don’t have a superstar.

OK, that’s legit.

They have Joe Johnson, who makes a mint, which isn’t the same as taking star turns in the crucible of the postseason. Last week Paul Pierce scored 36 points in a game Boston had to win. In 45 playoff games as a Hawk, Johnson has broken 30 only twice — he had 35 in Game 4 against the Celtics here in 2008, 34 against the Bulls in Game 1 in 2011. Over the next three games against Boston that year, he averaged 17.3; over the next five games against Chicago last spring, he averaged 16.8.

That last part addresses the central issue: Once the Celtics and the Bulls adjusted their defense to stop Johnson, the Hawks were essentially halted. (They were 2-6 in games after Johnson scored 30.) He couldn’t come close to duplicating those performances, and his team went hungry. He was revealed as a very good player capable of having the occasional big game but not a star who could carry a series. His team was revealed as a talented bunch that cannot overcome lesser showings from its leading scorer.

In Game 3 on Friday, Johnson at least went down firing. He scored 29 points (on 28 shots) and took eight rebounds in an overtime loss. In Sunday’s Game 4 he notched a triple single — nine points, three assists, one rebound. He took eight shots in 31 minutes. On Monday he suggested he hadn’t gotten enough touches, which elicited something close to a rebuke from Horford.

“He has to be the enforcer,” Horford said. “He has to make his presence felt.”

You might recall that Larry Drew became head coach after lobbying that he would de-emphasize the Iso-Joe offense that Mike Woodson preferred. Johnson was 11th among NBA scorers in his final season under Woodson; under Drew he has been 28th and 18th. Nobody would seriously suggest that those are superstar numbers, but when the playoffs arrive a strange thing happens: The Hawks still act as if they believe Johnson is a superstar.

Said Jeff Teague, speaking Monday: “He’s our go-to player.”

Said Drew: “We need him to get shots. We run a lot of things through him.”

It’s fine to say, “We’d rather Joe not go one-on-one so much,” less fine if you don’t offer viable alternatives. A year ago the Hawks’ response to Drew’s semi-new deal was that everybody shot more jump shots to lesser effect. This season Smith actually took more shots than Johnson, but whether that was by design — somebody had to make up for Horford’s absence — is unclear. The greater point, however, is this:

When in doubt, the Hawks still look for Johnson. He doesn’t always answer the call, but they look. Sometimes he performs like the Joe of old; other times he’s just an older Joe. But even the younger Johnson wasn’t quite capable of ruling a series, which underscores the flaws in this franchise’s grand design: It paid superstar wages to a guy who’s not one of the league’s 15 finest players, and it hasn’t figured a way to make him simply first among equals.

Johnson remains the Hawks’ go-to player because they haven’t found anywhere else to turn. When Pierce was claiming Game 2 for the Celtics, Johnson mustered five fourth-quarter points against two turnovers. Despite the Hawks’ best efforts, this series isn’t yet lost. But the Hawks cannot wait for Joe Johnson to win it for them. As good as he can be, he’s not that good.

By Mark Bradley

140 comments Add your comment

George Stein

May 7th, 2012
2:26 pm

Oh, oh! I know! Marvin Williams!

Eb

May 7th, 2012
2:30 pm

ASG are the village idiots and the main reason this team is a constant embarrassment.

Brian

May 7th, 2012
2:36 pm

I think everyone knew Drew was not the answer when we fired Woodson. They went cheap instead of right. This is what happens.

Aaron

May 7th, 2012
2:37 pm

When do the Falcons report?

BigRon

May 7th, 2012
2:38 pm

The hawks are done even if they win game 5 they will be destroyed n the next game. When they lost game 2 I knew this series was over this team for the last 4 or 5 years have lost so many games they should have won its so frustrating and wit that said its time to blow it up when Boston finally puts us to rest clean house I would try all summer to trade Joe Johnson and Josh Smith we can go no further with this bunch.

Matt

May 7th, 2012
2:39 pm

The Hawks and the ASG…made for each other.

Kenny D

May 7th, 2012
2:39 pm

No The Hawks’ dilemma is when they drafted Marvin Williams instead of drafting Chris Paul ! That’s a No brainer…………

Joe Johnson cannot has always been a non-factor in chrunch time…….Hope Big Smooth can bounce back !!!!!!!

Kenny D

May 7th, 2012
2:42 pm

BTW, I agree Larry Drew was a waste of time…There’s a few high end coaches out there who can rebuild the Hawks and make the Hawks a winner. He should be fired and take 119 million dollar Joe with him…….

LakeDawg

May 7th, 2012
2:44 pm

“But the Hawks cannot wait for Joe Johnson to win it for them. As good as he can be, he’s not that good.”

Team ball…what a concept. Does Smooove know about this?

Brian

May 7th, 2012
2:45 pm

Guess ill give Stein his Kudos. Kudos George.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
2:46 pm

I think Drew has done a respectable job holding this team together…Meanwhile, I feel Joe has wilted under the pressure and he doesn’t have the ability, night in and night out, to be THE GUY…Simply put, we paid for a superstar but we got a good and sometimes reallly good player when we had to have one…I do not blame ASG or anyone else sometimes really good players turn into superstars and sometimes they do not…We have the latter and now that we know it we should act accordingly and make the changes needed…Trade or Amnesty or whatever the case may be we have to move this team in a different direction away from Joe to give us flexabilty in the future to hopefully find a superstar or to develop one….I only say this because we can’t continue to pay Joe Superstar money and think we are going to suddenly get that out of his 30 something year old body…We tried and we didn’t fail miserable we just didn’t end up with a SUPERSTAR…

LakeDawg

May 7th, 2012
2:47 pm

BTW They are weak willed and lazy. Coming back against the Bucks is very different than reversing the tide against the Celts. Even LD said the Hawks gave about 60% effort last night.

GeorgiaDawg93

May 7th, 2012
2:47 pm

At the risk of sounding overreactionary, everyone goes except Horford and Teague. There’s no other way.

Brian

May 7th, 2012
2:51 pm

We have like 5 PF’s and no centers lol Way to go Sund. Harford would be much more durable if he played his true position.

canofpeas

May 7th, 2012
2:51 pm

frustrating to watch everyone standing around on offense…do not get that, at all. how is that acceptable?

GTanner

May 7th, 2012
2:55 pm

I’ve wondered what a Popovich or Karl could have done with this team over the past three years. Something more, I think.

Jim

May 7th, 2012
2:55 pm

They’re a good team but good teams don’t win titles — even conference titles.

some sense

May 7th, 2012
2:56 pm

If you know anything about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and you should if you post on English anguage blogs, then you know what Joe Johnson is, has been, and will be to the Hawks. You can’t correct the past, but that doesn’t mean you have to endure the present and future. This is awful.

NCBravesFan

May 7th, 2012
2:56 pm

“He was revealed as a very good player capable of having the occasional big game but not a star who could carry a series.”

Well said, Mark. The Hawks brass and ASG have a lot of thinking to do this offseason.

The days of rearranging the deck chairs are over – they should really figure out a way to deal JJ if they can. It seems well past time to admit that this group has peaked and plan accordingly.

What a mess.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
2:56 pm

Joe has proven that he is a really good player that is getting paid to be a superstar…He isn’t going to turn into a superstar at 30 something if he wasn’t at 20 something…Anyway, the ASG group gambled and it didn’t payoff as we all had hoped, me included….I think we have to take steps to find a superstar or position ourselves to develop one and that means not paying Joe what we are paying…Amnesty, trade, or whatever we have to have a plan as I do not want to lose Horford, J. Smith, or Teague while we continue to overpay for a really good player in Joe… I do not feel like we failed as Joe took us to 5 straight years of playoffs but it is certainly time to move on in our attempt to find a guy who can be top 10 in the league and that wil not be possible if we keep pinning our hopes and most of our cap space on just a really good player….

Sage of Bluesland

May 7th, 2012
2:58 pm

Whoever subsidizes this utter incompetence–which starts at the very top–is delusional and nothing but a sheep.

Send a message to ownership that they will completely understand: Vote with your wallet and do NOT show up.

This wretched organization does not deserve your hard-earned dollars. They are not in it to win titles.

Dr. No

May 7th, 2012
3:01 pm

AMNESTY THAT BUM

Sage of Bluesland

May 7th, 2012
3:01 pm

One more item: Al Horford is the most overrated “star” in Atlanta since Keith “Ankle-Grab 10-yards downfield” Brooking.

Trade him while his PERCEIVED value is high. It’s dropping steadily.

Blow it up and start over–at whatever the cost. But, as long as you still fill up the place, ownership will do nothing; they have no reason to do anything.

This IS the problem.

NORRIS CHUCK

May 7th, 2012
3:01 pm

Wren is in denial, LD is clueless, JJ is too passive, J Smith wont pass the ball and Marvin has been a bust since day one, the bench is the walking dead and ASG is still in chaos and the Hawks are once again a joke around the league.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:01 pm

We need to position ourselves to get Harden or Ibaca (sp) of the Thunder? Those guys are young and have Franchise Players written all over them…I know Max when I see it and I certainly see it!

NORRIS CHUCK

May 7th, 2012
3:01 pm

Dang…i meant “Sund is in denial!”

Bob in SF

May 7th, 2012
3:03 pm

I will never understand how Joe John$on got a max deal when he is merely a complimentary player and probably only the 3rd or 4th most talented Hawk.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:04 pm

Sage of Bluesland
May 7th, 2012
3:01 pm

One more item: Al Horford is the most overrated “star” in Atlanta since Keith “Ankle-Grab 10-yards downfield” Brooking.

Trade him while his PERCEIVED value is high. It’s dropping steadily.

Blow it up and start over–at whatever the cost. But, as long as you still fill up the place, ownership will do nothing; they have no reason to do anything.

This IS the problem.

I am not sure how many times that Phillips arena has actually been full for Hawks game but it isn’t often that is for sure….I think they (ASG) have the message already

Rickster

May 7th, 2012
3:09 pm

Heck.. if the Hawks were in good shape at 1-1, at 1-3 they’ve got to be thinking “We’ve got them right where we want them!”

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:10 pm

The ASG wants to sell this team and I think they feel they have a better chance as long as they are in the playoffs as opposed to not being included….I am not sure they will see it as a good business decision letting Joe go as wel will totally struggle to even get into the playoffs…Right now, the ASG is selling a playoff team and that makes it much more attractive to buyers…I know they say they are not selling but they are and I wish we could do what is best for the Hawks instead of what is best for the ASG….

Justin

May 7th, 2012
3:11 pm

Mark, you pretty much summed it up. Question: You were supportive of the ASG’s decision to keep Joe at max money at the time. Do you still support that decision or see it as a mistake?

Jim

May 7th, 2012
3:11 pm

Why is everyone so upset?

What did team ownership do coming into the season to make any of us think this was a Hawks team that would finally grow a spine in the post season. Since blowing game 2 in Hawk-like fashion they have been the same baggy-pants comedians disguised as pro basketball players we have come to know.

Did anyone think Rick Sund had some sort of master plan that he hadn’t tried before? Did we win a bidding contest with the top team in the league for Larry Drew because he was such a proven commodity? Did we think Joe Johnson was going to undergo a full-fledged change of spirit and start earning his superstar salary?

This team is what it is — a solid middle-of-the-pack franchise with a jackass ownership group and no reason to think anything is going to change.

GT

May 7th, 2012
3:11 pm

Teague is the most underused under appreciated player in the NBA. Without Josh hogging the ball slowing things coming up the court game one in Boston was almost won. With Josh hogging the ball and really not knowing what to do with himself, game two in Boston was a blow out. Until you have a threat at guard play the can drive the lane, all Teague can do, all you have to do is guard Johnson and let Smith to his thing till his feelings are hurt and you beat Atlanta. If Teague would drive every time down the lane with that quickness, never let Smith handle the ball outside of 10 feet of the basket, you are going to have mixed reviews. The press pampers Smith, he was not put on the all star team because he is not that good, which puts twice as much pressure on Johnson to carry his and Josh Smith’s high expectations. Teague is the secret and his energy is needed in this next game along with his speed.

Jim

May 7th, 2012
3:14 pm

Who is out there with the money to buy the team, infuse it with the cash needed to afford a true superstar and the intelligence to hire a GM who is not a re-tread?

fbGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:18 pm

Rebuild. From the top. Have to get rid of Joe and Josh and probably 2-3 others. Start over with new roster and coach and count on losing for 2-3 years while getting draft choices. Oops almost forgot: new management. Or let’s ship this clueless, frustrating franchise to Winnipeg

George Stein

May 7th, 2012
3:19 pm

The issue is not Joe Johnson. The issue is, and will continue to be, the front office. It’s not Joe’s fault they offered him the contract, didn’t draft Chris Paul, or did draft Shelden Williams.

None of that is on Joe Johnson. The next time anyone turns down $120MM will be the first. Clean out the front office and hire better people and let them decide what to do with the roster.

Just up the Street

May 7th, 2012
3:19 pm

Don Waddell say relax…Hawks are in fine shape.

jerry

May 7th, 2012
3:22 pm

Are the Hawks really worth a Mark Bradley column?

tjhook

May 7th, 2012
3:22 pm

I think the team needs a stronger presence on the sideline. I am a fan of Eric Musselman but I don’t know if teams are scared to hire him because of his DUI issue from a few years ago. I do know that he is a great X and O guy and would force this lineup to tow the line when the game is close late. None of that superstar mentality when the clock is less than a minute. LD deserves to get fired for allowing that kind of on-court performance.

tjhook

May 7th, 2012
3:26 pm

The Hawks need a new presence on the sideline. Drew never demanded the team run plays he designed especially late. More importantly, he often doesn’t offer anything significant when the clock is less than a minute.
I think the Hawks should consider bringing in Eric Musselman as a replacement for Drew because a stronger voice is needed to give this team more structure. More accountablility during games usually mean better performances.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:29 pm

Just in: Tebow to pray for the Hawks

Wake Me Up Before You No-Go

May 7th, 2012
3:34 pm

Mark Bradley, your latest article just saved my marriage. My wife was so mad about the game, she wouldn’t even **** me until she read this.

steve brown

May 7th, 2012
3:37 pm

With JJ’s contract he is not movable. however, the Hawks have been blessed with Josh Smith’s best year and in all likelihood an increase in his trade value. I say trade him. I would prefer an injured player who drags himself onto the court for a crucial playoff game in Boston versus the BS that came out of Smith’s mouth regarding his injury and why he saved himself for game 4. The man doesn’t have enough heart for my taste.

PMC

May 7th, 2012
3:38 pm

The team only executes while running. They stand flat footed and don’t move or move the ball in the half court. They are RIDICULOUSLY easy to defend.

It is what it is.

The ASG bought a 500,000 Ford in Joe Johnson.

Whopper Dawg

May 7th, 2012
3:40 pm

The Hawks are in a real tough spot. Not good enough to compete against the better teams, not bad enough to improve (lotto, as if they could pick well), not astute enough to improve via trade.

Average management, average coach, average team.

Mr Mojo

May 7th, 2012
3:43 pm

Letr’ just hope this owenrship tries to sell the team again this offseason. We will never win with these clowns running the team. How do you lose your center for the year 11 games into the season and not make one trade all season to improve your team for a playoff run. They are an embarrasment. We need new owner, new gm and new coach or we will have the same thing happen next year.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:43 pm

Joe’s answer to his horrible play is that he needs to shoot more? I have seen him shoot plenty in the 4th quarter of this series and I do not see how shooting more will suddenly make it go in when you take BAD shots….Please Joe, let someone else shoot it that actually gets open and you just stick to fumbling the ball and making bad passes because you seem to be spot on with that….

KevinM

May 7th, 2012
3:44 pm

Sund told us that we will go as far as Joe takes us…well? Looks like its time to clean house, but the ownership group is only interested in making the ‘numbers’ work out for them.
They can brag about going over the cap for Erick Dampier (which based on how much he was used defines that decision) and they can brag about their consecutive years in the playoffs. But they have nothing to brag about come playoff results time. They don’t answer the bell and can’t beat the final run for the Big 3 in Boston.

Mark, I’m watching and I still don’t get how our offense runs with 5 stationary guys. On the defensive side, should we now start guarding Rondo? He’s doing his Tom Brady and just picking the defense apart.

Finally, LD is 7-9 in 2 years with a veteran laden Hawks team. Do those results define success in a league where Miami, Chicago and Indiana (and probably Philly) have passed right by us and have a better outlook going forward than the Hawks?

Injuries are part of the game and the only predictable game so far was last night.

Heading into the series, it looked like we could compete with Boston because we had HC. We have now looked like the team that we were prior to last year, and simply don’t have players (Marvin – expensive mistake), Hinrich (2 young talents wasted here) and finally Joe.

After 2 years and 16 playoff games under LD, we still aren’t sure what kind of team we are. We make Doc Rivers look smart and their roster very efficient.

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:45 pm

I think Boston just blocked Joe’s shot again….

BamaGuy

May 7th, 2012
3:46 pm

It was the team Doctor…He got a piece of it….