Let the record reflect that a new Atlanta Hawks’ era — if we can call what could be a six-month experiment an “era” — began with a fast-break basket, which is kind of the idea. Josh Smith blocked James Harden’s shot, and Kyle Korver flipped the rebound ahead to Jeff Teague, whose layup made it 2-nil 44 seconds into the season, and if Opening Night had ended right there, we’d have called it a smashing success.
But NBA games, as you may know, last 48 minutes, not 44 seconds, and the longer this went the less smashing it was. In the course of the final 47:16 we saw the new Hawks for both better and worse, and worse prevailed.
In their Opening Night opponent, the Hawks surely saw a bit of their new selves. The Houston Rockets are likewise new and backcourt-driven. Their guards are the famous Jeremy Lin, imported off a brief-but-scintillating turn in New York, and Harden, who’s the NBA’s reigning sixth man of the year, but became an immediate starter by dint of Oklahoma City’s stunning decision to trade one of its cornerstones at the ripe old age of 23.
In Game 1 as a Rocket, Harden scored 37 points and made 12 assists against Detroit. This didn’t augur well for the Hawks, who figure to have trouble defending and double trouble defending guards. On this night they couldn’t slow, let alone stop, the Houston guards. Lin had 21 points, and Harden more than doubled that.
The first six minutes went nicely enough. Devin Harris, one of the many new little guys, scored nine quick points and helped the Hawks build a lead, whereupon matters deteriorated. The Hawks were getting next to nothing underneath — Al Horford barely touched the ball, and when he did it was 17 feet from the hoop — and the visitors were seizing nearly every rebound, and the perils of trying to play small in a big man’s game were readily apparent.
“If I’m not getting the ball, it’s tough to get myself going,” Horford said. “This is our first game, and guys are trying to feel things out. I’ve got to do a better job of making myself available. I was there — I just wasn’t getting touches.”
This basketball truism was also self-evident: It’s hard to run if the other team is scoring. The Rockets made 13 of their 28 first-quarter shots, and the run-and-gun Hawks were reduced to the stand-around Hawks. They trailed 53-44 at the half, having been outrebounded 34-20 and having been outscored 32-20 in the lane.
The Rockets led by 16 halfway through the third quarter, and right about here — even though you know full well that these aren’t the same old Hawks — you were tempted to say, “Same old Hawks.” But here’s the thing about a quick team: It can create tempo from nothing and scramble its way back. Fueled by Teague, the Hawks started getting their hands on every other Houston pass, and their seven third-quarter steals turned the game.
From 16 down, the Hawks caught and passed the Rockets. Three point-blank Smith baskets put his team ahead 90-87, and suddenly the usual Josh Moments — on this night he loosed a half-dozen iffy shots, one an 18-footer than traveled 15 feet — were (mostly) forgiven. But he is, as we can never forget, Josh Smith, and much of being Josh Smith is the capacity to keep both teams in the game.
The Hawks’ surge was a function of their big lineup — Zaza Pachulia at center, Horford at power forward — but the big lineup leaves Smith at small forward, and too often he takes that assignment as a license to hoist. He missed a long jumper with the game tied at 90, missed a 3-pointer with the Hawks down 97-94. Of the latter miss, Smith said: “It was the right basketball play.”
Harden, who would scored 45 points, closed the sale at the foul line. The new-look Hawks were 0-1, which isn’t to say there weren’t hints of brighter tomorrows.
Sub Lou Williams scored 22 points, 19 in the second half. DeShawn Stevenson, a ride-along in the Joe Johnson trade, hit four treys before fouling out in the vain attempt to stop Harden. (”We tried,” Stevenson said. “He’s just more talented.”) Pachulia was his usual boisterous self, scoring 12 points and taking eight rebounds in 22 minutes. And the Hawks did outscore the Rockets, who aren’t ponderous, 33-18 on the break.
There are enough pieces here to construct a pretty good team. Putting them in place will take time. “It’s only Game 1,” Williams said. “There’s not a fire in the house.”
Well, no. If NBA games aren’t over in the first 44 seconds, neither are NBA seasons done after one game.
By Mark Bradley