Category Archives: January (Atlanta Hawks)

now you know…

 

Mike Bibby had his defining game as a Hawk Tuesday vs. Chicago

Mike Bibby had his defining game as a Hawk Tuesday vs. Chicago

ATL 105 CHI 102: If you wondered why the Hawks traded for Mike Bibby right before last year’s trade deadline, now you know.  If you wondered if the Hawks need to resign the veteran point guard after this season, you better know.  Mike Bibby was up to his old tricks Tuesday night in Chicago, single handedly willing the Hawks to a victory over a young but competitive Bulls squad.  Bibby poured in 31, a sizeable amount of which came from the outside deep down the stretch.  Bibby nailed four of the Hawks last five baskets, all clutch jumpers which he created nearly by himself.  Perhaps Bibby has slowed since his Sacramento days, but he still has that magic and veteran savvy this Hawks team not only craves but needs. 

Anyone could see it in his eyes down the stretch: Bibby knew he was having an “on” night and he was conducting his teammates to simply move out of the way.  Bibby put the final dagger in the Bulls with 18 seconds remaining, driving hard on Joakim Noah only to step back and drop a deuce right in front of the UF alum.  Not only was the point guard  rainbowing jumpers from outside, but he was also exceptional on the defensive side of the basketball.  Bibby had five steals, three of which came from “laying in the weeds” as Bulls announcer Stacey King so aptly put it.  Bibby baited two outlet passes and one pass across halfcourt, only to “jump” and intercept them.  His halfcourt steal was the largest, as it occurred in the waning moments of the fourth when the Bulls could have cut the lead further or tied. 

With the injuries to Horford and Williams, the Hawks needed a big night from their backcourt and they got it.  It was clear from the start that both Bibby and Johnson wanted to assert themselves on the offensive end.  Johnson proved relatively ineffective, finishing the night 5 for 18 and missing some wide open jumpers he typically can be relied upon to make.  (Johnson, however, did well hounding Derrick Rose on the defensive end, who had a relatively quiet night when it was all said and done.)  Bibby, on the other hand, got hot early and never stopped.  He dropped 17 in the first half and kept the Hawks in the game as the Bulls started to pull away with a small lead in the middle of the second.  Until the injuries to the Hawks’ key players heal, the team has no choice but to rely on heavy minutes from their backcourt and Josh Smith.  Bibby will need more games like Tuesday for the Hawks to weather the current storm, but if his performance against the Bulls was any indication, perhaps the Hawks are equipped to ride out the current injury bug smoother than in year’s past. 

PACHULIA CHIPS IN: Although the Georgian back-up had a brutal stretch in the middle of the fourth in which he blew an easy dunk, almost was charged with an offensive foul and then travelled (this all in two possessions), Pachulia for the most part played an outstanding game.  The center dropped in an efficient 18 and 4 in 39 minutes and was the Hawks second leading scorer on the night.  Aside from a rocky start to the season, Pachulia has been a relative model of consistency.  Perhaps this wouldn’t seem surprising to the average fan, but Hawks fans definitely have to be pleased.  While Horford’s return is imminent, Pachulia will continue to play a big role down the stretch and he must remain consistent.

GARDNER NOT CONVINCING:  For the second game in the row back up guard Thomas Gardner earned playing time and for the second game in the row he put up an airball.  This time it was from a three at the top of the key, which badly missed.  Although replays showed that the ball was not tipped, it badly missed the rim by a solid two feet.  Gardner partially redeemed himself by hitting one three in the game, but his comfort level is clearly not there.  In his defense, however, there has been an extreme pressure to perform and Gardner has to know his window of opportunity is just a sliver wide.  

PLAYING FOR THE BULLS?: Oh boy.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Chicago Bulls television announcers Neil Funk and Stacey King won’t be petitioning for the team to bring in Flip Murray at the end of this season.  The tagteam announcing duo kept asking “which team Murray was playing for” after Murray went on his typical mind-numbing rampage of poor shots, horrendous fouls, and turnovers.  Murray finished the night 4 for 13 with a +/- of -13, including a crucial missed shot with 3:15 remaining in the fourth that he had no business taking.  Ouch.  Murray’s worst play of the day?  His inbounds pass with 3.5 seconds on the clock, where he tried to loft the ball over Ben Gordon to Maurice Evans with the Hawks up 105-101 and the game seemingly in hand.  Woody looked as if he was about to blow a gasket on the sideline after the errant pass and stormed off the court after the game.

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phoenix rising

ATL 102 PHX 107: The Hawks put forth a decent effort Tuesday night on the road against Phoenix, only to fall short again for their fourth loss in a row.  In what is becoming suddenly routine, the Hawks fell behind by a double digit deficit in the first quarter forcing them to expend mass amounts of energy to work themselves back into the game.  Sekou Smith pointed out that Joe Johnson may be gassed given his 4-21 performance.  I couldn’t agree more.  Johnson’s energy was noticeably down early in the game and at times the shooting guard looked to settle for shots, seemingly content to take fadeaway 18 footers.  

Folks, that’s what happens when you play 40 plus minutes on a regular basis.  You wear down.  Unfortunately, its happening alarmingly early for Joe Johnson, who clearly hit the wall last season right after the All-Star break.  The acquisition of Mike Bibby helped take some of the load off Johnson late last season, but its clear an aggregation of the past three seasons has taken a tolling effect this season.  

While I admittedly harp on the ineffective coaching of Mike Woodson, I think it bears mentioning again here.  Woodson has said recently that he needs to get his rotation “set” and utilize more bench players in order to stretch the rotation to nine or ten deep.  At this point, it may be too late.  Woodson has benched Acie Law for the majority of the season, and despite relative effectiveness from Solomon Jones, the lanky power forward has rarely seen the court after the return of Josh Smith.  Woodson needs to realize that these back-ups do bring something to the table, and if anything, will serve to boost the effectiveness of Joe Johnson late in games even if their +/-‘s are lower.  Barring a trade, now is the time to stretch the rotation and go ten deep.  The Hawks are right in the thick of the season, 37 games in.  The starters need to be fresh for the stretch run and they simply won’t be if Woodson continues to run them into the ground. 

GROW THE CHEST HAIR: Say what you want about Zaza – he’s a bull in a China shop, he’s a bickering head case, he needs to stop shooting the foul line jumper – but he has straight up performed the last few games.  In one specific instance in Tuesday’s game, Pachulia literally moved Leandro Barbosa three feet away with one hand to grab the rebound and dished off for the assist.  Pachulia was everywhere, crashing the boards on both offense and defense.  Moreover, the Georgian proved useful on offense sets, finding his niche for easy lay-ins.  10 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes is typically what we see from Horford.  To get those numbers from a back-up is huge for the Hawks on the road. 

CHOKE JOB: While Marvin Williams has been very solid this season, his two missed free throws late in the game proved the difference in the loss to the Suns (much as Bibby’s blown layup was last Wednesday vs. Orlando).  Williams has definitely had his clutch moments this season – the three pointers to win it vs. Washington and take the lead vs. Boston on the road come to mind.  However, Williams’ two misses proved that this is still a young Hawks team not sure how to react in crunch time situations.  Although I get the sense this team is more ready to face playoff caliber teams on the road, they aren’t all the way there yet.  

POOR SHOT SELECTION: Josh Smith had an awful first quarter only to rebound through the second, third and most of the fourth.  But Smith’s shot selection in the game’s waning moments was downright awful.  As I have stated time in and time out, Smith has been maddeningly inconsistent and Tuesday proved no different.  After missing from outside early in the first, Smith clearly made it his mission to get to the hoop.  But not when it mattered.  With 52 seconds remaining and the Hawks down three, Smith found himself 16 feet out with his defender purposefully backing away.  Smith took the bait, launched the jumper, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Clank.

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when it rains…

 

Williams' shoulder isn't all that is ailing in the ATL.

Williams' shoulder isn't all that is ailing in the ATL.

Go ahead and finish that ever-popular phrase.  Stick it in your head, turn the key.  Set it and forget it.  It’s pouring in Hawksville and the weather forecast is uncertain.  The Hawks are in unchartered territory: sporting a 22-14 record but seeing their level of play dissipate fast.  Three losses in a row shouldn’t seem too alarming.  After all, you play 82 games in the regular season in the NBA and odds dictate losing streaks.  Just ask the Celtics, losers of 5 of their last 7 before beating up on Toronto Sunday.  

But it’s not just the losing.  It’s how the Hawks have gone about the losing, getting pounded by Orlando in back to back games and not even putting up a fight against an Elton Brand-less Sixer team.  What about the defense that had these Hawks soaring to a 6-0 record early in the season?  Non-existent.  Ball movement and rhythm on offense?  Gone.  Just after I had written about this young team’s recent knack for finding the flow and consistency necessary to be successful in the NBA, it vanished in a heartbeat.  Sekou Smith described the Orlando loss on Friday as the “worst beating he had ever seen,” to paraphrase.  Since I lack the censorship he does, I will gladly rephrase.  That was an ass-kicking.  I have seen matadors in Spain take less of a demolition.  To be down 50 to your supposed “division rival” is to say goodnight to any potential challenge for a #3 seed and a division title.  

I have a theory.  Losing in the NBA is easy.  The Hawks have proven that for past decade.  With losing comes little to no expectation.  Win one here and there, and you’ve done your job.  Make the playoffs when you’re not expected to, and you may draw applause.  Perhaps a city awakens, as Atlanta did during the playoffs last season.  But when a team starts creating the expectation of winning – as the Hawks have done so this year – the entire outlook changes.  The pressure shifts like tectonic plates preparing for an earthquake.  Balance yourself accordingly, and perhaps you learn to survive with the added weight of expectation.  Step forward unprepared and who knows, you may fall just as quickly as it took you to rise.  

My point is this.  The Hawks are calibrating themselves like a fish swimming in new water.  They now have the expectation to win, and it has forced many of the younger players into a position they are unused to.  The Hawks were simply not ready to challenge Orlando, a more “veteran” team.  They felt the pressure and fell to the ground like a runaway prisoner shot in the leg.  But they will get up, and they will continue to challenge for the 4 seed in the East.  Make no mistake, this is a talented team.  A team which when it puts its mind to it and focuses, can play with just about anyone in the league.  

The Orlando back-to-back also exposed one another clear weakness which GM Rick Sund needs to address: depth.  The Nuggets recently bolstered their frontcourt with the addition of center Johan Petro.  Perhaps the Hawks can also inquire with the Thunder about Chris Wilcox or Joe Smith.  Chris Kaman (and to a lesser extent his teammate, Marcus Camby) is also a possibility, although I suspect given the ownership situation the Hawks will avoid such a long term commitment.  The Hawks, too, have assets to trade.  They may be willing to part with Acie Law, who has found his way into Mike Woodson’s doghouse through no apparent fault of his own.  And let’s not forget Speedy Claxton, arguably the worst free agent signing in Hawks history who has given them little other than one horrific season and a neverending stream of injury updates.  There’s also the rights to Josh Childress, which may have more value than you think since it is almost a foregone conclusion the lanky swingman will return to domestic play. 

Brace yourself Hawks fans.  The next few games may be rough.  But trust me on this: they will be better for it.  And while they are not ready to challenge the Celtics, Cavs and Magic for superiority in the East, they are still capable of doing damage, at which point, we just may see the sun peak out.

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winning cures everything

 

J Smoove and the Hawks are starting to fly to new heights.  (AP Photo/Gregory Smith)

J Smoove and the Hawks are starting to fly to new heights. (AP Photo/Gregory Smith)

HOU 100 ATL 103: Consistency.  It can be evasive.  Or when you’re the Spurs it can be as reliable as a six year old’s favorite blanket – always there, ready to wrap itself around you to commandeer you through some of life’s most inglorious moments.  For the Hawks, consistency is a word too unfamiliar for a professional basketball team, at least when the term is used positively.  Not anymore.  After a decade of impotence on the basketball court, Hawks basketball is back and with a vengeance. 

Don’t look now but the Hawks sit at 22-11, 3.5 games behind the Southeast Division leading Orlando Magic.  With a home and home upcoming this Wednesday and Friday against those division leaders, the Hawks could slice that lead down to a game and a half.  For those who don’t remember, the Hawks torched the Magic in the season opener in Orlando.  The Magic won’t be so kind as to dish out a repeat performance this week.  Not at all.  Orlando currently sits within the NBA’s “elite four,” joined by L.A., Cleveland and Boston. Expect two battles which should go a long way towards setting the tone for the race to the top of the division this year. 

But let’s take a step back.  How did these young Hawks get to this point?  In one word: consistency.  Something clicked on the Hawks most recent eight game home stretch.  They shared the ball and established the requisite “flow” on offense.  Joe Johnson decided he needed to put even more trust in his teammates, and that he has done, culminating in a ridiculous 14 assists in Saturday’s win vs. Houston.  (In the last 12 games, Johnson has averaged 7.1 assists/game.)  Josh Smith realized 99% of the time he’s the most talented athlete on the court and decided to use that athleticism to his advantage by attacking the rim (don’t tell me you missed his thunderous dunk off that putback vs. Houston).  And how can we forget the work Mike Bibby has put in.  The dude looks like he did in those deep playoff run days in Sac-town, where he was the only one man enough to take a shot with time expiring.  Bibby is the second clutch shooter the Hawks need, and one Joe Johnson can defer to when he’s double teamed down the stretch.

Even Zaza Pachulia, the international man of mystery is getting into the act, posting quality efforts in his last eight games.  Pachulia has always been a load on the offensive boards, but his game has surprisingly round into shape offensively.  The Georgian center has established a comfort level with using his left hand on drives to the hoop.  Moreover, he’s spotting up on offensive positions in locations where he can make a difference in the scoring column.  Pachulia has also been helped by consistent minutes, which (gulp) are a product of Woody’s now dependable rotation.  Now if Woody can only find a way to introduce Acie Law to the rotation…

I’m as big a stat geek as any.  Statistics generally don’t lie, and I view Hollinger’s PER as a strong indicator of the general value of an NBA player.  But stats aside, the Hawks performance on the court through the view of the naked eye has simply looked different.  Numbers cannot quantify “flow” and “rhythm.”  They cannot measure trust and familiarity.  Those, however, are the traits which have the Hawks on the rise.  Traits, which if the Hawks continue to exhibit, will have them consistently rising to the top of playoff seeding.

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