|News » Hawks close to being title contender|
|Hawks close to being title contender|
Game time: Celtics 88, Hawks 85 After last season's elbow-throwing, trash-talking, seven-game playoff series, there's still some bad blood between Boston and Atlanta. Still, the pressure was on the Hawks to avenge their early-season one-point loss in Boston, and to also prove that winning three of three games at home in last season's series wasn't a fluke.
On the basis of this intense and hugely entertaining contest, here are some reasons why Atlanta is almost ready for prime-time competition: They're an incredibly athletic squad, with Marvin Williams being by far the most athletic and Mike Bibby the least athletic. When they can get out and go, they're virtually irresistible in a broken field. Joe Johnson is a sterling defender. J.J. is also the Hawks most creative scorer. Yet when he was doubled on every catch throughout the initial three quarters, Johnson was more interested in play-making than point-making. In the critical 4th quarter, the Hawks found ways to discourage the Celtics from doubling Johnson. They set up a three-man triangle that created too much space for any weak-side defender to cover in order to help on J.J. who promptly buried a midrange jumper. And they also moved the ball from side-to-side while Johnson executed a circle route that terminated when he accepted a handoff at the top of the key and then looked for his shot. Johnson also had time and space to create his own scoring opportunities whenever he carried the ball across the time line. Flip Murray is a professional scorer off the bench. Bibby has unlimited range. The Hawks were extremely aggressive on defense, running down most loose balls and constantly threatening every passing lane. Despite their lack of a true center, Atlanta certainly held their own in the rebounding department. The unselfishness on offense is an important indication that this young team is rapidly maturing. None of the Hawks were at all intimidated by the defending champs. Early on, their strategy of playing soft defense against Kevin Garnett and even helping off him paid handsome rewards as KG missed a double-handful of open jumpers.
On the other hand, here's why the Hawks are still not quite ready to mount a legitimate challenge for a championship: While Josh Smith had his moments of grandeur, he's still not fully recuperated from his latest injury and isn't at the top of his game. Smith plays defense as though he was on roller skates always backing away and looking to block shots. Bibby isn't quick enough to penetrate into the paint which he managed to do only once and is therefore strictly a perimeter shooter. At times, their defense was too aggressive and left the basket unattended. Whenever the Celtics moved the ball for 20 seconds, they always found a wide-open shot. Neither Zaza Pachulia nor Al Horford play big enough. Even worse, Pachulia's offensive moves are incredibly clumsy he attacked the basket twice and committed two offensive fouls. Williams' stroke is inconsistent.
Here's a chronological rundown of how ultimately ineffective the Hawks were in the clutch: Bibby buried a critical triple. Smith attacked the hoop with a strong left-handed dribble and executed a savage dunk but then missed the ensuing free throw. J.J. drove, was fouled, and nailed both freebies. Williams drove, was fouled, and only converted one of two from the stripe. Smith shot an air ball from 16-feet. Horford turned his head on defense, thereby allowing Garnett to grab a lob pass and throw down a hard dunk. J.J. hit a pull-up jumper and went with 2-for-2 from the line when he was fouled on the subsequent possession. Meanwhile, the Hawks were unable to get a stop at the other end. Operating one-on-one from both a low- and a midpost position, Garnett had his way with both Horford and Smith. Why wasn't he doubled? J.J. then missed a relatively easy 15-footer, grabbed the offensive rebound, and had his layup attempt blocked. With the Celtics leading by two and only two seconds left, J.J. was fouled on a drive, made his first free throw, but missed his second. And that was the game.
The Hawks athleticism and overall feistiness make them a dangerous ballclub. But to move up to the next level, they need Smith to fully regain his chops, a dependable post-up scorer and a quicker point guard.
However, it bodes well for the future that the Hawks already have many more top-level components than they lack. A good indication of just how mature this team really is will be how/if they recover from this aggravating loss in their next game at home versus the Warriors on Friday.
In any event, with astute draft selections, trades, and/or free agent signings, Atlanta is perhaps two years away from becoming one of the league's elite teams.
Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: December 18, 2008