Watching the Hawks face the league’s top two scorers in back-to-back games gives us a great chance to evaluate who this team is. Though coaching and poor free-throw shooting let the Cavs off the hook last night, I like what I see.
There is one thing that is sure about the Hawks: They can defend. Atlanta has something that you rarely see, that being extraordinary athletes that commit on defense. Both LeBron and D-Wade took fewer shots than usual, as the athletic advantages they hold over most opponents while going to the basket did not exist against the Hawks.
Hence, they had to defer to other players.
The Hawks have length and athleticism, which allows them to close those gaps that players usually get through. A great example came on Sunday night against the Cavaliers.
LeBron managed to shake free of Marvin Williams and launched himself from the baseline, like the beast that he is, to throw down a dunk. But he was met in the rare air that that few mortals ever find by a helping Josh Smith. The result was an awkward double-clutch and a poor foul call.
The key for this team’s defense is consistent physicality. Smith is certifiably soft, and Horford falls into lulls at times as well.
Countless times, you will see Hawks (especially Smith) stand and look at the basket when the ball goes up instead of finding an opponent to push out of the way (or at least stand in front of).
The Hawks give up 11.9 offensive rebounds per game, which is second-worst only to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference. They average a net –2.4 boards per game as well.
When the Hawks master the art of the defensive rebound, they will become the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference. Yes, I said it!
Offensively, this team has Joe “Slik” Johnson who (on the right night) can score against anyone in the NBA at will.
But he's just the beginning, as when Mike Bibby is healthy and Marvin Williams is confident, there are real offensive threats at all five positions.
Coming off the bench is potential NBA Sixth Man of the Year Flip Murray, and he's what will make the Hawks dangerous in the Playoffs. We watched him abuse everyone the Cavs threw at him that wasn’t named LeBron.
His numbers from last night don’t show it, because his layups just wouldn’t go down, but he dominated in the second half and should be proud of his performance (except at the free-throw line, that is).
Which brings me to our simultaneously most exciting and upsetting offensive player, Josh Smith. He is basketball bi-polar; he's either making reverse put-back dunks or shooting air-balls from 23 feet. Josh will catch an alley-oop on one possession and, on the next possession, dribble the ball off his own knee.
Don’t get me wrong, Josh Smith is a big reason we beat Boston three times in the Playoffs last year. He is also a big reason we got blown out in Game Seven. He is the East Coast version of Lamar Odom: a guy with all the tools, but none of the consistency to be an All-Star.
While we were a struggling team, he was all you came to Philips Arena to see. Now that we are a playoff team, he may be holding the Hawks from elite status.
The Hawks are the team you will not want to play in the Playoffs. They defend, they are younger and stronger than you, and you can’t guard Joe Johnson (sometimes).
The team needs to mature (Josh Smith), be more consistent (Josh Smith), and be more physical (Josh Smith). Then, as Josh Smith predicted, they can “Shock the World” and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.