By GEORGE HENRY Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA—Coach Mike Woodson spent much of the last two weeks insisting that his Atlanta Hawks had to defend an entire team, not just one player.
Now that the Hawks have advanced to the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals after beating Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, Woodson knows the next challenge, facing newly crowned league MVP LeBron James and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, will be much harder.
“They’ve got one thing on their mind, just like we do,” Woodson said Monday. “They’re trying to win a title, and we’re trying to do the same thing.”
One day after coasting past Miami for a Game 7 victory that advanced Atlanta to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, Woodson gathered his players for a brief pep talk.
Not that it was some kind of news flash, but Woodson wanted to hammer in the Hawks’ minds that they must manage their emotions in a venue where Atlanta has lost four straight and eight of 10.
The Cavaliers, who are 41-2 at home this season after sweeping Detroit in the first round, took a six-point victory over the Hawks two months ago at Quicken Loans Arena. Woodson was so frustrated with the officiating that he was ejected. Point guard Mike Bibby and forward Josh Smith also were hit with technical fouls.
“It’s really important to stay calm,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to stay together. No matter what goes on, we can’t let our emotions get to us because every possession is so important.”
James presents enough matchup problems to make Woodson lose sleep. He considers the 24-year-old a complete package of smarts, power, finesse and speed, and that’s just offensively. As a defender, James’ ferocity impresses Atlanta’s fifth-year head coach.
“I’ve been in this league 27 years, and I’ve never seen a player - I think Michael Jordan is probably the best player to ever play this game – but I’ve never seen a player like LeBron with the strength, the athletic ability, the speed and just the know-how to play the game,” Woodson said. “It’s scary because he’s so young. So it’s going to be a challenge for our team, and that’s a good thing because our guys will step up. I’d like to think our guys can beat him.”
Though the Hawks were 1-3 this season against Cleveland, Atlanta guard Joe Johnson believes his team drew confidence from ending the Cavs’ 11-game winning streak five months ago at Philips Arena. Then again, the Hawks are essentially two different teams at home and on the road.
They led by as many 29 points in a Game 7 win over the Heat, boosting Atlanta’s home record to 34-10 this season. On the road, the Hawks fell to 16-27 after losing two of three in Miami.
“This is the part of the season that we live for, and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Johnson said. “You never know when you’re going to get back to this point. We really want to try to cherish this and try to take advantage of it.”
James is coming off a sweep of the Pistons in which he joined Oscar Robertson as the only other NBA player to average 32 points, 11.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists in a single postseason series.
Despite playing poorly at times against Miami, Johnson believes the Hawks created some momentum by holding off Wade, who finished third in the MVP voting as the NBA’s leading scorer.
“They’re both tough to guard. LeBron is probably the most physical and stronger than Wade, but they’re both relentless scorers,” Johnson said. “With the players LeBron has around him, guys like Mo Williams, Delonte West, (Wally) Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson making shots – and even ‘Big Z’ (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) shooting 3s – it’s going to be tough. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think we’re up to the challenge.”
Along with Johnson, Smith expects to draw several defensive assignments against James.
“He does amazing things, not just for himself, but for his teammates in getting everybody involved,” Smith said. “He’s very unselfish, and he plays with great energy every time he steps out on the floor.”