Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Thank G-d for the Cheetah
I'm at a loss to otherwise explain how our beloved Hawks beat the Pistons last night, narrowing the gap between our local basketball collective and the #1 seed in the East to a mere 24 games. The Hawks now have wins over the Pistons and the Spurs, the two favorites to meet in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, they can't beat the Velociraptors. Do the best teams come in that overconfident, whereas the weaker teams play their best game, knowing that Philips is their best spot for a road win? Do we have a young team that's capable of playing with the best teams, but are too young to be able to motivate themselves on a nightly basis over an 82-game marathon? And where am I, anyway?
The most encouraging sign from last night, as well as the Hawks' strong play over the past five games, has been Joe Johnson turning from a good player into a very good player; 21.4 ppg, 6.6 apg (against 2.8 turnovers per game,) and a .513 shooting percentage over a five-game stretch is nothing to sneeze at. Last night, he was 12 of 17 from the field against a team full of good defenders and he kept the Hawks in the game so that their surge at the end meant something. I speculated at the start of the season that the team's best backcourt would be Johnson and Salim Stoudamire. The team's horrific play in January when Tyronne Lue was hurt refuted that thought, but their solid play last night was highly encouraging. Stoudamire provides instant offense and this Hawks team isn't good enough to leave offensive production on the bench. On the other hand, he's a major defensive liability against bigger point guards like Chauncey Billups, so Royal Ivey is still necessary. Mike Woodson likes having Ivey and Childress on the court, especially at the end of games, because they provide more defense than the other options at their positions, but their limited offensive games really put pressure on Johnson and Al Harrington to score.
Assorted other thoughts on the game:
1. The arena was almost full (and not entirely with the armada of transplants who show up to watch the Pistons, a team that couldn't draw when they sucked in the 90s) and it was quite loud towards the end when it became apparent that the Hawks were going toe-to-toe with the best team in the league. Anyone who doesn't think that this town wouldn't support a winning NBA team (read: Bill Simmons) is nuts. And Atlanta carries the advantage that the crowd actually looks something like the players on the court, unlike other cities in the NBA (read: Boston). (If only there was a 5'10 white guy with red hair and a left shoulder scar.)
We even got a guest appearance from Dem Franchize Boyz last night, who had helpfully papered the lightpostz leading away from Philipz with posterz advertizing their new album. Unfortunately, I have no idea who DFB are, but I'm now delusionally thinking that I'm hip because I saw them on the Jumbotron and listened to KanYe on the way home. The celebrity list last night included Chris Tucker (who must be our Jack Nicholson, since he's at just about every game,) LenDale White, and two ex-Hawks I had never heard of.
2. If Detroit fanz (this "z" thing is quite addictive) want to blame anyone for the game, then 'Sheed and his three for 14 shooting (without attempting a single free throw) might be a good place to start. He also drew a highly debatable technical for hitting the basket support. Basically, he'll get T'd up for anything other than smiling at the ref and saying "thank you sir, may I have another." I feel bad for him, but he made his own bed with that epic performance in 2000-01. I also would have been furious at him if Billups would have caught the final pass cleanly and beaten the Hawks with a jumper, since 'Sheed set an obviously illegal screen to free Chauncey.
3. Josh Smith, where are you? Four points, four rebounds, five fouls. Thankfully, no turnovers. Josh Childress got the playing time down the stretch and had a decent ten-point game, but he and Marvin Williams both have a maddening tendency to shoot jumpers with their heels on the three-point line. Rick Pitino would burn them at the stake for such a sin, as would most people with a slight understanding of expected outcomes.
4. Hats off to Zaza: 16 points, nine rebounds, a big dunk late in the game, two clutch free throws, and he did a good job battling Ben Wallace, forcing Big Ben to go over his back (without a call, natch) on the final possession.
5. Want another key to the game? 22 assists against 13 turnovers for the Hawks. The team definitely did a better job taking care of the basketball, and they did so in their first game after Tyronne Lue was injured in practice. Don't ask me to explain.
Overall, last night was hopefully a major step forward, but we'll only know after the upcoming three-game Western swing against Seattle, Sacramento, and the Lakers. The Hawks haven't won a game in the Pacific Time Zone since November 2003 (and Dion Glover was the leading scorer in that win over Phoenix, which ought to tell you what an anomaly that was.) If they are to build on a solid five-game stretch, then they have to show that they can beat teams not named Charlotte on the road. Seattle and Sacto are a combined 16 games under .500; those games are winnable (relatively speaking.) In years past, at this stage in the season, I've been hoping for the Hawks to lose enough games to get maximal lottery balls, but this year is different because of the absence of a great point guard or center prospect in the Draft, as well as the fact that this team is young and needs to start playing better together.