The Hawks got their biggest win of the year last night, 98-96 over the Nuggets in Denver. This Western swing had the potential to destroy the good work that the Hawks put in in the first 14 games of the season. The team has been terrible out West in the last several years. (OK, they've been terrible everywhere.) They're playing without Marvin Williams, who should be the #2 scoring option at some point this year, and Josh Childress, who is their glue guy and, by a couple statistical measures is their most valuable player after Joe Johnson. Josh Smith, the guy who becomes absolutely critical with Marvin and Childress out, has been playing dreadfully and now has to sport goggles after getting poked in the eye. (When Childress, Marvin, and Smith were out in the second half against Cleveland, the Hawks were reduced to possessions where Lebron was being guarded by Matt Freije. This guy:
That ended about as well as one would expect. I like Freije and every team needs a crazy energy guy who will play his ass off for ten minutes and make a shot or two, but that guy doesn't need to be guarding Lebron James.)
In short, I was worried about a 1-4 or 0-5 trip, but the Hawks just beat the 10-5 Nuggets after trailing by 17 in the fourth quarter and now just need a split of their games against the Lakers and Kings to have a winning trip and to return to Atlanta at 9-10, which is good for about the 5th seed in the East right now.
Last night was an illustration of the importance of Josh Smith to this team. He has been lousy so far for the Hawks. He's shooting 38% because his shot selection is dreadful and he settles for a jumper that isn't falling way more than a guy with his athleticism should and he averages three turnovers per game. He's good for at least a couple "smack your palm against your forehead" moments every game. Last night, he scored 15 points on seven shots because he was getting to the line (eight free throw attempts) and he had 11 rebounds and five assists to go with his customary three turnovers. Smith has gotten better over the course of each of his two seasons in the NBA. Last year, he started playing like dreck and ended the season as one of the Hawks' best players. If he makes that improvement again, then this team will be, dare I say it, good?
One other thing: I'm of the opinion that Tyronne Lue has always been a good offensive guard whose negative was his inability to play defense. With Shelden Williams and Solomon Jones getting minutes now and with Josh Smith's emergence as a great weakside shotblocker, those defensive lapses are less critical and he becomes a somewhat valuable player. In other words, don't be shocked that he's a productive piece now.
And I need to say this in every Hawks post I make: Joe Johnson is friggin' awesome.