Thanks to my mother-in-law (surely a rarely made statement in human existence), Der Wife and I got to check out our first Hawks game of the year last night. Here are my observations:
The Hawks' eight-game losing streak and their revival last night can be charted closely along with Joe Johnson's performances. Johnson was excellent in the first three games after he returned from an injury, but two of the games were the highly dispiriting games against Chicago and Utah in which the team blew huge leads and the third was the game against Indiana after which Johnson questioned some of his teammates. (I interpreted the remarks to be primarily directed at Josh Smith, but that's solely my speculation.) Johnson then probably had a "what am I doing killing myself for these guys?" funk, combined with turf toe and a bad calf, and then scored 12, 10, 11, 23, and 15 points in the next five games, all relatively uncompetitive losses. Hopefully, last night was Johnson coming out of his funk, because he was back to the form he showed at the start of the season when he was one of the ten best players in the league. He had 27 points on only 16 shots and got to the free throw line ten times.
The other offensive star on Saturday night was Zaza Pachulia, who had 22 points and eight rebounds. Zaza has always been an extremely hardworking player who rebounds well and gets to the foul line, but has a hard time finishing around the basket. Saturday night, he was finishing the set-ups provided to him by Speedy Claxton and Johnson. He also did a good defensive job on Chris Kaman, who became an important offensive option for the Clippers with Corey Magette and Sam Cassell out. Kaman finished with eight points and didn't get to the foul line, so Zaza's decisive victory in the paint has to be one of the major reasons that the Hawks got off the skids.
The essence of Zaza...possibly a good idea for a cologne in Tbilisi?
The 74 points that the Hawks allowed on Saturday night represented the fewest points allowed in a game by the team since Janaury 17, 2004 when they beat Toronto 75-70. (In case you were wondering, the Hawks' starting five that night was Jason Terry, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and Theo Ratliff.) Lost in all of the criticism of Billy Knight's decision to pass on Chris Paul, the Hawks' primary problem last year was not that they were rudderless on offense, but rather that they were a bad defensive basketball team. Last year's team was not capable of the sort of defensive performance that they turned in on Saturday night.
We gave up how many points?
The Hawks let Elton Brand get his 26 points (at one point in the first quarter, the score was Hawks 12, Brand 12, other Clippers 0), but they made him earn his points by throwing a number of big bodies at him. The Hawks completely shut down the remaining offensive players for the Clippers, which was obviously easier with Cassell and Magette out, but was an improvement nonetheless. Speedy Claxton deserves specific praise as he was very active in the passing lanes and ended up with five steals as a result. He also pestered Shaun Livingston into a 2/11 shooting performance. I came away very unimpressed with Livingston, who doesn't get into the heart of the defense nearly enough to be a good point guard. Then again, from what I understand, he's an extremely streak player, so maybe I just caught him on a bad night. Still, he had a height advantage over Claxton that he didn't exploit and he didn't pose any defensive problems for the Hawks.
Anyway, the moral of the story is that if the Hawks keep playing defense like they did Saturday night and Joe Johnson returns to his early season form, then the eight-game losing streak will become a distant memory.
Other random stuff:
1. You know the local hoops team isn't playing well when you get made fun of by a homeless guy wearing a Notre Dame jacket in Centennial Park for going to see the Hawks instead of going to see Elton Brand. Then again, kudos to Atlanta because our street guys know more about sports than other cities' street guys. And they say this is a bad sports town.
2. Do Zaza and new signing Slava Medvedenko talk shit to one another based on a rivalry between Georgia and Ukraine? Do they fight about who is the greater human being: Eduard Shevardnadze or Andrei Shevchenko? Inquiring minds want to know.
3. When I write the chapter of my autobiography on how Octopussy changed my life, I'll need to remember the number of times I've seen the dressed-to-impress (and get set for life by fathering the child of an NBA player) set at a Hawks game and quoted Gobinda to Der Wife: "Girls. Selling themselves."